Five years ago, three outdoor adventure-loving siblings set out to create a wakeboard park armed only with YouTube videos and steely determination.
Mark, Steph and Sarah Harris always knew they wanted to create something special in their home county of Pembrokeshire – they just didn’t know exactly what.
Now the trio – all under the age of 33 – have expanded their dream to include a water park, a bouldering wall and a cafe bar along the wakeboard lake.
“If this had been here when we were kids it would have been our paradise,” said Steph, 27 and the youngest of the three.
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They are all university graduates – in podiatry, sports and social sciences and mechanical engineering. But Pembrokeshire has always been their home and they wanted to “give back to a community that had also given us so much growing up”.
Sarah, 32, agreed. “If we could think of anything to do, we knew we’d be back in Pembrokeshire,” she said. “It was about trying to put the idea together. We knew we wanted to come back. The opportunities just weren’t available, so it was about creating something ourselves.”
They did, starting with an empty field in the shadow of Bluestone and Oakwood. With little outside help, they dug a lake and built a clubhouse while watching how-to videos online.
Mark, now 29, came up with the idea while studying for his Masters in Engineering at Swansea University after seeing a similar park in Devon.
They hired a local company Locke Brothers to dig the lake, then had to do everything themselves – from laying the foundation and building the clubhouse frame to installing the toilets and build terraces. The theme of recycling and upcycling is strong and they just finished transforming a second shipping container into a cool and cozy bar area.
Sarah never lets her brother and sister forget the day she single-handedly carried 600 bricks through what they describe as “Shrek’s swamp” to Mark who patiently laid them down one by one. That first day set the stage for how the next eight months would unfold, Steph said: “Daunting, freezing cold, lots of mud and lots of hard work.”
Fortunately, none of them are afraid of hard work. To finance their dream, they all worked part-time evenings alongside the construction work.
Steph added: “It’s not a project that just happened. It’s a very personal project and we threw ourselves into it. Our idea was not just to have a wake park, but that the park is a community center that everyone can feel part of.”
As they head into the 2022 season, things have come a long way since those early days. There is now also a water park, on a second lake, while the newly opened bouldering wall is a bespoke creation by Mark with help from Walltopia. It offers an array of different routes, holds and incline sections and a cave area.
The plan is to reset road sections every two weeks to keep the wall fresh and interesting for locals. Once a month a guest route-setter will also create a new route to mix it up even more. It’s been a labor of love for Mark in particular, but it looks brilliant and, for the first time, allows the trio to employ full-time, year-round staff.
“We wanted to expand our seasonal business and make it more sustainable with the full-time job offer,” Mark explained. “A bouldering wall was the perfect winter alternative to wakeboarding and we have already seen many of our wakeboard members transition. Bouldering is a great sport and having an indoor center gives local climbers the opportunity during the winter to continue working on their skills and staying in shape.
Looking around the park, it’s hard to imagine the empty lot they started with. Mark, Sarah and Steph are proud of what they have achieved, but are particularly proud of the fact that they provide full-time, year-round jobs for locals. In high season, 30 people work on site.
One of them is their in-house chef who is quietly building a reputation for sending out delicious, high-end cuisine from his shipping container kitchen. The Harris trio successfully persuaded Ian Willson, the former head chef of the Slebech Park Hotel and Wolfscastle Country Spa, to work for them last summer after taking up wakeboarding at the park.
And, never content to sit still, the original clubhouse expanded last summer to the teepee. Nestled on the shores of the wake park lake, the double teepee was an idyllic spot to sample delicious local produce cooked over hot coals with fish tacos and grilled steaks mingling with the gentle hubbub of happy punters.
New for Spring 2022, yoga classes are designed to cater for all abilities and with a nod to surfing and rock climbing strength in particular. Held on the mezzanine level above the bouldering wall, it’s all part of the dream of building a community at the wake park.
“We’re not designers, professional wakeboarders, or even business people,” Steph said. “We are just three siblings who love mud, enjoy challenges and enjoy Pembrokeshire and the lifestyle it offers.” That’s an understatement and she underestimates their skills and determination.
When they started their adventure, they were all in their twenties and they were often fired or not taken seriously because of their age.
“Because we were under pressure at the time, we just let it go to achieve our goal,” Steph said. “Which in hindsight we shouldn’t have done. This happened in many situations, whether in meetings at the start, asking for advice or even in car garages when looking for ‘a company car. Due to our youth, we have often been overlooked or considered just another gimmick.
‘We have always had plans to grow the business but the main reason was to provide some of our excellent and loyal staff with full-time positions to keep talent in Pembrokeshire,’ she continued. “Often Pembrokeshire is seen as a seasonal destination, but there are visitors and especially locals in winter looking for places to go and new things to try. The addition of an indoor bouldering facility and of a yoga studio has allowed us to open during the winter as the water gets too cold.This also goes hand in hand with our new chef and restaurant which will also be open from February to December each year.
It wasn’t just the age hurdle they had to overcome – throughout their planning stages, initial marketing, or talking to potential clients, there always seemed to be a “grey area” when they were explaining why they were digging a lake and where the word ‘wake up’ was. ‘ or even the sport of ‘wakeboarding’ came into play.
Their favorite confusing moment came when an elderly couple honestly thought this was a burial site that held “revivals.”
Like many businesses, especially those that rely on seasonal tourists, they’ve had a rough, tough year or two. As the pandemic took hold, there were “heartbreaking setbacks and sleepless nights” – especially as 2020 was set to be their biggest year yet with the addition of the inflatable water park on a second lake.
“As a seasonal business, this hit us hard – we only had 71 days of operation in total between closures and uncertainties,” Steph said. Not that they were discouraged by this and decided it was time to completely overhaul their branding.
“Since opening in 2017, we have always planned new ideas and adventures – we are entrepreneurs by nature, not just by name,” Steph continued. “Each year brought new additions, some bigger than others, but with a lot of corruption behind the scenes that people often don’t see. Without being on the cutting edge of new ideas and additions, we would get lost in translation “As a small family it’s even more important to stand out among a crowd of companies – we want to put Pembrokeshire on the map for all the right reasons.”
They had built something more than just a wake park and decided that Wild Lakes was more suited to their USP. “We want visitors to realize that Wild Lakes is a place where anyone can unleash their nature – no matter what version,” they explained. “If your savage tries a different flavored tea, switches to HP instead of ketchup, jumps from the highest point in the water park, or gets attached to a wakeboard and stands up for the first time, then too bad.”
They are just coming out of their first winter after remaining open throughout. Even so, it wasn’t without his struggles with Storm Arwen wreaking havoc and completely destroying both of their tipis and Omicron forcing them to close the restaurant for a short time.
“We had a soft opening of the bouldering wall for the last two weeks leading up to Christmas and now we’ve reopened with yoga coming soon,” Steph said. “The restaurant followed in February and our water sports will reopen at the end of March. We are really enjoying our first winter still in operation. We are also planning to have live music events as they have gone so well over the fall and we hope to hold a spring fair.”
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