Jonathan Crocker

Editorial Director | Journalist

Travel: Wakeboarding’s punk heroine hits Russia

Posted by Jonathan On September - 17 - 2008

wakeboarding2Discovering the punk heroine of cable-wakeboarding in deepest, darkest Russia…

The Black Sea stinks. That effluent-honk wafts out of the green algae that sludges the water like an oil spill, thick and gooey. Along the beachside stretch in the Russian town of Anapa, men shovel the stuff into sopping piles on the sand. It’s like a bad joke: the algae is endless. Then comes the good joke: elderly Russian women slapping handfuls onto their legs for its rumoured restorative qualities.

Perched on the coastline of the Black Sea, Anapa is a small tourist-town, where Russian families chug three hours on a train to soak up the sun and spend their roubles on tawdry fairground rides. It’s the Blackpool of Russia. Except this weekend, it’s not.

The surprise host-town for the World Cable-Wakeboard Championships, Anapa has seen the world’s best riders jet in from Britain, Holland, Germany and Hungary to rock the Black Sea for a long September weekend. Local Russians have never even seen a foreigner in town before. And they’ve never seen anything like Maxine Sapulette.

Rocking a spiky, dyed-blonde crop, a star tattoo on his wrist and a boisterous attitude, Max is the punk heroine of cable-wakeboarding. At 17 years old, the Dutch rider is hitting peak, doing things on a board that no other female rider can. “And I have this too,” she grins, pointing into her mouth at a multi-coloured tongue-piercing as we walk along the promenade beside Anapa’s gaudy seafront bars. As she poses for Huck’s cameras, Max nervously touches the slender scar on her jaw. “I hate it, it’s the worst thing about me,” she smiles, sheepishly. What happened? “A dog bit me when I was three.” What happened then? “They killed the dog.”

Max has made a habit of killing the competition. Yesterday, she breezed the Open Ladies qualifying with 75.33-point run that aced Hungarian favourite Kinga Horvath with 61.17 points and left Germany’s Vanessa Pfaff trailing way back in 46.33 points. She’s part of the first elite generation coming through, as young and cocky as the sport itself. Cable-wakeboarding has changed the world of waterskiing as radically as snowboarding did to skiing back in the ’90s. The idea? Simple: being pulled through a obstacle-strewn circuit by a fast cable while clamped onto your board. The effect? Spectacular: the short, flexible board allows riders to hit big air, pulling stunning jumps, flips and twists in amazing trick-runs, upping the expressiveness, creativity and aggressiveness. No boat. No limits. Riders like Sapulette and Brit hellraiser Nick Davies – the currently Athlete Of The Year, dubbed ‘Sick Nick’ for his dazzling airborne innovations – are growing the sport each year. “I started wakeboarding when I was 10,” explains Max. “My mum’s friend took me to the local cableway in Holland and suddenly I was doing tricks. It was just easy for me, easy for me to express myself on the board. I came second in the Juniors when I was just 12 and then became World Champion in Austria two years ago.”

It’s taken guts as well as skill, in a sport that racks up its share of casualties. A run only ends when a rider lets go of the handle. Stack it and you face a choice. Let the handle fly… or cling on as it drags you face-first through the hammering water while you try to haul yourself back up onto your board until your arms – or your head – can’t take the beating. “Last year I tried a trick, it all went wrong and I landed hard on my face,” recalls Sapulette, patting her head for effect. “That’s the last thing I remember: I was out cold in the water.” She pauses. “And I don’t mind this. This is what’s interesting. Older riders never learn new tricks. It’s strange. But I don’t have any fear. None of us young riders have any fear.”

But nerves, all the same. We set off the promenade and walk out on to the World Championship wakeboard jetty that houses the team ‘training zone’ (a giant trampoline and sun loungers) and the cableway launch area, bustling with riders and coaches. The finals are just a couple of hours away. And Max is angsty. “Whatever you do, don’t say the ‘W’ word,” warns the announcer over the loudspeakers, as the afternoon wind starts to churn up the water into a moving trough and peaks that make world-class boarding near impossible. “With the wind like this,” sighs Max. “You can’t taking any chances. The points are all about the judges’ opinion, so you never know.  It’s all about getting right on the day. Just one thing can make it all go wrong…” She coughs, laughing croakily. “My voice is fucked!” Yelling on the other riders yesterday has ripped up her throat. Still, someone had to cheer. The fans, well, they just haven’t showed. “We had thousands of fans at the Europeans in Austria and at the Worlds in the Philippines.” she explains, craning her neck to look up at the scattered Russians looking down with bemused semi-interest from the walkways behind us. “And there were 150 international competitors in Philippines. It was huge.” She shrug. “I don’t know what we’re doing here in Anapa…”

Fair question. There are some 180 cableways all over the world – Anapa’s was built last year, an attempt to splash some of that New Russian money on adding new appeal to the town. It needs 500 Russians to hit the water one or two times a week to spin a profit. But international tourism is zilch. And domestic tourism is dropping as Russians start realising they can get a cheap flights abroad. Anapa has a population of just 70,000. Not many of the own wakeboards. So the major opened his chequebook again and the World Championships were booked.

Unlike most cableways, Anapa’s rotates clockwise on the open sea-side, meaning Sapulette and the competitors have had to hostility adjust their training. That’s not all. “The cable here isn’t very good,” says Max. “It can only take eights riders and it goes slack. And there are only four obstacles. We had 11 in the Philippines!” But noxious algae, bad conditions, jellyfish (another Black Sea treat), ropy facilities and vacant atmosphere weren’t half the problems. A huge storm two weeks before the event demolished the four obstacles shipped from Europe. Workmen with barrels of glue had to be flown in on daily VISAs, with Anapa’s major frantically ringing the airport so they could enter the country.

Still, there’s a world title at stake. And with 220,000 viewers watching on the internet, it’s another chance for Maxine to stamp her dominance on the sport. Conditions are bad. The wind is churning the water into a jagged battlefield. Waiting for her call to get ready, Max distracts herself by practising bottle-flipping tricks she’s learned from the local barman. “Not bad, eh?” she half-smiles, balancing it precariously on the end of her finger. The water is rolling and kicking with horrible unpredictability.

An hour later, She’s stood on the launch, boots on board, gripping the handle as everyone waits for the cable-pulley to clunk round and yank her into action. Greenlight: launching off into the air and bouncing with a smack onto the swaying surface of the water, Sapulette takes an easy first circuit before riding the two kickers and dodging the treacherous table and funbox obstacles. With the board bucking underneath her, she’s needs just one trick to win. Hanging onto her balance, composure and the handle, she nails a 360 spin on the bouncing water that scores a 71.17 point total to trump Kinga’s 64.00 tally.

“I know I didn’t show what I can do, but I’m so happy I’ve won!” she beams, swapping dripping hugs with the other competitors. But before the World Champion can start hoarsely cheering her Dutch teammate Mike Kettellappur, another problem emerges. Two of the obstacles have broken loose in the wind. Watching them drift off comically into the Black Sea, we’re left with two unerring certainties. Maxine Sapulette is here to stay. But this is the last Anapa will see of her.

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Jonathan is a London-based journalist, critic and editor. He currently works for data visualisation agency Beyond Words.

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