In this episode Oli Russell-Cowan chats to pro wakeboarder Jeff McKee. He specializes in water entertainment taking the buzz of ‘lake life’ to the next level.
Growing up in Orlando, Jeff had the ideal stomping ground to get into water sports. He now lives in Charleston, SC and takes his family out on the water at least once a day. When his twins were 2 years old, they wouldn’t stay in the boat while he went surfing. So they joined him for a ride, on his shoulders!
Jeff is the Co-Founder of Adventure IO, an app where you can find next-level outdoor adventures hosted by verified pro athletes and local experts. Being a Professional Athlete for Slingshot Wakeboards, he is also their brand manager. For Jeff, it’s all about adventure inspiration and spending time outdoors with his family and friends.
We spoke about what it was like growing up in Florida and those early days being a grom and wakeboarding. How Jeff turned pro and what the reason was behind starting his company Adventure IO. We get the lowdown on all the rad outdoor adventures on the platform and what experiences and projects they have coming up.
Oli Russell-Cowan: Hi guys, it’s Oli from Rad Season. I’m excited to be joined today by professional wakeboarder and Co-Founder of Adventure IO. Jeff McKee. Jeff, thanks for coming on the show dude.
Jeff: Thanks for having me. I’m stoked to be here.
Oli: Whereabouts are you at the moment?
Jeff: I am in Charleston, South Carolina, in my office, which sort of feels like a jail cell five months into this whole COVID situation. I’m here every day and just hustling man. Trying to get out on the boat when I can and enjoy the weather, but pretty much permanently docked here until further notice.
Oli: What’s the situation been like? Can you leave the state?
Jeff: I mean, it’s America, man. Nobody can take our freedom away, right.
You can go anywhere you want and there’s no shortage of people out there just all over the place, which is probably somewhat of the reason right now that we’re having trouble getting this thing under control.
There’s capacity restrictions for restaurants and stuff like that. We’re looking at some states shutting back down. The only thing I’ve really noticed you know, we’re lucky enough where I am out in the country. I’ve got a boat on the water and we’ve got enough space out here to kind of stay sane with my twins here at home they are seven years old and my wife.
I’ve only done one trip really since this whole COVID thing. I went down to Florida to do a quick photoshoot with Nautique Boats. In Florida they had a checkpoint when driving south where you have to go in. It was like an hour delay. I’m like, you know what’s gonna happen here? They just asked what state you’re coming from. I said South Carolina, which at the time was one of the worst states and they’re like, come on in. It’s one of those things were you’re like what state are they not letting in know.
That’s the current state of it with really no end in sight, it seems right now.
Oli: Didn’t you grow up in Florida?
Jeff: I did. So I was born and raised there and then lived there all the way up until 32 years old. I’m 35 now so spent a couple years here in Charleston. But yeah, Florida boy at heart.
Oli: Was that where you got into wakeboarding? When did that all begin.
Jeff: I’ve got an older brother, who’s two years older than me and we grew up in Central Florida. So we were on a lake right in the backyard. That’s one of the coolest things about Florida there’s all these there’s lakes literally everywhere. When you fly over Orlando, all you see is the sun reflecting off the water, like, you know, there’s just little bits of land in between all this water. So there’s tons of waterfront you know, lakefront homes with docks on the water. We were lucky enough to grow up on a lake.
At 10 years old we realized we were tired of sitting on the baseball field and just getting beat up by the sun at practice and stuff. Our neighbors had a wakeboard, it was a skurfer back then so it looked like a surfboard with little bungee straps on it. They were doing it and we couldn’t resist trying. Once we did, it was just like, oh man, this is way more fun, we can be in the water and do it on our own terms.
So I’d say I started about 10 years old and that’s literally full focus for my brother and I. We would come home from school every day and get in our little 12 foot little aluminium fishing boat with an outboard motor on it, and we just take turns towing each other around the lake and that was it.
Oli: Did you look for sponsorship around then? When did you think, I could probably take this a little bit more seriously now?
Jeff: I think I was actually 13 years old when I got the first sponsorship deal. Wakeboarding back then in 1996-98 wakeboarding only started in the mid 80s so it was still young. We were really one of the first generations of younger wakeboarders, groms at the time and it was super easy to get sponsored.
My Dad had an over the shoulder camcorder that shot to VHS tape. We’d go out and shoot a couple. I could do a tantrum, which is a backflip. That was my first invert and once you get one invert, they all start coming pretty quick. You would mail a VHS tape off to a brand and that’s kind of how you got your gig.
‘Their like, this kid’s 13 and he can flip we’ll take him.’
So that was kind of how it started. Orlando was the mecca of wakeboarding at that time if you were a pro wakeboarder or trying to become one. It’s still the same case today, you would go to Florida because you can wakeboard all year round.
My favorite time in Florida is September to April. The winter down there is the best time. The summer you’re kind of walking around asking yourself what the hell you’re doing there. You’d be sweating taking the garbage out at midnight but the winter months are incredible. That’s why so many people end up there.
We did have some connection to a couple of pro wakeboarders at the time that we’re on neighboring lakes, etc. They kind of mentored us, took us out and taught us what they knew. It was cool. we were under the wing of a couple of the right people as well.
Oli: I remember when we spoke a while back and you’re saying when people think of Florida, they just think of Disney and the amusement parks and there’s so much more that you can do there, right?
Jeff: Oh, yeah. People always ask us, you live in Orlando you must go to Disney all the time. I’ve been like, twice. You’ve probably been more than me traveling from other countries.
There’s amazing stuff there. The chain of lakes in Windermere. There’s a lot of different chain of lakes. Windermere is the area where I grew up, and there’s 13 lakes all connected together, all freshwater spring fed lakes. There’s tons of water based activities. When I got older, I moved over to the other side of town to another chain of lakes and it’s just a great way to spend you’re time. Whether wakeboarding seriously or just out on the weekend with friends pulling up at a sandbar or something like to relax. There’s a lot of cool things to see.
‘Some of the canals are connecting all these different waterways. It feels like a natural amusement park’
Then beyond that, there’s cool things like freshwater springs where it’s crystal clear water and all that. We always did our best to stay away from from Disney. It was either you go on the boat and get in the water or you go to the beach, which was only an hour drive from Orlando where we lived. So if there’s good waves you’d be over there. Basically everything was in the water though.
Oli: Why did you decide to move?
Jeff: Family. I got married and met my wife down in Florida. She was raised here in Charleston, South Carolina and our family lives here today. As we had our twin children we had a boy and a girl, and they’re now seven, which I can’t believe. Quickly we’re just Holy cow, we need as much help as we can and realized grandparents want to see their grandbabies. My wife rides horses and that’s another reason. We had access to come up here to be close to a farm, she can get on horses and do all that.
I was ready for a change and if you’re in Florida and you’re not in the water, it’s pretty miserable. That was her case she’s in Florida and wanted to ride horses and she’s just like, oh my god, it’s hot down here.
I had sacrificed a bit to come up here. Not having access to fresh water is a little bit more challenging but also really fun. The boating up here is really different man, it’s like a different adventure every time. We can go to this beach on this island in the south of us. The kids can hunt for shark’s teeth and if there’s a little bit of a wave they can surf. There’s not a great swell here but you know it’s still a beach. The majority of my surfing I still do behind the boat even though I’m up here on the coast.
There’s downtown which is kind of a cool historic European feel and can be down there with big container ships passing by. It’s just a different type of boating. We’re definitely a smaller fish in the pond up here but it’s fun. In Florida you when you go boating you go out for like one hour and you practice your tricks. When you go boating in South Carolina where I am, you load up the cooler and you invite friends. It’s kind of an all day affair, which is fun, and it’s more inclusive for the family and more exciting for everybody. I think.
Oli: Did you did you get the twins involved as well?
Jeff: Yeah, they love going on the boat.
My son’s been dabbling a bit more than my daughter. She’s really brave on land and then as soon as we get on the water, so she kind of gets locked up. But she’ll surf with me. Both of them all day long will be like Dad, let’s surf and they want me to hold them. They want to hang on my back or sit on my shoulders while we’re trying to surf the wave. That was fine up until like six years old. Literally over the weekend, I was holding my daughter and I’m like, I can’t do this. You’re like 55 pounds now hanging on my neck while I’m trying to keep rolling here.
My son’s getting a bit more brave and adventurous and getting on the board himself. He’s mostly laying on his stomach or going to his knees, and he’ll stand up every now and then. But I’m just trying to keep it fun. I’m not going to pressure him.
I didn’t even start till I was 10. So they’ve already got a head start over where I was at. Most important for me is just that they have fun out there and they’re not getting mad at me for trying to force them to do something. The less I push, the more they seem to enjoy it. So trying to roll that route and see how it develops.
Oli: Where did the idea and the inspiration for Adventure IO came about?
Jeff: We’ve been lucky in wakeboarding. Even though it’s the smallest of the action sports you still have some amazing opportunities. It is growing pretty big with things like wave surfing and the hydrofoil and all that coming into play now. We got to travel and still do get to go everywhere and meet awesome people that are excited to have you right.
Australia for example, is probably my favorite trip. I don’t know when it’ll happen again and the current state. I used to go every year on my birthday and working with Slingshot wakeboard brand that I’ve been team managing and now brand managing. You’d land and people would be excited to pick you up like, oh, Jeff’s come in, he’s a pro wakeboarder we’re going to take him out and show him the best spot to go wakeboarding. If he likes to surf, we’ll take him to wherever is the best point.
You just always felt VIP and had somebody chauffeuring you around. That’s a really cool feeling, especially when you’re somewhere like halfway across the world. To land and be welcomed and have friends there. So many people don’t have that connection. That was I guess the start of it.
We started the app in partnership with my brother who’s the cofounder. He’s a bit older and he was also a pro wakeboarder. But he got out and into the real world in his early 20s.
Over the years he started to lose all those connections of people that were like, oh, ‘here comes Billy the pro wakeboarder’. He turned into a little bit more of an average guy. So he’d get off the plane and he’s like, shit, nobody’s here to pick me up like nobody’s here to show me around.
So he’d called me all the time. Like, Hey, I’m going here. Do you know anybody? He wanted that same VIP kind of experience. He ended up doing really well in his previous businesses and some of them had to do with apps and technology platforms.
We were on a family trip, we went to Montana. We were stuck. We’re like, man, we’re the tourist people trapped here. So that’s kind of where it came up. It was like, man, I know, there are people in this town that are just like us and probably have amazing equipment, access, knowledge and we just don’t know how to find them.
‘There’s got to be an easier way to connect all these cool action sports opportunities and experiences and people in one platform.’
So that’s kind of where we were just sitting around having beers at the end of one day on that trip and like, let’s do it. Which was crazy, you know, it’s like, oh my god, we’re gonna do it. We’re going start this.
That was a couple of years ago. We went live in the app store in April of 2019. So we’re just a little over a year of technically being live.
It’s been really cool so far. We’ve met so many awesome people, like our connections of like minded people around the globe has increased tenfold in the last year just recruiting and connecting with people. It’s working, it’s awesome. To put somebody out with a world champion wakeboarder and have them write you a note saying this was the best day our families ever had, thank you for setting this up.
It’s a really cool feeling to pair people with these elevated experiences. People who might be a fan of, or whatever the case is. Just send them out there and have something that’s next level.
Oli: Cool. Did it start off primarily looking at action sports activities and outdoor adventures? Coming from a wakeboarding background did you start with wakeboarding and then expanded from there?
Jeff: To be completely honest as I get older and wakeboarding is awesome, but I think if I could do it all over again, surfing is even better to me. I love to go surf. It’s just such a fun, cool experience and something you can do till you’re much older.
We started based on watersports. Wakeboarding is easy because we know everybody. So that’s obviously we’ll get that rolling. We’ve made our focus from the start that we need to branch out quickly into other sports. So that we don’t get labeled as just this wakeboarding app.
We do love to wakeboard, but we love to do anything that’s outside. So kind of the number one rule was like, hey, anything under the sun that gets your blood flowing and gets the adrenaline flowing is the key. There’s stuff out there right, like say a kayak tour or something like that which you kind of don’t want to be caught doing. You know there’s better options and experiences than that.
That was the key. Let’s pull you out of the herd of just being treated as a typical tourist and give you something that feels more exclusive. Especially now, more private. Maybe it’s just your family and one guide and that guide is more of a local.
For example, I’m taking people out this week to go learn to hydrofoil and taking people out to paddleboard on the creek here which is a little bit softer or mellow of an experience. They’re going out with a brand rep which is me, as opposed to just some guy running standard paddleboard tours who doesn’t care and only want to get back to the dock at five o’clock and get rid of these people.
It’s more of a fun experience not only for the guests but for the guide as well. I’m sharing one of my favorite things to do with my family with somebody else who’s come into town and wants to get the inside look at what the area has to offer.
Oli: Cool. You’ve been testing a few of these experiences out as well I’ve heard. Didn’t you go on a surf trip to Costa Rica?
Jeff: The end of 2019 was great before we got locked in.
From Costa Rica I came home for a couple days and then went straight off to Maui. There’s a lot of fun work trips coming our way whenever we can travel a little bit more freely here. Costa Rica, for example, we went down to Guanacaste which is right near Tamarindo. We spend a week with our buddy Clay McCutcheon, who’s a guide on the app now. His company’s called Walk on Water Adventures and he’s a specialist in that area. So we booked him and we’re just like, Hey, we’re coming down, we want to know everything about this experience. We had Sam August join us, the son of Robert August, from the Endless Summer. That was really cool to be able to surf with him and hear his story.
You basically cut out all the BS that you don’t want to deal with on a trip. Even down to driving in Costa Rica. Every trip to a beach that we took was probably half the time with those guys in charge as it would have been if we went down there cold and just tried to figure it out. We’d probably have the vehicle stuck in a river and have half the day gone and missed a surf session.
Whereas you’re with them and they’re like, they know all the short cuts. They’re zooming around and boom, here we go, the tides right, the winds right, this is your spot for the day.
‘It was rad. We surfed more than I’ve ever surfed on any surf trip in that week down there’.
We got to go out to Witch’s Rock, and experience that firsthand, which is one of the famous kind of scenes from the Endless Summer movie. It was rad man to be here kind of living it and we’re with the guy whose last name is August. This is the real deal.
Oli: Did you have any other trip you guys had planned before this all happened?
Jeff: Honestly, we’re kind of in the event mode coming into spring but a lot of things changed and canceled etc. Even some of our guides like in Costa Rica for example. Clay came out of there for a bit because it was locked down.
We’re focusing now quite a bit more on local opportunities and experiences.They are hotspots for activity in Florida, California. Here in South Carolina where I’m at is a great one. Hawaii as well. We’ve got them pretty well loaded out with guides and opportunities.
We’re just putting together all sorts of stuff. You might live in Southern California but you’ve never been to Catalina Island you know, like that’s the trip you have to take and you can do it without getting on a plane. Or in Florida you can go paddle board or go dive in the springs with a Padi certified freedive guide and do things that are nearby that you would have never done before.
It’s been really interesting and especially in this last month or two to see people. You can tell everybody’s going stir crazy and they have got to get out and do something to change up the routine that we’re all stuck in right now.
Everybody’s home every weekend, which for me is great. I’ve never been home this much and explored around all this much. To avoid blending every day together, it’s like this weekend we’re gonna go surf with somebody special or we’re gonna go dive or go mountain biking do something different to mix it up. We’ll wear a mask we’ll stay six feet apart or whatever we have to do but we’ll get out there.
Oli: The good thing with all this is it’s not like being inside all together. You can go mountain biking with someone you can keep your distance and you’re out in nature anyway.
Jeff: That’s kind of the biggest thing. We’ve been super lucky. It definitely went quiet for a while. At the start of this whole thing it was crickets basically. I think everybody was scared and locked in. Now it’s like, okay, life is going to go on, we are stuck in this and we definitely have to stop this somehow. Luckily, people are wearing masks way more and doing all those precautions and taking the small groups thing way more seriously.
You can limit your exposure pretty easily. Say it’s just your family plus one guide, right. You mask up and keep your distance, go for a shaka instead of a high five. You can still get something done that’s fun and enjoy life. We have to do that through all this.
Oli: Are there any experiences that are on your bucket list that you want to do? Either anything locally or just around the States?
I’m fascinated by the free dive stuff. We went to Maui before the shutdown. We went out with one of our guides down there a freediver from Hawaii. Benjamin Zyons is his name. We went and we were just off the coast of Lahina. It was awesome man, being with people who are good at diving and comfortable and they know how to sense when something’s wrong. It makes you feel way more confident. I can go down there and I can sit and hang out and they’ve all got their eyes on me and being around their professionalism and their expertise just makes you step up immediately. You know it’s Okay, cool. This guy just dove to the ocean floor at 100 feet down and he was there and he didn’t come back for like three minutes.
I’m not going that far but I’d like to maybe get a minute you know. That was really cool.
The free dive stuff is really cool and interesting to me. Especially as it kind of helps relate to surfing for example, like getting tossed around in a wipeout or whatever and being held down and learning how to be be comfortable there.
A Shark dive would be awesome. I guess I kind of go back and forth on that one, but just seems like something that would really get the blood flow and as far as being being fun. Something that would be cool on the bucket list to say you’ve done.
My favorite thing to do right now is to go to tow-in foil. As long as it’s not breaking on the foil, it’s like snowboarding down a mountain.
Oli: I’ve never tried hydrofoiling. I’ve always wanted to give it a crack.
Jeff: Your typically in Portugal, right? That’s kind of home base for you?
Oli: Yeah, we’re in based in Lisbon.
Jeff: There’s a lot of guys even out in Nazare and stuff that are starting. There’s people foiling all over the place out there lately it seems like.
‘It’s fun. It feels like snowboarding in powder.’
On the ocean swell you’re kind of on this endless mountain. You’re moving along with it. Yeah. To me, it’s the coolest feeling. I’m super jealous, there’s been some of my friends that have been locked down in Hawaii. I’m trapped here another couple months with the virus, so I’ll be foiling every day, you know. That’s the top dog right now. If I go anywhere, do anything. It’s that.
Oli: Are you doing a bit of wakesurfing as well? With the boats advancing is that getting more popular would you say?
Jake: Absolutely. 2014 maybe was the first year around that time the surf system came out for the boats, which is just like a plate system which pops out on either side of the corners of the boat. This helps make a super clean curling wave on one side of the boat.
They started out about knee high. It was easy and fun but the wave was small, right. Then all sudden the wave was up to your thigh. Now it’s probably waste high. They just keep figuring out the boats and dial them in better and better.
The boat brand that I work with and we have a partnership with them Nautique is kind of leading the charge on it all and they have a new boat called ‘The Paragon’ which has the biggest wave I’ve ever served behind a boat.
I usually ride a little twin fin, four six surfboard, and you know it’s enough like it’s enough traction I got on that Paragon boat I was like, ‘Oh my god, I think I need a third fin, I’m a squirrely mess here.’ Just because we never had that much power. It’s a steep waist up wave, you can pop off of it. You can go fast like, you know.
‘It was the first time I wake surfed and my legs were kind of shaking like that was rad.’
I really want to do more of that. I need an extra fin just to help me keep my keep my shit together.
Oli: What are you guys working on at the moment? Is there any new even new outdoor adventures and experiences coming up with adventure IO?
Jeff: We’ve got a couple new resort partnerships, which is a really cool opportunity and avenue that we’ve been working hard on. So one in particular that we’re doing all the programming for has locations all over the US and Maui and so we’re putting together some really high level kind of epic experiences or adventures for them.
One of them for example in Maui, you go out from Maui to the island of Molokai which is often just off in the distance of Maui basically. So at that this particular resort if you’re looking right at Molokai. You can take a helicopter over there, jump on the boat with a world champion paddleboard Connor Baxter cruise around the island. The island has the tallest sea cliffs in the world. Connor is super epic Hawaiian adventure right and you’re with the world champion paddleboarder exploring the shore you know, snorkeling etc. Then there’s a private lunch with the only local chef. He’s a celebrity chef on the island, private lunch with him on the west end of Molokai on this private beach. It’s one of those things where it’s like holy cow.
‘Everybody else is at the pool all day and we went out and just experienced wild, rugged, Hawaii’
Doing some cool stuff like that. I think I mentioned like some Catalina trips and working between brand partnerships and resort partnerships to just put together some really cool different experiences.
So when you go on your next family vacation, right, and you’re sitting there thinking like, gosh, you know, what’s happening outside of the walls of this resort. We’ve got some epic opportunities for you to be able to go out and experience the area with somebody special. Then come back tick it off the list and say we did that place right.
Oli: What’s the best way for people to follow you find out what’s going on.
Jeff: Obviously social everything’s there.
On Instagram, myself, I’m Jeff McKee. And then Adventure IO. On the web, we’ve got our live web app for adventures, www.adventure.app.io to see what we’re doing and find some rad opportunities to mix it up and get out there.
Oli: Cool. It’s been fun talking to you Jeff. Look forward to seeing what experiences you guys have going on.
Jeff: Absolutely, man. We look forward to doing some fun stuff together. When everybody’s ready to jump back on the planes and mix up a bit more. I’m sure you’re allowed to come to America, we’re probably just not allowed to leave right now.
I doubt anybody wants us coming their way.
Oli: I did a road trip through Europe. We drove from Portugal across to Germany. That was interesting, you know, the different regulations and rules when you’re going into Spain and in France. So yeah, we just got to see what happens.
Jeff: As with most things, it seems that Europe has it together, right. And then we’re just wild.
Oli: I don’t know about that. It depends where you go 😉
Jeff: Well, we’re going to get through it. Life is gonna go on hopefully sooner than later. We’re pretty well positioned with the sports that we we do and love. We’re just gonna have to be conscious of know, following the proper procedures, I guess.
Appreciate it, man. Thanks for having me.
Missed the last episodes? Check them out!
Episode 12: Bucket List – Robin Esrock
Episode 13: Wisdom of Ageism – Chip Conley
Episode 14: Running the World – Nick ButterLast updated on Sep 10, 2020
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