For the Love of the Game: Making new waves in the wakesurfing scene

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Professional wakesurfing athlete Marcus Lee is currently the Chairman of the International Waterski and Wakeboard Federation. Growing up, he had to juggle multiple part-time jobs in order to maintain himself in the sport

SINGAPORE - Struggling to balance school work alongside two part-time jobs, it was hard for Marcus Lee to find spare pockets of time to do the sport he loves best: wakesurfing. But once a week, he sets off in a towboat from Marina Country Club in Punggol, travelling about 12 minutes to a stretch of calm waters just off the coast of Yishun Dam - a designated spot just for wakesurfing.

Away from the hustle and bustle of city life, Lee is able to dig deep and get into the zone, learning and perfecting tricks over and over again.

Despite the repetitive nature of wakesurfing, Lee points out that is what makes wakesurfing so addictive. The 31-year-old said: "While it seems so simple, in order for you to master (the tricks), there needs to be so much repetition and so much practice. That is what really gets me going."

This freedom did not come easy for Lee, as wakesurfing is an expensive sport. Pursuing wakesurfing professionally costs approximately $1,000 a month, with a good wakesurf board ranging from $1,200 to $1,500. On top of equipment, there are also competition fees and costs of flights to the host country.

Growing up with only his mother in a single-income household, from the age of 14, Lee already had to put himself through many part-time jobs- mostly in the food and beverage industry- to earn extra allowance.

Gravitating towards extreme sports since young, he started off his water sports journey after chancing upon wakeboarding eight years ago. In order to benefit from subsidies for training sessions, he subsequently joined his school, Republic Polytechnic's, wakeboarding team. At the same time, he also had to scrimp and save in other aspects of his life just so that he could allocate his finances to the sport. He juggled multiple jobs, working as a personal and valet driver, a part-time boat driver and instructor with a local water sports operator, as well as an event coordinator, but not once did his passion for the sport diminish.

After coming across wakesurfing videos on YouTube in 2015, he immediately became intrigued by this relatively less-known sport.

Wakesurfing might seem similar to wakeboarding, but they are actually two totally different sports. According to Lee, wakeboarders are strapped onto the board and are towed all the time by the boat through a rope. The objective of wakeboarding is mainly getting airborne and doing tricks in the air. On the other hand, wakesurfing can be thought of as a kin to ocean surfing, where wakesurfers release the towline and ride in the endless waves created by boat.

"When I first tried it out for myself, it felt so liberating and exciting. Unlike wakeboarding, wakesurfing doesn't rely on the pull of the rope, only on the push of the wave and control of my board. It was like magic," recounted Lee, adding that he picked up the sport through watching videos and trial and error.

Since then, he has gone on the clinch the gold medal at the 2017 Singapore Wakefest (Wakesurfing), as well as compete in international competitions such as the 2019 Wakefest in Hong Kong and Chengdu.

With service providers in Singapore unable to "offer boats with a good wake to surf on", and "a lack of proper coaching", Lee decided to make the switch to specialise in wakesurfing. In 2016, he started his own wakesurf school, Wakemusters, to "offer quality wakes"and " proper instruction" to people who want to pick up wakesurfing. While young working adults aged 25 to 35 make up the current membership, it also has had members as young as five.

Popularity boost for wakesurfing

While wakesurfing has been around since the late 1990s, it has experienced a boost in popularity only over the past two years. With the Covid-19 pandemic limiting overseas travel, the sport has hence gained further traction as locals turned to wakesurfing to satisfy their need for adventure. The number of bookings that Wakemusters receives have increased from approximately 40-50 a month last year to about 100-110 bookings a month currently.

Starting out wakesurfing for the first time in October last year after watching a video of a friend performing tricks on the wakesurf board, Kristin Cavalheiro decided to book a boat to try it out for herself. Now, she wakesurfs at least once a week.

The 36-year-old said: "What I love most about wakesurfing is that it is exhilarating and there are a lot of things that you cannot control. Even simple things like balancing on the board or carving the board through the water can be a struggle, but once you get there, it feels liberating."

Mr Marcus Lee started off his water sports journey after chancing upon wakeboarding eight years ago. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

The future for wakesurfing

Since 2017 with the first wakesurf competition, the Singapore Waterski and Wakeboard Federation (SWWF) has been running annual events to promote the sport, but the pandemic has since derailed its efforts.

All is not lost, however, as Angelina Christian, SWWF's honorary secretary, noted that the SWWF plans to run one competition before the end of this year and at least one to two events in 2022. She added: "The SWWF has been providing the best practice resources to service providers when conducting activities, and also plans to organise wakesurf judging seminars to train more officials on how to run events.

"Our aim is to identify talent during domestic competitions that we plan to organise and to select a (group of) Team Singapore athletes for when international competitions resume."

Currently, as the Chairman of the International Waterski and Wakeboard (IWWF) Asia Wakesurf Council, Lee is working hard to expand the sport's base and improve Singapore's prospects in the wakesurfing scene by training more athletes to wakesurf competitively. He is also working with Sport Singapore to get more coaches certified under the National Registry of Coaches (NROC) programme for more proper, structured coaching.

Due to his job, Lee is unable to get out on the boat to train as much as he used to in the past, but he makes up for it by doing land training. Through surf skating on land, he practises key elements of surfing techniques which can then be applied on the water.

For Lee, the most important takeaway from wakesurfing is how to "not be a control freak". He said: "It's a challenging sport and there's always room for improvement and new tricks to master. The satisfaction of landing a new trick is addictive and even after landing a trick, I continue to train for better consistency and perfection."

Looking back on his journey, he credits his passion for the sport for taking him from the beginnings to where he is now "able to fulfil my dream of spreading the love for the sport in the proper, correct way".

Correction note: In an earlier version of this article, we stated that Lee clinched the gold medal in the 2018 Wakefest Singapore Wakesurfing Championships. He won the gold in the 2017 Wakefest Singapore (Wakesurfing) instead. We are sorry for the error.

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