Editor's Note: We unveiled Explorer 2014, the Indy's annual guide to summer adventure, in yesterday's paper. As a sneak peek to that special section, here's Matthew Frank's story — plus video! — about an alternative way to hit the water at Whitefish Lake. Be sure to check out more summer fun in Explorer, on newsstands now.
I had never done anything that drew a crowd. But on a recent sunny afternoon a group of people gradually formed at the Whitefish City Beach, to gawk and snap cellphone photos as a red-suited, helmeted figure with jet-powered feet—me—rocketed out of the lake and hovered over the water like an aquatic Iron Man.
There’s certainly a superhero-ness to the newfangled watersport of flyboarding; when I posted a video (see below) of my “flight” to Facebook it elicited mentions of Iron Man, Aquaman, Spiderman and Captain America (and also Jesus). Though the initial reaction from anyone who sees flyboarding for the first time is some variant of, What? Awesome!
Which is what I said one day last summer, on Whitefish Lake, as I watched from afar through binoculars trying to figure out how the heck flyboarding worked. I saw the superhero launch into the air, water surging from his boots, flying up and down, twirling around. A personal watercraft idled nearby, from which ran a hose connected to the board the superhero stood on. So the Sea-Doo supplies the jet propulsion through the hose, I surmised.
French jet-ski racer Franky Zapata began developing flyboard technology in 2011. By the end of the year, his company, Zapata Racing, introduced the sport to the world by way of a YouTube video that’s since been viewed more than seven million times. In 2012, the first Flyboard World Cup was held in Qatar (videos from those competitions offer some of the best flyboarding porn on the web). Meanwhile, Zapata’s sold thousands of his patented flyboards around the world, to people like Justin Heyne, owner of Whitefish-based Flyboard of Montana.
Heyne is a longtime river guide and ski and snowboard instructor who launched the company about a year ago. He met me at the Whitefish City Beach on a day when snow still capped Big Mountain and the freshly thawed lake would be inviting only to polar plungers. He backed his 155-horsepower Sea-Doo GTX down the boat launch and released it into the water, and then pulled from the back of his truck the flyboard. The board itself is a four-legged platform that puts wakeboard boots above “Y”-shaped piping—a central water intake and downward outflow openings on both ends. The setup runs about $6,000 (Sea-Doo not included).
I stepped into a burly dry suit, cinched my PFD, strapped on a helmet and slipped my feet into the boots on the flyboard, which Heyne had set in a couple of feet of water. He had already tethered the flyboard to his Sea Doo’s jet propulsion system with a 60-foot-long fire hose. Connecting the hose surrenders the personal watercraft’s directional control to the flyboarder, so Heyne instructed me to lie on my stomach and tow us out to open water. He lightly hit the throttle and water began coursing from the bottom of the board, propelling me forward. While still mostly submerged, I found myself taking the shape of a ski jumper, legs straight and back, arms at my sides, and I practiced zigzagging, trying to exert some control over my new super feet.
Now a couple hundred yards from the beach, it was time to fly. Heyne’s instructions were simple: When I hit the juice, just keep your legs straight—knees locked—and let yourself rise out of the water. I was skeptical, but only for a matter of seconds—because after that I was, impossibly, standing some 10 feet over the water on these wondrous water stilts. A little wobbly at first, I quickly gained my balance and confidence, and I repeatedly, and effortlessly, jetted out of the water and Heyne eased me back down again.
As watersports go, especially one marketed as “extreme”—and you’ll agree that it can be when you watch pros flip and dive under water—flyboarding’s learning curve is remarkably short. Within minutes I graduated from bouncing in and out of the water to remaining up and controlling my direction and height, which is achieved by angling the board. To turn, dip the foot in the direction you want to go; to descend, slightly tip your toes downward. Flattening the board out again shoots you back up into the sky.
I bet I reached as high as 25 feet, maybe more, and during one or two of those apex moments I threw up my arms, exultant, delighting in the surreality of flying over an otherwise boat-less lake, ringed by mountains.
But then humility hit me like, well, the jarring smack of a fall into cold water. While practicing tighter turns I lost my balance and fell backward, and my back clapped against the surface of the water hard enough to half knock the wind out of me. Or maybe it was the full-body submergence, however quick, that took my breath away. In any case, I collected myself and got back on my feet. Heyne, who all the while cheered me on and offered pointers, then obliged my request to capture my flight with photos and video from the seat of his Sea-Doo.
After about 45 minutes (Flyboard of Montana charges $150 for 30 minutes, $250 for an hour), I gave Heyne the kill-it sign and sank back into the water. It’s not tiring in the way waterskiing is, arms and quads burning, but the constant balancing taxes your legs and core.
By then we had traveled another hundred yards from shore, and when I looked back to the beach I saw a dozen or so people who had gathered to watch me. They’d probably never seen the spectacle that is flyboarding, and probably thought I knew what I was doing. Heading toward them, Heyne gave the Sea-Doo enough gas to lift my torso out of the water, like a half-breached dolphin, which was fun on its own and somehow made my return feel triumphant—fitting, I suppose, on my one day as a superhero.