Boarding experts give us a sick wake-shredding demo

Written by J. L. James

Photography by Jeremy Rodgers

With more than 60,000 acres of water surface in the Diamond Lakes area, the opportunity for water sports and activities is ever present. Unfortunately, according to wakeboard experts Zach Mesko and Michael Stallman, not nearly as many people take advantage of these opportunities outside of fishing and recreational boating. Mesko and Stallman have been riding wake for a combined 25 years, and they’re dedicated to introducing the sport to both adults and youth.

Stallman, sales manager at Lacey’s Boating located at 1318 Airport Rd. in Hot Springs, is not one of the people missing out on outdoor sports activities. He has been more or less attached to Arkansas lakes since he was a child. “I grew up a lake rat,” Stallman said through a reflective grin, his hand resting at 12 o’clock on the steering wheel of the 2015 Nautique G23. “It’s definitely what I’m going to do with my kids.” Stallman’s childhood home was on Lake Hamilton, near Little Mazarn. In that cove, around the age of 16, he fell in love with wakeboarding. As Mesko dipped in the water, preparing for his next raley, Stallman said, “Right out here is where I did my first flip. Once you do that first flip, you’re kind of hooked.”

The ultramodern, high-tech machine that is the 2015 G23 was manufactured specifically for towing riders; that is to say, it was built for the sole purpose of making wake big enough to pull off the sickest tricks. “It’s the boat most boats are imitating right now,” Mesko said. Propelled by a 450-horsepower engine, equipped with nearly 3,000 pounds of ballast, the G23 is ideal for anyone interested in wakeboarding or, the relatively new sport, wakesurfing.

Located next to the stereo with Bluetooth capability sits a digital control screen from which the driver can select among “wake pro,” “wake intermediate,” “wake beginner” and “wake surf,” which showcases the new, state-ofthe- art, Nautique Surf System (NSS). The G23’s ballast system is particularly valuable because of the ease with which the driver can adjust the system to get the desired wake: the deeper the back of the boat goes in the water, the bigger the wake. For a rider of Mesko’s skill, Stallman used the pro setting.

From raleys to hoochies, Mesko gave a demonstration worthy of X-Games coverage and made it look easy. He lagged wide on the starboard side, the sun peeking over the trees on Lake Hamilton’s west bank. Then he barreled toward the wake and launched from the water’s surface and then paused at the apex of the jump, gripping the board between his feet and extending his body in a Man of Steel pose. And Mesko said that’s just how it feels to pull off a trick like that: “You feel like Superman; you feel like you could fly.” Although Mesko made the sport look easy, he and Stallman stressed that it’s important for beginners to learn the fundamentals before attempting the big air tricks the pros execute.

To begin wakeboarding, experts strongly recommend using either a professional wakeboarding coach like Stallman or Mesko, or at least asking an experienced wakeboarder for instruction. “People often go out and want to just turn tricks,” Stallman said. “But you got to lay building blocks and foundations.” Both drivers and boarders benefit from proper instruction. The driver works to balance the ballast properly. “Try to get the rooster tail right in the middle so the wake is distributed evenly,” Stallman said.

After a run, the driver should turn in near 90-degree angles to get the rider back in to smooth water, or, “the butter,” as boarders call it. It’s important for the rider to learn proper form, to keep his or her back straight, knees bent and loose, for example. Riders should know to let go of the rope when they wipe out, and they should learn which hand signals indicate to the driver whether the rider is tired or good to go.

Stallman knows firsthand how important it is to observe safety precautions when participating in a sport that’s both physically demanding and dependent upon heavy equipment. Stallman, who has competed at the national level in wakeboarding tournaments, hasn’t been on a wakeboard in two years after undergoing surgery due to a wakeboarding accident that injured his knee. Stallman said he was exhausted but kept boarding anyway. “I came down super hard,” he said. “You get to a point where you’re tired, and it’s best to just bring it in.”

Another way to get acquainted with wakeboarding, and water sports in general, is to give wake surfing a try. Wake surfing has significantly grown in popularity within the last five to 10 years. The NSS feature on the G23 makes wakesurfing as easy as can be. By shifting the weight of the ballast to one side of the boat, the boat creates a small, constant wave just like a surfer would chase off the Pacific coast. The boat cruises at low speeds, around 12 miles per hour, and almost anyone can get the hang of it. In addition to wakeboarding, both Mesko and Stallman are available to coach wakesurfing.

Mesko and Stallman agreed that the most rewarding part of coaching is working with kids and getting to see them learn a healthy, rewarding new hobby. “The best part is when you give lessons to kids and by the end they’re excited and using wakeboard and surf terms,” Mesko said. “By the end of the lesson they’re telling you they’re ‘stoked to get back out there,’ or they’re like, ‘ah that was sick!’

“Yeah,” Stallman said, “to see thatexcitement when a youngster, like six or seven years old, pulls off a surface 180.”

“It’s awesome,” Mesko said, finishing Stallman’s thought.

Stallman and Mesko have been wakeboarding together for nearly a decade. They’ve ridden in competitions around the country, but they want to see more people getting in to the sport in the Diamond Lakes region. “This area has so much potential,” Stallman said.

“You can go out and party, just socialize on the lake, or you can go just get away with your family or even by yourself. There’s a young generation with so much at their disposal and they need to take advantage of it.”

A native of Mena, who spent his childhood visiting Lake Ouachita with his family and taking trips to Colorado to snowboard, Mesko picked up on extreme sports at a young age. “I wanted to try every sport where you ride a board,” he said. His own toughest critic, Mesko expressed disappointment in his performance, although from the view at the back of the boat it was clearly a gnarly session. He said his best rides come when he gets to enjoy Arkansas lakes with his friends and not focus on competition. “When you ride the best is when you’re out there having fun,” Mesko said.

“It’s like the less you think about it the better you do,” Stallman said.

“It’s all about getting out here on these beautiful lakes and having fun with your friends.”