16: THIN IS IN
Kneeboarding was on the Pro Tour as an exhibition competition from 1986-1991. I was there, but was not invited to compete. That’s because Hydroslide was the exclusive kneeboard sponsor, and I worked for HO.[i] I took my turn on the water performing my hot dog slalom routine, but the kneeboarding was left to the boys from Hydroslide. Needless to say, it was a little frustrating to watch them go for the cash on TV. My only consolation was that the event featured the “Flip Out”, a format that I was not personally interested in.
Mario Fossa Flips Out On the Pro Tour
In 1989 and 1990 kneeboarding was still the water ski discipline that attracted the most attention. Board sales approached 200,000 a year, riders were still regularly coming up with new tricks, and the magazines were filled with the latest action.
Kneeboarding was Hugely Popular in the Early 1990s, but Wakeboarding Soon Dominated the Industry. (Kent McMillan, Mark Ritchart, Brandy Quinn. Photos Tom King 1989-1993)
Wakeboarding (still called skiboarding in those days) was making advances, but progress was slow. Most of the skiboards of the day were made the same as kneeboards: a plastic shell that was filled with foam. The biggest problem was that the boards were too buoyant for average riders to do deep-water starts.
Tony Finn Popularized the Skiboard with the Skurfer. (King, 1986)
As the general population struggled to get up on their Skurfers, kneeboarding kept charging ahead with more sales, more tricks, and more coverage than ever. But it was the last of the glory days for kneeboarding. Everything was about to change when Herb O’Brien decided to make the first real wakeboard.
In 1986-87 Herb traded some water skis to Tony Finn for some Skurfers. Herb was a great water skier, but was “shocked and pissed” that it took him three tries to get up on a Skurfer. Even then it was a struggle.
“After riding the Skurfer I knew this would be fun if it were designed the right way. It just needed to have thin edge like a ski. But no one knew at the time knew how to make something that big. Something that big had to have a fabric graphic to make it cost effective, but the technology wasn’t in place. In the late 1980s I figured out how to use cloth graphics on the bottom of my skis. That was the first step, and it cut my costs in half. Next came figuring out how to make a wide mold…that was with the Air Chair deck released in Spring, 1990. We used CNC, (Computer Numeric Control)…it was the first time computer design was used for a mold in the water ski industry.”[ii]
Everything was now in place to create a cost effective thin wakeboard with cool graphics.
Others around the industry were thinking about thin boards too, but only Herb had the advantage of years of innovation and the knowhow to implement new production methods. HO introduced the Hyperlite in 1991.[iii] It was the world’s first compression molded wakeboard, and it was a quantum jump in performance. Riders could push the board underwater for easy deepwater starts. The die was cast. Thin was in, and the big ski companies raced to make compression molded boards. Wakeboarding was born and the new sport grew like wildfire.
Eric Perez, aka “The Flyin’ Hawaiian”, was Wakeboarding’s First Star. (King, 1991)
Wakeboarding and kneeboarding were now in direct competition with each other. Kneeboarding was still the cash cow for the industry, and the tricks were still miles ahead of what was being done on a wakeboard. But something about wakeboarding appealed to young riders who may have also considered kneeboarding. Randy Harris was one such teen rider who exemplified the feelings of the time. One day, in Canyon Lake, CA, I was asked by Larry Harris to take his boys Randy and Brandon out for a ride. I was still well known in water ski circles, and Larry wanted his two boys to go out with a pro to get a demonstration and tips on riding. All three of us took turns on the kneeboard and wakeboard.
The tricks you could do on a kneeboard were cool, but wakeboarding felt cool. You stood up. It was more expressive. It was reminiscent of snowboarding, surfing, and skateboarding. Like many young riders of the day who were exposed to both rides, Randy simply liked wakeboarding better. He dedicated himself to the sport, and with his father’s support, went on to become one of the most recognizable free riders in the mid 1990s and beyond.
Randy Harris, Age 14, Ripping the Canyon Lake Backwaters. (Kingman, 1995)
Randy Harris Retrospective with Original Song
Just like Randy Harris, more and more riders chose wakeboarding over kneeboarding. The manufacturers switched too, redirecting money and support from kneeboarding to wakeboarding. Kneeboarding was still more popular in terms of sales hitting nearly 300,000 units in 1986, but it was loosing ground fast to wakeboarding.[iv] I made a switch of sorts too. I had already retired from professional kneeboard competitions, so I devoted more time to wakeboarding. I never stopped kneeboarding, I just widened my horizons with another new way to ride. It was easy to see the where the industry was going, and I wanted to be valuable to HO in as many ways as possible.
The Industry Switched, So I Spent Some Time Promoting Wakeboarding. (Doyle, 1995)
HO was killing it with their new Hyperlite wakeboard. It was the single hottest item in all of water skiing. With that success, Herb decided to apply the new manufacturing process for the Hyperlite to a kneeboard too. The board, called the Edge 720, was the first compression molded kneeboard.[v][vi] I headed down to Florida again with director Eddie Roberts, Bebe Anderson, and Mark Ritchart to film another promotional video for dealers and boat shows. Eddie wrote a catchy Calypso song to accent all the fun we were having. Steel drums pounded to the deep Jamaican style singer: “HO Edge 720, So far ahead it’s not funny. Slice through the wake like a knife through cake on the HO Edge 720. Oh! Ha! Ha! You go Bebe!”
Herb O’Brien Gave Kneeboarding a Shot in the Arm with the World’s First Compression Molded Kneeboard, 1991
HO Edge 720 (so far ahead it’s not funny…) Promo Video
The race was on for more thin kneeboards, and O’Brien released their version in the wake of HO’s success with the Edge 720. The O’Brien Vortex was designed by Lonnie Marchand with help from the engineers at the factory. The new spoon shape of the board caused a lot of drag, but the high-end payoff came in spades with bigger air and much easier combo tricks. The increase in performance from the boards themselves, and the all-new designs helped boost overall sales, and gave kneeboarding a much-needed shot in the arm. The foam filled boards still sold well, and became the price point alternative for recreational riders.
Jonathan Macdonald and Yates Perry (below) Were Two of the Best in the Next Generation of Riders, 1995
Thin was in, and in the next three years most of the top riders and manufacturers made the switch. By 1994 there were more than 10 different models of thin boards.[vii] The other design battle was the search for a better pad. Ted Bevelacqua lead the way with his after market glue on neoprene strips.[viii] HO was the first manufacturer to implement the raised perimeter pad in early 1988.[ix] The pad was a neoprene strip that fit around the legs to make a better connection between the board and rider. Hydroslide upped the ante in 1988 with the first contoured pad.[x] In the next few years tremendous advancement were made in pads, and most boards offered their own contoured version.
In 1993 Herb’s decided it was time for me to design another board as my follow up to the popular Aerial 360, but this time it was going to be a new high performance compression molded model. I used all my skills in kneeboarding to design a board that would do everything. The result was the Joker.[xi] It was my best board ever and instantly became a favorite of kneeboarders around the world. The graphic team at HO led by Scott Cook deserves a ton of credit for the success. The Joker’s striking look used a comic book character that was colorful, fun, and a little mischievous. According to Guy Filip the design was partly inspired by my ability to act as a wildcard rider for HO. It reflected the feeling of the sport, and the graphics alone sold thousands of boards.
After the Limited Success of the Edge 720, HO Asked Me to Design the Joker. (Doyle, 1994)
Herb was always pushing to have the best of everything for all of his products. He loved to be the innovator, and in the rare cases when someone beat him to the punch, he tried to make his products even that much better. Such was the case with Hydroslide’s contoured kneepad. I spent a week at the HO factory in Redmond, WA working with a factory tech to shape our new kneepad. I was given free reign to create my own version of what a pad should be. At the factory we spent days making a plug out of Bondo. It was like creating a little sculpture step by step. Build it up, then take away the rough edges and extra bumps. There was a lot of sanding and morning coffee runs to Starbucks. Those Seattle boys can drink some serious java! I was in the middle of Chiropractic College at the time, and I used my knowledge of the human body to design a pad that fit the anatomy of the knees, legs, ankles, and toes. I included slots for the little bump on the knees. It had full support through the entire shin and ankles rather than just an ankle pad. It even had an angled drop off for the ankle joints to increase comfort.44 The final touch for the Joker was the new strap I designed. It didn’t have any revolutionary breakthroughs, just the best features of all the previous straps rolled into one: a fixed pad that didn’t slide around, tabs to keep it from slipping through the footman loops, and plenty of Velcro.
Working on the Bondo Plug for the Joker’s Contoured Pad with Herb at the HO Factory, 1993
In 1993 I Became the Joker! (Doyle)
My skiing career was increasingly shifting to what I called “smoke and mirrors.” If I wasn’t going to win any more championships, I would have to make myself useful in other innovative ways. Becoming the Joker for photos was one such successful ploy to stay in the public eye. It extended my value to the company for another year. I also pushed hard to get more ink than any other skier or boarder, averaging more than 60 full magazine pages a year in the mid 1990s. My longtime photographer Rick Doyle put together one of the first stock photos, CD-ROMs, using several of our shots for worldwide distribution. I got involved with wakeboarding as a rider, judge, event organizer, and director of the Hyperlite Tour. I even took a shot at offshore tubing in the Catalina Ski Race.
I Worked Hard to Get Media Coverage and Remain Valuable to HO, mid 1990s
When I retired from kneeboarding competitions David Jennings took over as the top kneeboarder at HO. He lifted the Joker to unprecedented levels. He unleashed a dangerous looking front-to-front 720 spin with a double wrap.[xii] That trick and his ability to do combo rolls behind the Sea-Doo lead him to many competitive victories in 1990s.[xiii]
World Class Rider David Jennings Became the Top Kneeboarder for HO, 1997
VIDEO LINK: David Jennings Going Off
Images (used with permission)
“Adventures in Water Skiing: Part 2, Kneeboarding,” photo Rick Doyle, 1994.
“Knee Team – McMillan, Ritchart,” photos Tom King, Water Ski, April, 1989, 88. “Kneeboard – Skiboard ′93 – Quinn,” photo Doug Dukane, WaterSki, Nov/Dec, 1993, 56.
“Tony Finn Fashion Air,” photo Tom King, Wakeboarding, Summer 1993.
“Eric Perez Cover,” photo Tom King, WaterSki, April, 1991.
“Randy Harris Ripping,” photo Kelly Kingman, 1995
“Backside ‘Doc’ Start – Klarich,” photo Rick Doyle, WaterSki, June, 1985, 30.
“HO Edge 720 Ad – Klarich,” WaterSki, Sept/Oct, 1991, 27.
“Joker Turn – Klarich,” photo Rick Doyle, 1994.
“Working the Bondo Plug – O’Brien, Klarich,” photo Shonna Klarich, 1993.
“HO Joker Ad – Klarich,” photo Rick Doyle, WaterSki, Feb 1994, 21.
“Tubing – Klarich,” photo Grafton Marshal Smith, WaterSki, May, 1999, 73.
“Fly Me – O’Brien Vortex Ad – Macdonald, Perry,” WaterSki, March, 1995, 43.
“HO Joker Ad – Like No Other – Jennings,” photo Doug Dukane, March, 1997, 12.
[i] Barb McCarter, “Newsmakers,” WaterSki, August, 1987, 12.
[ii] Interview with Herb O’Brien – March, 2010.
[iii] Eric Perez Flipping Hyperlite, WaterSki, April, 1991, cover.
[iv] “AKA Nationals”, WaterSki, Nov/Dec, 1986, 75.
[v] “Edge 720 Ad”, WaterSki, Sept/Oct, 1991, 27.
[vi] Paul Vitucci, “Slimming Down and Shaping Up,” WaterSki, July, 1992, 58.
[vii] “Is Thin Really In?” WaterSki, February, 1994, 54
[viii] “Contents,” WaterSki, June, 1988, 5.
[ix] “HO Aerial 360 Ad,” WaterSki, March, 1998, 89.
[x] “Kneeboard Buyer’s Guide,” WaterSki, June 1988, 50.
[xi] “HO Joker Ad,” WaterSki, February, 1994, 21.
[xii] David Jennings, “Spinning the 720,” WakeBoarding, Summer, 1993, 28.
[xiii] David Jennings, “Rad to the Bone,” WaterSki Sugust 1992, 41.
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