From The Country To The Hood: Clay Fletcher Pro Spotlight

Words: Shawn Perry | Photos: Joey Meddock

If there's a recipe for going pro in wakeboarding, Clay Fletcher didn't read the directions. In fact, he missed the main ingredient: He's never owned a boat in his life. Clay took a completely different path to his current spot as one of wakeboarding's top riders. To get there, the country boy from Georgia did what his family did before him - worked hard at something he loves. Since moving to Florida in search of a pro riding career, Clay has done whatever he had to in order to ride a wakeboard - from mowing grass in exchange for free laps at Orlando Watersports Complex to towing students at The Projects. That commitment landed Clay smack dab in the middle of the Hood, an area in Orlando with a huge concentration of the best riders in wakeboarding.

Clay Fletcher’s hardworking roots define his personality on and off the water. He’s humble, easygoing, creative and fun to be around. His unorthodox approach makes him one of the most diverse riders in our sport. Clay rides cable, hits rails and winch spots and rides behind the boat - all with his own unique style. He’s one of the true riders out there who makes his mark by doing it all; it’s a trend we’re starting to see in pro wakeboarding. If you want to succeed, you need to have the complete package. Clay has it, and if he represents the future, we’re happy to watch how it pans out.

State your name and where you’re from.

Clay Fletcher. Carrollton, Georgia.

So you have some pretty Southern roots?

Yeah, my granddad was a farmer. He owned a bunch of land and did a lot of developing. That’s my Mom’s side of the family. As a kid, that’s what I did — ride around the farm, feed cows, move hay, crap like that.

At what point did you get into wakeboarding?

Let’s see, when I was about 15 years old. We would all go down to my friend’s parents’ lake house in Alabama. It was just like a trailer on a lake, but they had a little outboard boat and a wakeboard. I had snowboarded, but this kid taught me how to wakeboard. I just always liked being in the water. I was always trying to swim and jump off diving boards and stuff like that. So as soon as I got up, man, I remember cruising around and thinking how sick it was, just to carve through water and spray it. That’s about all the water sports background I have — family-vacation-style.

What led you to make the move to Orlando?

My Mom and sister came down on a trip, and my Mom called me and said: “They have this wakeboarding place, the Orlando Watersports Complex, down here. You gotta come check it out.” I had the next three days off work, so I was down. I remember getting in the car the next morning and just driving down for the weekend. I checked it out and rode the entire time I was there. Because my Dad was a pilot, he shared a place in Orlando with a bunch of other airplane pilots. They called it the Crash Pad. Like seven pilots would alternate out of this apartment near the airport. My Dad let me stay there. Rent was like $100 or something. I jumped on that. One day I was riding at OWC, and they were trying to lay sod. I worked at a sod farm back home and told them they were doing it wrong. I helped them lay it down. After that, Rene told me if I wanted to cut the grass, that would be awesome. Of course I wanted to cut the grass. Plus, he paid me and let me ride for free. It was perfect. So that’s what I did: cut grass and rode. Then I moved up to operating the cable, and, eventually, I started hanging out with Mike Ferarro. Mike started teaching me about coaching, and I got into that too. There was one point when I was coaching on the boat lake, operating the cable and cutting the grass.

Was that fresh out of high school?

Yeah, I remember graduating and working at a restaurant. It sucked. That’s why I decided to move to Orlando. I tried college out for like a semester, and, I don’t know, couldn’t hack it.

Was that a turning point?

A big one. I remember one day I said to one of my friends back home: “I’m gonna go for it, man. I’m gonna try and go for this and be serious about it.” That was a crucial time. It was never like “Oh man, I’m die-hard,” but “I’m going to try to get really good at this and see what happens.”

Who did you ride with at that point?

When I first came down, it was mostly cable operators, like Zak Stone — instantly just a fun guy to be around. He’s super-positive all the time. Chad Brown over on the boat lake and some other operators like Mike Connors, Josh Kiffer and Chris Law. Once I started hanging out with Adam Errington, that was when it was on. Adam and I fed off each other a lot. He had just started coming up and getting really good. He was riding with Ferraro a lot, and we would just goof off together.

Was that all boat or cable?

It was a little of both. We mixed it up, you know. We’d ride on the boat side, then jump over to the cable — just having fun riding together, man.

I know you play the guitar and the banjo. Has that always played a big part in your life?

My dad always had guitars. He was really into Willie Nelson. He took me to a Willie Nelson show when I was 6. I always tried to make sounds on his guitar. When I was 13, I saw an electric guitar for sale in this dude’s front yard for like $20. I got that thing and I just made noise for years, man, just horrible noise. Then some dude in junior high said: “Check this out man; this is Pantera.” And boom! It was awesome. Instantly, Southern rock roots and metal out of the gates is what I always wanted to listen to.

Do you want to take your music anywhere, or is it just for fun?

Yeah, I do, actually. I’ve been thinking about working toward getting a certain sound from all my influences, trying to put it into something I want to listen to. There’s a certain sound I think is kick ass, and I haven’t heard it yet. If I can get the right band together, man, it would be awesome.

You have a different take on the sport than anyone else. Who or what influenced you to ride like you do? And who or what is influencing your riding right now?

I remember right out of the gate, it was Scott Byerly and Parks Bonifay. Those guys were the shit. Then I watched Randy Harris ride, and he makes it look so cool. Any of those big style factor guys. Parks was just so off the wall, doing the craziest stuff. Any time you watch that guy ride, everybody just knows he’s the shit. Seeing Byerly hit those docks was inspiring. I remember thinking how sick it was, just to fly by a dock and hit it. And Shane Bonifay, of course, was a big influence. He had a lot of rail influence on me with how he started pressing things. I always wanted to get the nose press like Shane did. I picked up a lot of different influences from a lot of people along the way. I can see some kid, just a random cable kid, throwing something down I haven’t seen — individual flair on rails, whatever it is. I’ve noticed the most influence has been on rails, from being at the cable and then working at The Projects for a while. You just get influenced and you take it from them. I steal. I’m stealing all your tricks, kids! I mean, hey, I like it when people take from me, man. I get pumped. If I do a trick and see someone else do it, that’s cool. That means they respect you! Yeah!

Do you have a specific way you want to be portrayed?

Approachable. I want to be out there hanging out with all the people, riding with everybody. I don’t mean I have to care about performing well at contests. For me, it’s more about interacting with other riders, regardless of skill level or anything else. I spent a week out in Reno, Nevada, this past year and had one of the best weeks of my life with a couple rails to hit. It was just me and a couple of kids I didn’t know.

What about in photos and video parts?

Well, obviously, I want my stuff to look cool. I’m not saying I want to be the cool guy or whatever; it’s hard to talk about yourself in that way.

I think diverse is the best way I could describe you. You adapt well to different things.

Yeah, it seems like I’m taking a different approach when I look at it from the outside, I guess. I think it’s a necessary approach right now too. It’s really accessible to hit rails, to build kickers to things and gaps and stuff. I’ve never really thought about it too much, but yeah, you have to be diverse.

What do you want to work on? Is there something you really want to improve as a rider?

Yeah, always, in everything. I never want to stop improving. I’m my biggest critic. When people think photos of me are sick, I always think of how it could be better. I’m pretty hard on myself in that sense, especially shooting video. I mean nothing too crazy, I don’t freak out or anything, but I always think it could be better.

If you had to pick one thing that you want to improve on that you haven’t spent enough time on, what would it be?

Other than barefooting, the one thing I would want to improve on is getting creative with rails.

Aren’t you doing that already?

Yeah, but I want it to get more creative. I want to build stuff that has technical pieces to it; mandatory technical pieces to it, you know? Tapping on rails is sick, but to have something where you have to tap it to get over it is cool. The rail we just built with the keg is a good example. It’s a rail with a gap, and it has a little technical piece to it. I think any transitional points like that in rails is cool.

You still didn’t really answer my question.

Yeah, I know. I guess I can’t really just say, “I want to get better at rail riding” or whatever. Double-ups! I want to get better at double-ups. Me and the fellas here at the house are definitely trying to get our bodies in better shape to handle stuff like that. But getting that boot man — there’s nothing like that, just getting busted into the air.

What’s up for you for 2011? What are you working on?

It’s funny, I remember right before I went to bed on New Year’s Eve (apparently I was more sober than I thought), I was staring at the ceiling. I said to myself, “I’m going to make 2011 awesome.” I just remember thinking that 2011 could totally be an awesome year, but it was fully up to me to do it. I also want to buy a motorcycle and jump over eight school buses.

In your eyes, who can do no wrong in the industry? Is there someone you look up to for ideas?

Pat Panakos.

As a rider or an industry guy and master craftsman?

As a wakeboarder, man. He is the definition. I’ve just seen firsthand how much he lives it. It’s the most selfless thing ever too. He builds all this stuff and works so hard and always wants other people to have fun on it. He just puts his head down and works to build a better scene for all of us, for wakeboarding.

Outside of the wakeboarding community, where else do you look for inspiration?

I come from a BMX background, but I have a huge amount of respect for surfing and skateboarding. I mean, skateboarding now — those guys, where does it stop?

Do some of your ideas come from those guys?

I wouldn’t say ideas, but it’s more of a motivational thing. A lot of the rails I see in snowboarding just get the wheels turning.

How often do you hit the wake?

Not as much. It used to be all I did, and for a while there I was over rail riding. For a bit when I was living down here and we didn’t have any rails in the lake, I was getting into hitting the wake a bunch. I was learning a lot of new tricks, but then rail riding just took back over. It was an access thing. I just like being on my board and on the water. And having easier access to rails and it being cheaper, it just made sense. I mean, you and your buddy can ride rails forever on a can of gas.

You’ve never been a contest guy, right? Why is that?

Well, I was in it for a while. I don’t hate contests. What really bugged me out was the money. I have to pay my registration fee, fly out there and pay to stay somewhere. It’s just expensive. But I actually like the nervous feeling I get before I ride. It’s fun. It’s like an exciting adrenaline rush kind of thing. You go out there and you can screw up or ride really well. I remember I was out in Oregon, and I got seventh at one of the tour stops. I was like, “No way,” I was pumped.

If you could design your perfect contest, what would it be?

Me and a few fellas talked about this at The Projects. They’ve probably forgotten about it by now. I’ve always wanted to be a part of a gauntlet run, just pretty much setting up a pass of three rails with like swinging sand bags over one, maybe paint ball guns on another, I don’t know what else, but we could come up with it — a full-on gauntlet run. Or we could just do the Redneck Rail Jam: get pulled by an ATV in a mud pit with some rails in it and a bunch of beer drinking. You wait, in 2012, if the world hasn’t ended, it will after the Redneck Rail Jam.

In a world in which fewer kids build rails, you still continue to build all your own rails. Why is that?

Somebody’s got to. It’s easier than a lot of people think. That’s another thing: I want to show a lot of people how to build rails. When I built with Pat, he just kept showing me more and more. It’s easy; it just takes time. A lot of people don’t want to put the time into it. It’s time; it’s money.

Where do you see cable parks fitting in? Do you think they help get kids into hitting rails, or are kids too lazy to build rails because they can hit them at a park?

Cable parks are great. All the rails are there, and it’s easy access. You’re not going to get yelled at for hitting the rail or whatever; you’re not breaking any rules. At the same time, you’re taking 100 hits every time you go out there on the same rails. Surely you’re going to get tired of hitting the same rails over and over. I guess that’s just where I was: No one was going to build rails for me, so I went out and did it.

Where did you learn to build so well?

Clear Lake and just being around The Projects with Pat. I looked at them, rode them and figured them out and how they’re put together. I’m no carpenter by any means, but with a little bit of work they come together. You learn from your mistakes. But especially being around Collin Harrington, he and I built so many rails together on Clear Lake.

What about designing?

Is that something you do by yourself or do you collaborate with other people? As far as blueprints go, we have yet to use them. We have gone out there with the F-it attitude every time, you know? Panakos does it right, and it shows. For us, something is always going to go wrong.

Things are getting super technical with rails these days, and the gnarly factor has been kind of lost. Do you think things will ever shift?

Yeah, I think things have gone technical, for sure, over the past two years or so, especially with the rooftop and really long flat bars and people trying to press everything. It’s progression. It used to be just board sliding big rails because they were big. You could say, “Yeah, maybe I’ll back lip that, but I’m going to die.”

That’s where the more tech rails came out, huh?

I don’t know. When Collin and I built the rooftop out here, we argued over what we were going to do. I mean, rooftops are essentially flat bars — they just have a transition point where you can switch it up. Rooftops are no strangers; they’ve been in snowboarding since forever. You can hop around on a flat bar, but it’s just better to have transition points in the rail. I’m not saying you need to build a mountain scene of rooftops. I guess it would look sick if you painted it, though, right?

What do you have to say to people building rails themselves?

Make sure your posts are right, man. That’s like a life lesson right there: Make a solid foundation.

At the end of the day, where do you see yourself? Do you have a dream job, dream guitar, dream car or dream setup? Money’s no option?

Shit man, what you’re gonna have is a full-bore six-tower cable park in the backyard, a boat lake, System 2.0s, a 1987 El Camino with a Slayer bumper sticker, a Harley in the garage, a hollow-body Fender Telecaster with a Stratocaster neck that is like Frankenstein that no one else has and just land man, land.

Clay's Top 5 Rail-Building Tips

Wrangle materials

Make sure you have all the stuff you need to build — wood, screws, Trex, cuss words, beer, drill, etc.

Call the crew

You can do it alone, but having some help equals less cussin’ and more production! Plus, you’ll get to shred sooner.

Pump in your posts

Use a ballast pump to sink your posts. Attaching a four-foot PVC pole to the end of the pump hose will help you blast out a perfect hole for your post. "That's what she said!” I know that's what you pervs were thinking.

Keep it straight

To ensure a straight line, sink your first and last post and run a guideline in between.

Get motivated

Get out there and make it happen! It only takes a bit of effort to have a good solid rail that you can hit over and over again!