Flipper, King of the sea

After a few hard splashes the new water-propelled FlyBoard allows even a novice to hover metres above the ocean, and professionals are perfecting aerial acrobatics and dolphin-like moves in preparation for international competitions that are already following the craze

Since before the time of Icarus, the idea of human flight has been a fantasy that has been continuously entertained over the centuries. The ability to escape from the prison of gravity and be in the air with as little help as possible is something universally desired. Sure, we fly in passenger jets at high speeds across incredible distances, but to come up with something that allows us to take to the air simply from the propulsion of water from our feet and hands? Genius.

Meet ''flyboarding'', a new water sport developed by Jet Ski champion Franky Zapata in the spring of 2011. Zapata has been winning Jet Ski tournaments since the age of 17 in 1996. After several more years in the industry he formed Zapata Racing, which subsequently developed and created the technology behind the FlyBoard, a crafty piece of machinery that allows for limited flight with the use of water propulsion.

''FlyBoard mixes all my passions _ the Jet Ski, skiing, snowboarding and acrobatic dives,'' explains the 35-year-old creator of flyboarding on his official website. When the technology was completed, Zapata posted a video of the FlyBoard in use on YouTube and received over 2.5 million views within the first two weeks. Sounds reasonable considering that not many people had ever seen a man hover atop a jet of water before.

SO HOW DOES IT WORK?

The FlyBoard water propulsion device is powered by a Kevlar tube connected to the rear of a Jet Ski. The tube is laced underneath the Jet Ski and goes towards the front where the flyboarder is. Once the Jet Ski revs its engines, its turbines pump the water into the tube and the water then shoots out from the Flyboard, sending the flyboarder up into the air. About 90% of the water jet comes out from the actual FlyBoard below the user's feet while the rest of the water comes out of the nozzles attached to the hands for stabilisation. The propulsion can be controlled via a driver sitting on the Jet Ski or manually from a trigger attached to the hand of the flyboarder. How much water comes out of the FlyBoard is controlled by the acceleration of the Jet Ski. With full acceleration and control, the flyboarder can reach heights of up to nine metres. The flyboarder then steers around by shifting his weight into the direction he wishes to go while pulling the Jet Ski behind him. To move forward one must tilt his weight forward while tilting the FlyBoard to have its jets propelling water behind the boarder.

The hose that connects the flyboarder to the Jet Ski is installed with a rotation system to prevent twisting and it works amazingly well. Somersaults and twists barely affect the hose as the mechanism will turn along with the boarder without affecting the water pressure.

The installation process for the FlyBoard is surprisingly easy _ just screw off the protector for the Jet Ski's water outlet and screw on the nozzle of the FlyBoard, attach a few wires and you are pretty much set. Once the nozzle is attached, the Jet Ski's only method of propulsion will be via the pull of the flyboarder. With beginning flyboarders, the steering of the Jet Ski and the FlyBoard's propulsion can be controlled manually by another person riding the Jet Ski. Zapata Racing has also developed a vehicle to replace the Jet Ski, a seat-less personal watercraft that weighs less and has the same level of propulsion as a Jet Ski and allows for better manoeuvrability and cooler tricks.

The entire process is highly reminiscent of how Iron Man would fly, just with water in place of the fire and a water gun instead of a rocket launcher. So, it is sort of like being Iron Man and Aquaman at the same time, but with a Jet Ski following behind you always.

The best part about the FlyBoard is that it propels you underwater as well as in the the air. Professionals can perform aerial acrobatics like somersaults in the air, and also learn to dive underwater and then propel themselves up into the air, much like dolphins.

The FlyBoard is completely new to Thailand and the rest of the world, but the sport has taken off with the first FlyBoard World Cup in Doha, Qatar on Oct 22 this year. The FlyBoard was brought to Thailand by Geminai Watercrafts, who are also responsible for bringing in crazy aquatic vehicles such as a shark-shaped high-speed semi-underwater water vessel known as the Seabreacher and a semi-submarine used for viewing marine life known as the EGO. Team Geminai sent two members to represent Thailand and both made it into the final eight, with one finishing in fourth place. Plans for the sale of the FlyBoard to the public will be announced towards the end of November or early December.

MY ATTEMPT AT FLYBOARDING

For starters, I have no prior skateboard, wakeboard or snowboard experience whatsoever. I went into this with the proficiency of any other ordinary Joe. But when the guys at Geminai strapped me in to the FlyBoard during a press demo on Jomtien Beach, Pattaya, I was ready to give it a go.

Once the signal was given, I had to roll onto my stomach and allow for the FlyBoard to push my feet under and propel myself upwards.

Seems easy in theory, but in practice I was a spiralling mess of limbs and spraying water for at least the first 15 minutes. Attempts to position the FlyBoard properly under my feet led to constant confusion.

The greatest difficulty was in trying to grasp the idea that there was water coming out of my feet and that this was powerful enough to launch me into the air.

After about 20-30 attempts, it got much easier to launch myself into the air, but then there was the issue of steering and balancing. As mentioned earlier, steering is done by tilting towards the direction you wish to go and letting the water propel you. That being said, it is not easy to lean in a certain direction and keep in control when you are (a) up in the air levitating via water propulsion, and (b) dragging a 500kg vehicle behind you.

With the Jet Ski behind, leaning too far forward results in the propulsion shooting out sideways instead of downwards, thus slamming the flyboarder down into the water.

I learned this the hard way, and let me tell you, falling flat on your face from 2-3m onto water can seriously knock the wind out of you.

The secret to learning was to keep trying and realising that to get good at flyboarding, you're going to have to tolerate a few slightly painful splashes before being able to fly. But once you're airborne, all the falls will have been completely worth it. By about 20 minutes I was hovering, but steering was still difficult. This was as far as I would go for one day as the act of balancing oneself midair via a water jet was surprisingly taxing on the body, although one particularly gifted member of Team Gemini was able to master the FlyBoard in a single day, doing tricks like the somersault and the dolphin. He may have been a natural at the sport, or it could be that I really suck.

Despite the fact that I was dropped from great heights occasionally, I'd say the FlyBoard is relatively safe. To state the obvious, a fall from a high place into water can be painful but it is much safer than terrestrial extreme sports like skateboarding or rollerblading, as the water cushions the fall much better than concrete.

The FlyBoard is really a fun piece of equipment that doesn't take a master of extreme sports to get the hang of, while at the same time it is capable of producing seriously cool acrobatics when used by an expert. Thailand already has a prominent presence in the extreme watersports scene, and with Thai athletes ranking high in the first ever FlyBoard World Cup, there is no reason why the sport shouldn't grow here in the Kingdom. Icarus would have been proud.


ADDITIONAL INFO: Franky Zapata's YouTube channel: www.youtube.com/zapykrys. Official website for Zapata Racing: www.zapata-racing.com. Official website for Geminai Watercrafts Co., Ltd: www.geminaiwatercrafts.com. For more information, please contact Geminai Watercrafts Co., Ltd, tel: 02-298-0014 and 081-359-8030.

About the author

Writer: Oz Chanarat