23 February 2007
How a newspaper article can be more than just something to read…
Step back eight days. I’m on the train, browsing through a copy of the Metro someone had kindly left behind on the Swansea to Paddington service. Turn the page, stop. ‘Water weird way to get to work,’ reads the headline. Beneath, a picture of a man on a quite bizarre contraption, which sits like a bicycle in the water. ‘It drew confused glances…’ the article read, ‘as volunteer Gareth Fowler tested it on the Thames yesterday …’
Friday came, I took the train to Reading. Duncan grinned as I skated towards his car. Elsa, my longboard, hasn’t quite been released to retirement since completing her final journey. In a couple of weeks she’ll have pride of place on my wall. She’s earned the rest.
All I had to do now was learn how to ride the thing. A new challenge is on the horizon. I think I’m going to call it BounceFree.
That sinking feeling..............
Danny Loo of BoardFree fame pointed a camera at me as I stared, almost disbelievingly, at a murky expanse of water which seemed colder than a stare from a wronged female. And trust me, I’ve seen those stares and they’re not to be recommended. We’re at Bray Lake near Maidenhead. Kate and her brother Simon are here too. We’ve assembled the AquaSkipper with numb fingers and chattering teeth. The wind chill factor is 0 degrees. There’s a man named Alex who works at the watersports centre and he tried the AquaSkipper last week. He’s laughing at me now. “Any advice mate?” I ask him.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he tells me with a twinkle in his eye, “but it’s bloody hard and I hope you can swim.”
Promising, then. But a challenge is a challenge and that’s what we’re here for. The AquaSkipper rests on a pontoon, grey water lapping hungrily at its hydrofoils. I’ve kitted myself out in gloves, windsurfing boots and a dry suit, which means that I’m still wearing all of the clothes I arrived in, plus a couple of spare t-shirts. In theory, I could go headfirst into the lake time after time and afterwards remove the dry suit, like a superhero would, for example, and walk away like a normal human being. Guaranteed, though, that Clark Kent never did anything like AquaSkipping. Kate makes a joke about me looking like a fisherman and I realise that sometimes you have to sacrifice the ‘cool’ for an altogether bigger picture.
Frankly, though, the bigger picture couldn’t have seemed further away. In my mind I was about to attempt a brand new ‘sport’ with an aim to quickly becoming good enough to break a world distance record and perhaps cross the English Channel or race the Isle of Wight ferry. Not once, until that moment, had I wavered in my belief that I could achieve something on this bizarre device. One problem, I’d never been on it. Standing beside the water, looking like I’m about to take a seat, crack out a pipe and cast out a line with the hope of catching a carp supper, I realise that all of those people in Australia who thought I was absolutely bonkers were about to feel very smug indeed.
So I take hold of the handlebars, get Simon and Kate to count me down from five, and launch the AquaSkipper for the first time. I hit the water, pause midair for approximately point five of a second, and sink. Straight down, glug glug glug. Laughter everywhere. Not quite at the stage where I could cross the Channel, then.
For the next hour I repeatedly hauled myself out of the lake, positioned myself on the edge of the pontoon and pushed off, never getting more than five metres from dry land, more often than not hitting the water quite unceremoniously, sometimes even head first after a critical lack of balance led to my toppling over the handlebars.
So what the hell was I up to? Honestly, I’m still struggling to tell you. There were a few fleeting moments when I was stood proudly high, looking down at the AquaSkipper’s hydrofoils as they glided gracefully through the water, and it felt amazing. Exhilarating. And even though the moment passed very very quickly I felt the buzz of achievement whilst swimming to shore to do it all over again. You see, if it was easy then there would be no point. If I was off like a long dog bouncing all over the lake sure it would be great fun, but where’s the challenge? To me, this first session was character building. Humility is a wonderful thing, because however far you eventually go you can look back and say, ‘yep, back then I was quite rubbish at that.’
So, all well and good. But how do you get better at the AquaSkipper? The air was thick with a lack of information about how to ride this craft properly, so I was effectively teaching myself. Problem was, I wasn’t on the damn thing long enough to realize what I was doing right or wrong. I tried to work it out in my head, the science of it all, and decided to push out and just pump the AquaSkipper with my legs. The largest hydrofoil was, after all, directly below the footpads. I did it. I did it! For two or three pumps I flew! That’s it! Ok, so I sunk very quickly because of a lack of rhythm, but I’d been gliding like a bird for a little while. Magic! I was, in effect, writing my own manual. The legs need to pump, the front glider and smaller hydrofoil need to start off from the launch by gliding across the surface. After that, it’s all about the motion and rythym.
I didn’t get much further than that. The cold started to seep through my gloves and boots, numbing the extremities, spreading under the dry suit and then up towards my head. And when the head is frozen, well that’s it. Kate, Simon and Dan were shivering uncontrollably on the pontoon, each silently urging me to give up for the day, and when I noticed that Simon’s nose was a deep shade of purple I pulled the AquaSkipper out of the water for the final time. “Ok guys, session one done. Good start, let’s get warm.”
A good start but a slow start. There is a long way to go before I conquer a large body of water on the AquaSkipper. Or even a little body. But you have to start somewhere.
So, imagine. You're in a bit too deep for your own good, can't back out now, and there's an audience. A large audience, all with school uniforms on. And more intimidatingly, they're all pressed up against the window, so you feel like you're in a zoo.If there was ever a feeding time for BounceFree, this was it.
The kind staff at Cefn Hengoed Leisure Centre, not far from the Swansea centre, agreed to support my efforts at mastering the AquaSkipper and gave me a couple of hours in their pool today. This was session 2. I've really got to make some ground.
Wayne, Ash and Mark the lifeguards were on hand to have a giggle at me as time and time again I splashed headfirst into the water, having managed a measily pump or two before the AquaSkipper, which doesn't have a name yet, sunk. After half an hour or launching and sinking, then climbing out of the water and doing the same again, I was getting tired. 'Why don't you guys have a go? It would be good for me to see this thing from a different perspective,' I said to them. So they went to get changed and I stood on the side for a while, frustrated at my inability to understand what it was that I needed to do. I was well into my second hour of my career as an AquaSkipper rider, and had made little progress from my first launch. I couldn't work out what I was doing wrong, how I needed to coordinate my body after a good launch. There was barely time for me to repeat my name when I was stood on the thing, how was I supposed to learn this?
The lifeguards took it in turns to have a go. From the off Wayne looked the best. After twenty minutes or so he was bobbing along four or five times, slowly descending into the water but finding the rhythym nevertheless. 'Oh dear,' I thought to myself, 'I've come in here with world record training on my lips but this chap is better than me already.' I am more than overly competitive, if my cat beat me down the stairs I'd have a sulk, and it niggled at me a little bit that I wasn't progressing as fast as lifeguard Wayne. It wasn't his fault! His success just highlighted my weakness. I had two choices. Give up, or sort it out.
So I opted to sort it out. Each time Wayne hopped over the water like a sprightly little lamb, I studied his technique. He was travelling no more than 10 metres but in that distance he bounced up and down at least 9 or 10 times. He looked like he was riding a horse. That’s it! I had been concentrating so much on trying to find the right combination of movement between my legs and my arms that I’d completely neglected one option. When the legs pump, push with the arms at the same time. The whole body moving as one, pushing down to create the forward motion with the hydrofoils and then using the inertia to take some weight off, allowing the AquaSkipper to rise up for the next pump. The necessity of a good fast launch was already obvious, so let’s try it. Andrew from the office came in, a tall well spoken man who had been incredibly helpful with my request to use the pool, as had Kierann the pool manager. ‘Time to wrap up guys, we’ve got a training session in here soon,’ Andrew said. Thumbs up all round. I better get my skates on and do this thing quickly, otherwise I’m going home depressed, I thought.
I stepped up, wrapping my toes around the poolside ready to give a good lateral push. Deep breaths, come on Dave. Left foot up, lean out with a hard push off the side. The AquaSkipper rose high in the water, probably higher than I’d managed ever before, and I started to bounce, quick flighty movements up and down up and down. I’m bloody moving! Look at this! Then, 7 or 8 metres down I realised the excitement had gotten the better of me and I’d neglected to direct the ‘Skipper. The left side of the pool approached and I disembarked before I got too close. Under the water I screamed with delight. Such a small thing, but I’m ready for a challenge again and I really feel like this could be the next one.
Wayne had another bounce, heading towards the halfway mark and falling off backwards. Ash had a go and almost hit his head on the side of the pool because he didn’t push off at all! My turn again, please don’t let the last one be a one hit wonder. It wasn’t, hard push off, high up again, bounce bounce bounce bouncing free. Over halfway, into the shallow end. And then as the opposite side of the pool came close (I’d forgotten to steer again) I fell off sideways, delighted. Thank god for that, YES!
One last go, this time launching from the shallow end, which by the way was closer than the other end now. Halfway again. Got it. You beauty. We’ll be back next Tuesday, the ‘Skipper and I. See you then.
The clock is ticking
15 March 2007
Session three began with all the promise of the end of session two. Pushed off, nice and high, pump pump pump, yeah! Then I did it again! Yeah! Got it! Then I tried four times in a row and didn't get past halfway. 'What the heck am I doing wrong Danny?'
'You just wait and see,' I said, gulping. 'You just wait and see.'
And Danny could see the progress. Now he was gulping. Well, at least for the first two goes. Then I lost the rhythym and floundered about for a little while, and he was able to be smug again. So I got him on it. This was his first go, he'd been too much of a wussy that first time with the cold water all around. Now, in the safety and comfort of an indoor swimming pool, Danny was ready to give it his all. 'If I make it further than Dave did on his first go I'll be happy,' he said. And he did. He pumped a bit. He got about 4 metres, which is 6 metres to Danny because he's small. And I was happy for him, because it's not easy to be that small and excel at any sport.
Cefn Hengoed Leisure Centre is tagged on to the side of the local school, and at lunchtime for about 15 minutes the blinds at the side of the pool were lifted and about 30 faces crammed up against the glass to see what was happening in the pool. They applauded when I skipped the entire length of the pool, and either laughed or banged the glass when I disappeared awkwardly underneath the water after forgetting about the bouncing rythym, which admittedly I often did when I drew up alongside the windows and got taken by a rush of blood to the head, which forced me to wave like a madman at the young, interested faces. And it was when I did this with two hands that I usually fell off.
But the session, as it wore on, was becoming a true success. The pool. at 23 metres, had me beaten last week, but this time round it was a restriction. the 'Skipper doesn't have the smallest turning circle so when I made it to the end I whipped around as a BMX rider would do when skidding to a stop, and sunk. This time, gracefully. For I was a length of the pool champion.
But this session had an altogether bigger aim. This Sunday, much to my chagrin, I am missing a get-together in a lake near London. The purpose of this meeting is for random people of all ilks to take on the challenge and bounce it off for the ultimate accolade, to be 'The Face of AquaSkipper!' The prize, a week long holiday in Morocco, where the AquaSkipper promo video will be filmed. So, because I am otherwise engaged on said weekend event, the video footage from this session was being sent to AquaSkipper UK headquarters, as my entry into the competition, so thank goodness I was getting the hang of it.
All I can say is, woo hoo! The feeling of bouncing along on the 'Skipper filled me with extreme joy. Improvement in anything is so satisfying, and having been a complete dimwit at AquaSkipping in the previous two sessions I was delighted to have finally found 'the knack.'
Watch this space for news about Morocco. Three weeks into my new career, am I going to be accepted as the face of AquaSkipper? I find out early next week.
PS. Just for the record, I love Danny. Just as a friend, but I love him. I don't mean to cause offence when I take the mickey out of him, I just do it because...well, it makes him laugh. And there's nothing like seeing his little round face grinning from ear to ear. It's almost like giving a baby a toy. Sheer excitement! He's my best mate, and he'd think something was wrong if I just said 'well done mate, you did awesome.' He's look at me sideways waiting for the punchline, and when it didn't come he'd walk away and I'd never see him ever again. Probably because he got stuck in a pothole and couldn't get out, but that's not the point...
Do you want the good news or the bad news?
Duncan calls me, he's the boss man when it comes to AquaSkipper UK.
'Hi Dave, do you want the good news or the bad news?'
Oh dear, I hate that question. I always go for the bad news.
'Bad news, please.'
'Well, the people organising the Morocco competition forgot to book the flights.'
'They forgot to book the flights.'
'Please tell me there is some good news.'
'There is. You won the competition, you're the face of AquaSkipper!'
And so it was. I, Dave, had been Skipping along for all of three weeks and my little video diaries had shown enough improvement to tell Duncan that I was serious about this whole thing. A shame about Morocco, but at some point the promo video for the 'Skipper will come about, hopefully in a sunny location, with myself at the helm of the 'bouncy bike' or 'pogo stick.' It has earned many names since I started trying to describe the thing, but after a bit of thought and of course the compulsory 'closeness' needed to give a solid object a name, I've decided to call it, somewhat predictably considering my recent Australian history, 'Skippy.'
Word had gotten out that Skippy and I had a challenge up our sleeves, and HTV Wales paid the Cefn Hengoed pool a visit today. Chris Perry, the reporter, wasn't going to do a piece without having his own go on the AquaSkipper, which led to the piece on the night's 6pm news being called 'A Sinking Feeling.' Thank goodness I'd finally gotten the hang of it, there I was bouncing all over the place as Chris spoke, people all over Wales (not to mention the compulsory rows of Cefn Hengoed pupils at the window) staring wide eyed and shaking their heads in amused disbelief. 'I knew it,' they said to each other, 'I told you he was mad.'
And mad I felt, when pushed by Chris for a comfirmation of an endurance challenge on the Skipper. Even mentioning crossing the English Channel makes me question my own sanity, and the resulting story certainly homed in on that particular venture. But I have to think to myself, would crossing the Channel on Skippy honestly be harder than skateboarding across Australia? Different kettle of fish, the sea, but why not swap the rolling hills of eastern Australia for the rolling waves of the Channel? Why not? I've been called mad many times before, and it really doesn't hurt anyone. I'm going to have another session or two in the Cefn Hengoed pool, and then take Skippy back outside. 23 metres is no longer enough. It's time for Open Water.
The Maltese Bouncer
With a trip to Morocco cancelled in March the need to film a promo for AquaskipperUK was pressing. Clearing a week from a busy schedule of book writing, house moving and business creating, I gave Simon Thorpe a call.
“Si mate, how would you feel about a week in Malta. I have a promo that needs filming…”
“I’d feel pretty good about it,” says Si. And that was that, life is very easy if you know the right people.
Rewind a year and a half, I was chatting to Simon on the phone for the first time, discussing his interest in applying for the position as team cameraman for an upcoming trans-Australian skate journey. Si got the job, kept a smile on his face and did an awesome job as he filmed me pushing a longboard across what can only be described as a really big country, and that, as they say, is history.
Landing in a sunny Malta in mid April we were both full of optimism. I’d internetted a nice deal in the northern resort of Mellieha Bay and was looking forward to spending a week bouncing around in blue waters. Four days later the optimism had waned. Heavy winds and gloomy skies weren’t at all ideal for AquaSkipping or filming and Si and I had been confined to our hotel room, bemusedly descending to the lounge each night for a couple of pints. The youngest residents at the hotel by several decades, it got to the stage where we were actually considering joining the Granny Line Dancing Sessions. Dear God, we were not at all happy.
Going to bed on Saturday night, with no filming in the can and a flight home on Tuesday approaching a little too hastily, I was starting to panic. If we flew home on Tuesday it was not only a few hundred pounds down the drain, but it would be much harder for Si and I to get together to film a decent promo in the UK. When the only benefit of a week in Malta for two people in their twenties is the heart-thumping excitement of a half-hour Bingo game you know things aren’t going well. Bugger bugger bugger, it wasn’t looking good.
Then, Sunday morning. Sunshine! The wind still blowing but with much less strength than previous days, Si and I walked three kilometres across to the west side of the island. And there, almost unbelievably after the uncertainty of the week so far, was the beautiful, sheltered Anchor Bay. The water glistened turquoise in the sunlight, so clear that from our vantage point way above the bay we could easily see the seabed. As if that wasn’t enough, Anchor Bay is so named because it is sided by a colourful, ramshackle village, which was specifically created as the set of the Popeye film, made decades earlier with Robin Williams as the star.
Jutting out into the middle of the bay was a long, concrete jetty. At the very end of it steps were cut into the rock, creating a perfect launch point for the AquaSkipper. Si filmed me putting Skippy together, then I pulled a wetsuit on and pushed off. It had come a little later than expected, but finally I was bouncing free off the coast of Malta. The original plan had been to Skip around for a week and before flying home make a decision on what challenge to undertake on the AquaSkipper, but with the clock ticking our priority was to get a promo made. So I set about skipping across the bay, getting further and further with each attempt, liberated by the open water and now for the first time able to change direction and keep on going. Several embarrassingly rubbish back flip dismounts and a bit of foot-to-foot bouncing later, we packed up delighted with the day’s work. On a couple of occasions I’d managed to skip several hundred metres in one go, easily crossing the bay. Si had bagged almost two tapes worth of film and we were happy that there was enough material to create a promo.
One thing nibbled at me though, I hadn’t had a chance to master the beach start. Internet videos showed people running into the water and leaping upon the AquaSkipper, initiating the rhythm and bouncing off before it sunk, a completely different proposition to the standard launch from a raised platform, and something I longed to achieve before heading home. With crossed fingers I hoped for good weather on Monday, our final day.
Thankfully it came, and this time I launched off in slightly choppier waters in front of our hotel. With a forceful current to battle against I learned to lean against a turn, pulling up the inside edges of the AquaSkipper’s hydrofoils, which naturally tilt deeper into the water when veering off in a non-linear direction. Skipping directly into or with the direction of the waves was far easier than having the waves hit me side on, but anything other than near-calm waters posed a significant message to my thoughts about a long distance journey across a potentially violent body of water.
I managed to pull off the beach start from the hotel’s private beach, holding the AquaSkipper with left hand on the standing pole and right hand on the crossbar, just above the foot stands. Two swift running steps gives the AquaSkipper enough momentum to lift to its maximum height, and then the main challenge is jumping aboard – one foot, then the other – without taking any more steps, which as the water gets deeper just reduces the AquaSkipper’s inertia. With several pensioners peering over the hotel wall, I stumbled three or four times before managing to jump aboard and bounce off for the first time. Although it didn’t take as long as learning to launch the Skipper from a standing platform the satisfaction was just as high, not least when the small group above started to clap and cheer!
As a final shot for the promo, Si ascended to our hotel room and asked me to skip all the way down to the main beach, some 200 metres away. Riding with the waves made life easier, and as Si filmed me passing beyond some majestic palm trees I realised I could start surfing the small waves that broke towards the beach. Looking behind for the next wave that was to catch me up, I realised that I was moving a little faster than the waves now, and just as I tried to slow up the front of my AquaSkipper drove into the sand. Because I was looking behind I hadn’t realised that the water was getting shallower, and still about 50 metres from the beach I found myself flying over the handlebars, my head ploughing effortlessly through the foot-deep water and into the seabed. My body crumpling down in concert, I naturally rolled and took the full weight on my shoulder before popping back up above the surface and thanking my lucky stars it wasn’t a rocky bed. I was going to be pulling sand out of my head for the next three days.
Sadly, Si hadn’t captured all of the fall, but just before a tree blocked his view he filmed my legs flying through the air, following my body in a circular wave before the ensuing carnage disappeared behind palm leaves. Typical!
So, all said and done, we got the promo done – it’s now showing on the AquaSkipper website and on You Tube, and with a bit of open water experience under my belt it won’t be too long before a challenge is set. Watch this space.
Video Footage of Bounce Free
Bouncefree Video diary
Bouncefree documents Dave Cornthwaites attempts to be a world beating Aquaskipper.
Follow his video diary from early beginnings to a world record distance attempt.
Where's it gone?Blimey, it's autumn already. Conkers on the ground, more clouds than sun, the water's bloody freezing....
Perfect for Aquaskipping, then. A few months have passed since my last blog, but uneventful they haven't been. An exhausting week on the Isle of Wight introduced several hundred newbies to aquaskipping, and just a handful of them managed to get to grips with it a little too quickly for my liking. Those long sessions at Bray Lake and the Cefn Hengoed swimming pool seem like light years away now, but barely six months had passed between my late February introduction to the 'sport' and a momentous day at Hove Lagoon, just down the road from Brighton. The Lagoon was about to witness a record attempt. The radios were crackling, a helicopter hovered overhead (although we suspect there may have been a local robbery, or something), journalists hovered: the bloke who skateboarded across Australia has a new mode of transport, and today he's going for the British 100m record.
It stood at 27 seconds, a young chap from the Isle of Wight called Ben Farmer had laid down the gauntlet. My turn, now. Chilled Turtle, new clothing label extraordinaire, sponsored the event, the Lagoon staff set up my starting platform - an upturned rowing boat. I've been bouncing for six months and now it's time to turn dreams into reality, I want to become the fastest person in Britain. On an Aquaskipper.
The wind is up, the water slightly choppy, but this is it. The first run's time was called out. 28 seconds. Bugger. Fifteen minutes later I went again, 26.9 seconds this time. But these were warm-ups, over 130 metres. Panting a bit by now, I take a break as the official hundred metre course is mapped out by GPS. I start to zone out, head down, heart beating soundly through my rashvest. I have missed this, the pulse of challenge, the possibility of achievement just around the corner.
Let's get this straight. It's not the Olympics. It's not even a wet Wednesday evening in Sheffield. I'm about to attempt a record in a sport that few than 0.1 of the population has heard about, but everything starts somewhere, right? It was only a couple of centuries ago that a bloke punted a pig bladder inbetween two trees. Have you seen how many people watch the football World Cup now?
This isn't about recognition, either. Who knows the name of pig bladder man, after all? I'm always battling against myself and to a degree I'm satisfying my need for a challenge, but on the other hand I think this Aquaskipping malarky can go places and put smiles on faces, if I can kick-start that then why the hell not...
Run 3. It's official now. 23.62 seconds. New record.
Run 4. 23.91 seconds. So close.
Run 5. 22.50. Really want to break 22 seconds now.
Run 6. 22.25. Go on then, one more for luck.
Run 7. 21.96. A new record, breaking the old one by over 5 seconds.
Well, that was a very good day.
There's now talk of an Aquaskipping world championships in Australia early next year. I'm over there to promote the BoardFree book which launches on February 1st Down Under, so why not throw in another world championships at the same time.
The Aquaskipper continues to pull in the occasional bit of media coverage. At some point very soon The One Show on BBC1 will transmit Phil Tufnell's visit to our Aquaskipping camp on the Isle of Wight, and this evening, in about six hours to be precise, I'll be chatting to Chris Evans on BBC Radio 2.