Hubert Burda Media

Q&A Exclusive: Wakeboard Champ Shawn Watson

The pro rider on the most beautiful place to wakeboard, how to avoid injury and designing boats for the sport

There aren’t many things that will willingly get me to work on a Sunday afternoon, but the chance to ride with two-time US wakeboard champion Shawn Watson is well worth the sacrifice. In town for the first time for a weekend of VIP sessions for yacht dealership Asia Yachting, the authorised sales point for Nautique boats in Hong Kong, he showed us a few wakesurfing tricks as fellow Team Nautique rider Jeff McKee trailed behind on a newfangled toy called a wakefoil (though rough water conditions sadly prevented the duo from performing any of the truly death-defying stunts for which they’re known). Afterwards, we sat down for a quick chat.

When did you start riding?

When I was young, I’ve got pictures from my mom, I was eight years old learning to waterski. Then we got a boat, then as a kid, you would kneeboard, slalom ski, barefoot, all that fun stuff. And I started getting bored with that so when wakeboarding came about, the first time I ever saw it I tried it, and pretty much never went back.

Shawn Watson
Shawn Watson

In Hong Kong at least, wakesurfing is gaining in popularity over wakeboarding. Is that true everywhere in the world?

I wouldn’t say it’s taking over, it’s different. Wakeboarding is a rich man’s sport in a way, because fuel’s not cheap, boats are not cheap. But you’re paying for what you get, and Nautique for example is a very quality boat. These boats are about the price of what a house could be. So the average person is not able to afford both a house and a boat. The guys that can are maybe 30 or 40 years old; they don’t want to go out there and take a hard fall and beat themselves up. Surfing, there’s really not much impact; it’s easy on the body, it’s sociable. You’re right next to the back of the boat so everyone can communicate. So it’s kind of going that way. I’ve wakesurfed as long as I’ve wakeboarded. What we used to do is we’d go out on the boat all day and it would be nice glassy, calm conditions, and we’d wakeboard, and as soon as it gets like this [with waves], you don’t wakeboard anymore and everybody surfs. You make the best of it and have fun.

What other water sports are in vogue these days that we haven’t seen out here?

There’s a lot of things to do. There’s a wakefoil, you stand on this board but it’s got a foil, and it’ll actually glide on the water and it’s actually really good for water conditions [where the sea isn’t flat]. No matter what boat, you can ride behind it, and even if it’s rough water, it doesn’t matter, because you’re just cutting through it, so it’s actually a relaxing fun thing to do, which is becoming more popular.

Jeff McKee on a wakefoil
Jeff McKee on a wakefoil

You’re out in Hong Kong with Nautique as one of their team riders and ambassadors. How long have you been working with the brand and how does the relationship work?

I’ve been with Nautique since 1999. My family, when we first started buying boats, my first ski boat was a Ski Nautique 1994, which is obviously designed for waterskiing, so we bought a Pro Air in ‘97, and then I started riding competitions and got recognised by Nautique, and then 1999 I got my first boat for Nautique. They give us a boat to use. It’s nice – I don’t own the boat, but we get to design the boat, we get to choose colours, how we want it, different motors, all the options. And then we use it for a year and give it back.

In previous years they never did much testing, especially with athletes, they just kind of looked at it and they had the engineers create what they thought was best. But with the G23, which came out in 2012, myself, Shawn Murray, Danny Harf, JD Webb and a big group of top guys on the team, we all got together, and they asked “What do you guys want to create to make the best wake for both wakeboard and wakesurf?” So for about two years they would go to the drawing board, create something, we would come test it, and say yes we like it or no we don’t; do this, do that. Two years later they came out with the G23 and I think this year marks the fifth year in a row that it’s been voted best wakeboard and wakesurf boat in the industry.

Nautique G23
Nautique G23

Do you need to do other sports to stay in shape for wakeboarding?

Wakeboarding and wakesurfing is a pretty intense workout the way it is. When you’re wakesurfing and you’re on that wave for two minutes straight you can feel it in your legs. Even right now I can feel it. Today I’ve only been once, but yesterday I was in the boat from 6am till 6pm with a few breaks in between with a few groups of people, and with every group of people, I’d ride. So today, I can really feel it in my butt, every muscle in my leg. Every muscle is beat. But I love all different type of sports – skateboarding, snowboarding. I grew up by the beach so even before waterskiing I surfed. That’s probably my favourite thing to do, I love travelling to really exotic places to surf.

What’s your favourite place to wakeboard or wakesurf?

Yesterday we were in Sai Kung. There in the morning at 6am, it was beautiful, glassy, calm water.

Have you heard of Lake Powell, in Arizona? You know the Grand Canyon? When you’re in Lake Powell, it’s the same terrain, so you’re in the water going through these canyon walls, just massive straight walls. And you’ll have a big open area and some little coves, and it gets really windy and narrow and then it opens up and it’s just glass. Every time I go, there, I’ve probably been there 10 times, I just catch myself sometimes staring up like I’m on another planet, like I’m on Mars. I realise how lucky I am to do this as a profession.

Shawn Watson

With sports like wakeboarding, the risk of injury is always there. How do you ride safe?

I’ve done both of my knees. Last year I was doing a new trick and I pulled something and dislocated my shoulder, so I had to have surgery to replace that. But it’s just kind of the name of the game, like any extreme sport, you’re bound to get hurt. When these injuries happen you learn how to fall, so you make sure you don’t do it again. Both times I’ve done my knees were the same instance, so when I’m doing specific tricks or learning new tricks, if I know I’m not going to make it – the risk for reward isn’t worth it if you’re not in the right position. And that’s what you see, a lot of these younger kids really pushing it, but it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. Even the top guys have all done their knees in, every single one. Wakeboarding is definitely hard on the body. That goes back to why wakesurfing is taking over. And when we talked about input on the boats, back in the day boats had the smallest wake. We were loading it down with whatever possible to create a big wake. Now with the Nautique G23, the wake is so big that the average person gets back there and gets freaked out by it. I just wish that when I was a kid I’d had this!