2016-07-01 / ReBooted

Smoked on the Water

Jill Gleeson

It’s not bad, Monongahela River water. Somewhat lacking in clarity, with a color reminiscent of coffee made with twice-used grounds, it actually has a pleasing bouquet and a slightly metallic finish. I should know, because I swallowed a lot of it, whole bucketfuls, during my Surf Pittsburgh expedition. Up my nose and through my mouth it shot, driven into my orifices as I was dragged face first through the water by a boat tow line I refused to relinquish even after I’d toppled off my surfboard. I don’t know why I held on so long. Perhaps I believed somewhere in the back of my brain that there was redemption in this act.
I couldn’t surf with my feet, but damn if I wouldn’t surf with my face.

Not that the Surf Pittsburgh guys weren’t totally supportive. Steve Ford, the owner, has the laidback but assured shaggy dog poise of the California surfer he once was. He and his cohorts, Ben and Doug, were seriously patient as they strived to teach me the finer points of what’s known as wake surfing. It’s more or less like water skiing, except you’re on a short surfboard and the whole point is to drop the tow line and ride the boat’s wake unassisted.

Of course, you have to stand up first. Scratch that. First, if you’re out in early spring and the weather is as frozen as a Botoxed brow, you have to get into a dry suit. I’ve had numerous encounters with wet suits, loathsome things that make your entire body feel like it’s been condensed into one of those Spanx contraptions clearly invented by someone deranged. Dry suits are even weirder, because they’re really big — except at the wrist, ankle and neck, where, to the keep the water out, they’re really, really small. So small that it took me, Steve and my boyfriend, Wayne, to get that tiny rubber neck over my head. For a while it got stuck on my forehead as I flailed blindly about, screaming with laughter. It was around this time that Steve asked me if I was drunk, to which Wayne replied, “No, she’s always like this.”

Eventually I got into the suit and sort of awkwardly rolled, like an indolent seal, from the boat to the water. Doug hopped into the river with me, giving me pointers on the ins and outs of wake surfing. It was simple, really. All I had to do was float on the water, keeping my ankles on the board and my hands on the tow line handle. When Steve pulled the boat away from me and the line went taut I was to keep hold of it, allowing it to haul me on top of the board. Once I was in the sweet spot of the boat’s wake I just needed to release the tow line and I’d be surfing, Pittsburgh-style. Almost everybody who tried it got it, Doug assured me. It just took some practice.

And so I practiced. Up the line would yank me, where I’d hover for about the same amount of time Chris Christie sticks to his diets. And then over I would topple, holding in vain to the tow line like there was somehow a chance I’d still end up on the surfboard. Steve and the guys were great, yelling tips to me like “Keep your weight back!” and “Stand up fast!” and “Keep your center low!” I knew it wasn’t that difficult — Wayne was surfing that wake so quickly I wondered if the board had been glued to his feet. I got close, they told me. Real close.

I’ve heard that’s supposed to only count in horseshoes, but I don’t buy it. It was a killer day on the river, the Pittsburgh skyline shining in the sun behind us, Steve and his team cracking jokes, having almost as much fun as I did. And I know when I hit up Surf Pittsburgh again I’ll be that much closer to getting up on that board. •SCM

For more information about Surf Pittsburgh, visit

Jill Gleeson dares to venture outside of her comfort zone and learns a lesson every time. Follow her adventures on Twitter @gopinkboots.

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