BEN MERRELL – HYDROFLIGHT SPORTS
Photos courtesy of Randy Borrell Photography
This story will hold different meaning to the people within the vertical water sports community and our H2RO readers from around the world. It will even resonate with the global Flyboard Family very differently depending on what each individual has heard, read, seen or imagined. It will not shock anyone to read that there are many diverse visions for the future of our industry and sports. Sure there are a few basic common wants, we all want there to BE a future, we would each like to reach some level of success that allows us to continue to fly and bring these experiences to as many other people as possible but how we achieve this differs. The differences live within everyone who have sacrificed and passionately continue to give of themselves in order to be part of something extraordinary. We have all fallen in love but sometimes love is blind, dangerous and interrupted by fits of rage.
It sort of makes me think of the difference between falling in love when you’re 15 and falling in love when you’re 40. Both are equally real and meaningful to the person involved but two 15 year olds will quickly experience a great deal of self exploration, discovery and change, much of which will not be on each individuals radar at all. This is the world of Hydroflight Sports. If we were mature and well established then it would likely be more like falling in love when you’re 40. Still exciting to dive in and certainly you do risk having your heart broken but the individuals in this case have a much broader and stable foundation from which to analyze and calculate their ‘feelings’.
I’ve been going through my own self exploration recently with the launch of H2RO but have quickly grown comfortable with my realization that the world of vertical water sports is diverse, exciting, and most certainly headed in a direction for long-term success. Precedents set by every other popular sport on the planet make this a ‘stating the obvious moment’ and yet still when you’re making decisions that affect business goals and personal relationships it can be unnerving.
In most tales there is usually one individual who is a catalyst for change. They are admired, hated, revered, supported and bashed both privately and publicly even when what they have done or are doing to cause this change is relatively ordinary. One such individual, who if you been reading our magazine you know him well, is Ben Merrell. Currently ranked #9th on our H2RO Hydroflight World Rankings Ben was the first athlete, that H2RO knows of, to reach a level of public awareness as a Pro Flyboarder and then become affiliated with a hydroflight product not created by Zapata Racing. As an athlete centric magazine it makes sense that we would share Ben’s flying on whichever ride he happens to be on but the fact we were publishing at that time under the name ‘Flyboard Magazine’ meant that it was not appropriate content. So Ben’s transition went on while our audience remained in the dark. Some of you saw Ben beginning to fly on the Jetblade and must have wondered why the heck we weren’t writing about his new videos and media appearances ( some of you let us know of your confusion too).
So with the launch of H2RO Magazine it made sense to go back and attempt to revisit this void in our relationship with Ben. I want this post to reconnect our readers with Ben and give him a chance to share his journey over the last year. Below is what he wrote in response to my invitation.
Ben Merrell – April 2015
Our sport has come a long way since I saw the first YouTube video of Franky back in early 2012. I’m very excited to see the sport grow and things are beginning to evolve. Last year when I competed at the 2014 North American Flyboard Championship I received a lot of feedback. I have built a relationship with many of the top riders and business people involved in Hydroflight and it’s actually pretty common for us to ask questions about how things are done and where they’re going. We all have ideas and some of them are really good. One of the things I did after the competition was form a small group called the Association of Competitive Flyers. I wanted everyone to really think about what could make the competitions better and I know you (Blaine) did a lot of work in developing a trick list which I believe is key. We are all still learning and need to be open to change. The flyers involved with the group had some amazing suggestions and I’ve read the new rules and judging criteria for the upcoming N.A Championship in Louisiana and I am thrilled to see that steps are being taken. It was a great competition back in 2014 and I think it will only get better.
Not too long after the Flyboard event in Toronto I also paired up with Jeff Elkins to develop a wireless remote throttle. We all know the wired ones were a constant work in progress and I was using it a lot so we wanted a solution. I’m not bashing Zapata Racing, I think what Franky has done is amazing and completely understand that the first version of anything is not going to be perfect. The problem I had was that I needed a remote constantly and the rumor was that Zapata Racing was developing one that would send signal above and below water. Jeff and I decided to move forward with our own version that promoted aerial flight and allowed for limited underwater maneuvers.
Unfortunately, our intentions were not received well and it led to a falling out with ZR. On the positive side, I was communicating with Stratospheric Industries about their new Jetblade, and when the door seemed to be closing in the Flyboard world a new path was opening with the Jetblade. I know there are a lot of rumors out there and I am not really interested in bringing it all back up. I will say that a conditional opportunity to rejoin the Flyboard community was offered, but I was unwilling to give up my Jetblade and the relationship I have formed with all the people involved. I believe it was Gretchen Vance who brought up brand loyalty and sense of family or community with these products and I agree completely. That is what I have over at Jetblade. I have nothing against anyone who flies any other product. In fact, I have recently got involved with the Jetovator and will be the first to call myself out for being a doubter. I had formed an opinion about it before ever even seeing it in person. I can now tell you it is an absolute blast. There is going to be some very cool stuff involving all of these products coming out this year. I am pushing Hydroflight as the sport and all these products have a place, and it’s ok to support the one of your choosing.
I am actually hoping to compete in the North American Flyboard Championship this year. I know the competition will be fierce and I hope I get a chance to fly with the best. (Ben is a confirmed competitor for the 2015 NAFBC)
Over the last year I have gone all over the US, Istanbul, Dubai, Mexico, and Shanghai all because of this sport. I am truly blessed and want to do what I can to see it succeed. I love helping those who are just getting involved or trying to take their game to the next level. When I can’t compete with these incredible flyers anymore I hope I can coach or judge or find some way to provide relevancy. I can see myself doing this forever. Since the end of last summer I have had a blast flying the Jetblade and continuing to develop the wireless throttle for our company Flytronics. We have only released a handful of prototypes and have used the feedback to create what I really believe is the ultimate product for solo flight. Just like the boards are now evolving at an incredible rate, I know that what Jeff has created with the light suits and the remote will continue to develop and blow people away.
H2RO Interview with Ben Merrell
H2RO) Ben, H2RO is currently working on an interview with Shaw Norris of Stratospheric Industries and he will be educating our readers on the technical specifications of their products but from an athletes perspective share with us what the Jetblade has brought to your game and how your flying has evolved because of it?
The Jetblade has made a huge difference. What may seem like a few small changes has really opened up what I can do in the air. Obviously there is the spins which don’t bind the hose and allow you to climb vertically with almost no loss in power, but it’s the ease of use and the ability to travel in any direction with speed that really make it fun to fly. It has given more variety for what can be done on these devices, so I am always trying new tricks and combos.
H2RO) I was very happy to hear that you had registered for the 2015 North American Flyboard Championship and I’m also glad to hear that the feedback you had been gathering since Toronto is somewhat reflected in our rule, format and judging changes. My question is how would you like to see the various hydroflight devices brought together in competition? What are your thoughts on categorization, trick scoring and judging?
Maybe I’m way out there, and I have caught a glimpse of what it takes to pull these events off. Hats off to those who do it, they do not get enough credit. That being said, I would love to see an event that had multiple platforms. Why not have a pack vs. board vs. jetovator? Award the highest scoring of each and an overall winner. I’m not saying every event should be like this, but I think a big Hydro-everything competition would be a lot of fun. We are all a bunch of crazy people who use jet powered water to go up a hose as high as we can. We have enough haters out there already, anyone with any type of similar interest should get along. We are one community, have your own family within it, but remember we are all facing the same obstacles and we need to unite.
It is my understanding ZR is planning on making a new board that has independent feet so I think there is no issue with having an open board competition. Look if yours doesn’t do what everybody else’s does than catch up. Competitions will help develop what works best and what does not. As far as judging, I think the next competition is on the right track. Take a notepad and write down what worked and what didn’t and we will keep making it better.
H2RO) Ben, in Toronto you were stoked to pull off your 720 double (see video below) and I’m curious how your flying has progressed and what we might see from you in Shreveport this June?
Well, for a long time my whole focus was perfecting the double. In Toronto I think my downfall came from the pause I still had during any double attempt. Props to Damone Rippy who I believe has the best double in the game. For me it is about being fluid and in control while being upside down 40 feet in the air. I have been working on a new strategy which I will play close to the chest, but my team and I have been working hard to make sure we make a statement when we fly.
H2RO) Finally, with where you are at now and looking back on how you got here is there anything(s) you would have done differently either professionally or personally?
I am very happy with where I am at now but I don’t like how everything came about. I made every decision with the thought “What is going to make me sleep easier.” The only thing I have ever questioned is if I should have talked to Franky about developing a remote, and with hindsight I am still fine with my original decision . I told Franky that I would never blame him for my failure nor would I rely on him for my success. I have no intention of tip toeing around this industry and I’m sure I’ll make enemies along the way, I just hope to make more friends.
Ben thanks for this interview and as a fan of our sport I really do look forward to the day when the sport and the business of Hydroflight have separated enough to allow for our athletes to shine, sponsors to swoon and big all inclusive competitions to become staples of the mainstream extreme sport landscape. Looking forward to seeing you fly again in Louisiana!
BEN MERRELL 2015 XDubai Flyboard World Cup Highlights
JETBLADE BY X-JETS
UPDATE: Check out the teaser from Randy Borrell’s final Hydroflight project:
Hydroflight Athlete: The Ben Merrell Documentary
H2RO was proud to contribute video content to the project. Have a look and then read our recent interview with Randy here.