At just 357 acres with an average depth of 13 feet, Clear Lake, near the heart of Orlando, is about as unassuming as a lake can get. It is semicircular while also semisquare in shape, and despite its name, it is not clear. There are hundreds of lakes just like it throughout Central Florida, but Clear Lake has one large distinction over the rest: It is arguably the most important lake in wakeboarding’s history.
To get a clearer picture of Clear Lake’s colorful past, we spoke with some of the pros who currently call it home, as well as a few other experts. Current residents include Erik Ruck, Shane Bonifay, Jimmy LaRiche, Jeff Langley, Marc Rossiter and Collin Harrington (who recently moved out in January after living there for 14 years), and experts like former editor of WBM Kevin Michael, wakeskater Aaron Reed, and photographer Joey Meddock have spent countless hours on its water. The stories are hilarious, but the sentiment remains the same across the board: Living on Clear Lake has a certain vibe unlike any other lake in Orlando, or any other lake in the world, for that matter.
What makes living on Clear Lake particularly unique is the neighborhood built around it and the sense of community that neighborhood gives the riders who call it home. Much of the lake’s residential area is comprised of a series of canals that connect to the lake. From above, the canals look just like streets of water, giving residents backyard access to the main body. By boat or by land, if you live on Clear Lake, your neighbors are literally around the corner. For nearly 20 years a lot of riders have called those canals home — so many, in fact, that naming them all is probably impossible. But when you get a directory as long as Clear Lake’s past and present pros, it’s bound to have a significant impact on the sports.
“I’ve lived on Clear Lake for over 15 years now, and I think one of the coolest things about it is that it’s always been a worldwide refugee camp for wakeboarding and wakeskating misfits. A lot of dues have been paid, and a lot of guys have worked really hard to push themselves and the sport. It’s been really cool for me to watch; I’ve gone from a young rider pushing things myself, to a lake regulator trying to make sure guys are following the rules and staying in their lanes, to an elder statesman enjoying the show. The best part, though, is that everybody living here in the ’hood has always had each other’s backs, and we’ve had a lot of fun along the way.”
“It’s pretty crazy to see how generations have come and gone over the years. Even Adam Errington has moved out now and on to other things. Younger guys are starting to move in too. When I first moved to Clear Lake, I was intimidated about doing it because of the pros who’d been living there before me. I was looking at buying one of Daniel Watkins’ old houses, but before I bought it, I called Ruck to basically ask if it was cool if I moved onto the lake. He was the leader of Clear Lake at the time, and I didn’t want to piss him off by being the new kid in town poaching his turf. It was definitely funny going from living in Rusty Malinoski’s pool house in the country to living on Clear Lake. That’s how I learned about wakesurfing and lake parties!”
“I think I’ve lived here 13 years. … Sometimes I lose track — I spent a few in Clermont with Parks — but Clear Lake is part of who I am. The friends I’ve made and the sense of community that is here can’t be replaced or duplicated. Everybody is friends, and wakeboarding is only a phone call away. Or you do what I do and just drive your Jet Ski out to Jimmy’s G23 and make him pull you whenever you see his boat out on the lake.”
One of the defining characteristics of Clear Lake has more to do with where it’s located rather than who lives there. Just south of downtown Orlando, the main residential area of Clear Lake is less than 1 mile from the Orange County Jail, and much of the surrounding neighborhood is affectionately called “the ’hood.” While we’ve never heard stories of riders feeling totally unsafe or sketched out, let’s just say you wouldn’t want to get lost finding your way to Clear Lake at late hours of the night.
“Your view of Clear Lake all depends on which way you come into the Isle of Catalina where most of the houses are on the canals. You either come in the main entrance off the main road, and everything seems fine, or you come in off a side street and you pass some really sketchy gas stations and shops, and you feel like you’re in the middle of the ghetto.”
“If you ever have any industry people over to Clear Lake for the first time, like at Surf Expo or anything, they can get pretty wigged out. It’s funny, ’cause on one side you’ve got the ghetto, and on the other, just a few minutes away, is one of the nicest malls in Orlando with a bunch of great restaurants. The worst part is that Carl (Jimmy’s yellow Lab) howls at police sirens, and we hear those a lot …”
Because of the structure of Clear Lake’s neighborhood on the canals, life there for the riders is tight-knit and fun-loving. There are always guys to hang out with, and there is always something to do. But beyond hanging out and neighborhood vibes, Clear Lake is famous (and infamous) for some of its extracurricular activities. Much of the shenanigans in recent years have been documented via social media but, truth be told, the parties of today don’t hold a candle to those of yesteryear.
“Clear Lake is notorious for its parties, more so than any of the other Orlando lakes with multiple riders living on them. Shane Bonifay has had at least 40 birthday parties on Clear Lake. He’s not even 40, but he’s had at least 40 parties.”
“My birthday has always been the kickoff party of the season, of sorts. And it’s somehow become legendary. I don’t even invite or ask people to come anymore, it just happens every April 4. It’s my favorite things all combined in one day: Clear Lake, wakeboarding, friends, sun and partying.”
“The early days of Clear Lake are lucky there wasn’t social media to document the
shit show. I’m glad that we can just keep those as memories. But there have been some epic get-togethers out here. Feet on Fire was an annual barefoot contest Dan-O used to host when he lived with me. He and Watkins would get athletes from the wake, water-ski and show-ski worlds to come out, compete and have fun. Everybody looked forward to them, and it created a cool sense of community. And the after parties — and during parties — were pretty all-time.”
“My favorite party ever anywhere was the goodbye party we threw for Daniel Watkins when he and his family were moving back to Australia full-time. He was a legend in wakeboarding, obviously, but also a huge part of the Clear Lake community. We wanted to surprise him, so I had 50 or 60 people come hang out at my house while a couple guys took him out on a pontoon boat for ‘one last hangout cruise.’ Of course, the pontoon broke down while they were on the lake, and he arrived at my house two hours later than planned, so everybody there was already in full party mode, but when he came in, he was so surprised and started crying. We had a hell of a celebration that night. I’ll never forget it.”
What it always comes back to for our sports, though, is the riding, and Clear Lake has seen more than most. In fact, it could easily be argued that Clear Lake has more media coverage than any other body of water. From covers of magazines to video sections to dumb Instagram posts of bass fishing by riders not riding, Clear Lake has been part of everything. In fact, Clear Lake has played a more important role than most casual fans probably realize.
“Thomas Horrell was the first rider to move onto Clear Lake, and that was right as Cassette was getting started and growing in the early 2000s. We spent a lot of time out there. The majority of Sfumato was filmed on Clear Lake, and a lot of firsts went down there, so there is a lot of wakeskating history there. Danny Hampson did the first frontside flip, Thomas did the first frontside big spin, I did the first backside big spin — all the lines in the video, all on Clear Lake. What was funny looking back is that was right when all the Pointless guys were in their heyday too. They’d all come out onto the lake to party and wakesurf and send rollers everywhere. Thomas would get so fired up, and in typical Thomas fashion, it was pretty comical.”
“A lot has gone down on Clear Lake over the years. All the rails, all the photo shoots; there’s too much to list. But two things that stand out to me are Parks’ Double or Nothing and filming for Box of Fun. Double or Nothing was right at a time when guys were really charging off double-ups and doing cool stuff. That contest was fun and really progressive. And Box of Fun was just like it sounds. Making that video with all the Clear Lake crew was a blast.”
There are a lot of factors that come together to make Clear Lake the special, weird, iconic, fun-loving, ghettoish place it is. From its location and construction, to the riders who have ridden on it for the past 20 years, Clear Lake has seen a lot and provided even more for the progression and fun of wakeboarding and wakeskating. While generations of superstars and grind-it-out riders come and go, one thing will never change, and that is the lake itself and the sense of opportunity it provides for those looking to chase a dream in the Mecca of wakeboarding.
“Clear Lake can do two things for your career: It can either catapult it quickly, or it can trap you in the downtown scene. From there, you have a choice about what you want to do. Some guys have chosen wisely. Others, not so much.”