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That sinking feeling..............

24 February 2007

“In about ten seconds I’m going to be very wet indeed.”

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.