Like standing on a sea creature.
"You've snowboarded or surfed before, right?"
Bob Cook, instructor at Mad City Flyboards, is waving off my expressed fear of heights as he launches his jet ski.
"But you've water-skiied? Wakeboarded?"
"Yes!" I nod in relief. "I've done plenty of yoga!"
"Great. That'll work," says Cook as he hands me a wetsuit.
I'm about to try flyboarding for the first time, on Lake Monona, and if hours of tree pose is the best preparation I have for what is tantamount to air-surfing over water in jet-pack boots, it'll have to do.
Invented two years ago by French racer Franky Zapata, flyboarding is the next big thing in water sports, and given the recent success of the Avengers and Spider-man movies, it's no surprise: The sport essentially allows the participant to fly over (or under) water.
Basic wakeboard boots connected to a board with what look like rockets attach to a personal watercraft (such as Kawasaki's popular Jet Ski) via a 55- to 65-foot hose. The jet ski pumps high-pressure water through the hose, fueling the flyboard. The participant can soar 20 feet or more into the air, steering up and down and side to side by tilting the board. And if you lose your balance and wipe out? You'll get a face full of lake water, but no worse than that.
Cook and his teenage son, Ryan, grin boyishly as they tell me their story. A longtime kiteboarding enthusiast and instructor, Cook discovered flyboarding last year. "I said, 'Wait a minute -- this looks so cool,'" he recalls. "And, especially compared with kiteboarding, it's very easy for people to learn." Ryan became hooked too.
Cook started Mad City Flyboards last August, offering 30-minute flights and longer sessions too.
Just about anyone can flyboard. "The youngest we had last year was 9 or 10, and the oldest was 62. Men and women, girls and boys," says Cook.
He does caution that there are upper and lower weight limits due to the thrust coming from the jets. Those range from a minimum of 80 to 90 pounds to a maximum of about 300 pounds depending on the strength of the jet ski being used.
Suppressing my nerves as Cook explains how I'll swim out into appropriately deep water and position myself a good distance from the jet ski, I slip my feet into the gigantic boots attached to the flyboard. It's heavy but buoyant, and when I jump in the water it takes a minute to adjust. I start to swim. Cook turns the jet ski on, just enough for me to be able to glide effortlessly through the water. For the first time in my life I know how it must feel to be a fast swimmer. I stick my head up and look around, water rushing out from the bottoms of my feet behind me.
Bending one knee slightly will cause a turn; tipping my toes up or down causes an ascent or descent. And I'll need to pay attention to where I'm going, since there's only 50 feet of hose. Normally this would scare me, but I'm having so much fun playing with the flyboard in the water that I forget to be scared.
"Okay, I'm gonna give you some juice," Cook says, and I force my feet down flat below me as if I'm standing on an underwater floor.
Suddenly it's as though I'm standing on a sea creature. I feel myself rising out of the water, realize immediately that I'm not balanced, and fall backwards, laughing. "Okay, I'm ready now," I say, and with some effort flip myself back into an upward position.
Cook guns it again.
This time, I concentrate hard on keeping my back straight and my knees nearly straight, using my thigh and core muscles to balance as I'm raised out of the water. It's terrifying, but that doesn't matter, because I'm literally hovering above the water, looking out on Monona Terrace and the kayakers and fishermen who have noticed what's going on.
"I am Iron Man," I whisper to myself, and then I fall face-first back into the water.
A few more tries and I'm able to stay up higher, for longer periods of time, and turn back and forth slowly. I'm told I'm picking it up pretty fast, though Cook says he's never had a failure on his watch. "Within 10 to 15 minutes, if you have halfway decent balance you're going to be up and flying around, and we get everyone out of the water within 30 minutes," he says.
It's surprisingly quite intuitive. The flyboard feels like an extension of your leg power, and as long as you're balanced, the sky is literally the limit. With a helmet and life jacket, I'm in no special danger, though it's important to give the jet ski a wide berth so I don't kick my instructor in the head.
After about half an hour, my legs are exhausted and my core muscles are on fire. I can understand completely how flyboarding could become addictive. It's a thrill I'll never forget, and an incredible way to experience the beauty of a lakeside city. I'd do it again, and I wouldn't be surprised to see it take off in Madison.
Mad City Flyboards