Before we talk about how to tow a wakeboarder, let’s make sure we’re all on the same wavelength.
Wavelength. Oh yeah, pun right in the first line, baby.
Wakeboarding is a watersport much like water skiing, in which a participant rides a single broad, short board over the water while being towed by a boat.
The sport has only been around since the 1970s, as it was inspired by the modern activity of snowboarding.
Much like water skiing has parallels with snow skiing, so too does wakeboarding have similarities with snowboarding and with surfing.
More on that below.
The first wakeboarders called themselves skurfers, blending the words “ski” and “surf” together. The sport was likely pioneered in Australia and began with homemade equipment used by freewheeling adventurers like Bruce McKee.
By the early 1980s, wakeboarding was gaining adherents worldwide, with professionally-made boards being churned out for an eager market.
The Basics of the Wakeboard
Yes, sometimes water skiing is done on a mono-ski, so you might think it’s very similar to wakeboarding.
Even so, wakeboarding is distinct from water skiing—no matter how many skis are at play—chiefly in that the wakeboarder stands with one foot in front of the other. This is much the same orientation that one uses on a skateboard, snowboard or surfboard.
Most wakeboards are made of a lightweight foam coated with fiberglass and/or resin. The rider tucks their feet into a pair of large boots affixed to the board and hangs onto a handle attached to a long wakeboard tow rope (check price on Amazon).
As for the shape and size of the board, that depends on the rider and their desired ride style—but more on that in a bit.
The Gear You Need to Tow a Wakeboarder
If you’re going to tow a wakeboarder, you need four pieces of gear without exception. (Well, five if you want to count the boat itself.)
The first is, obviously, a wakeboard. You should be able to get a decent wakeboard with the bindings included for around $150. A very good option, like the 56-inch Hydroslide Wakeboard (check price on Amazon), will cost just a bit more.
Selecting the right wakeboard for a given rider should be determined by the type of ride desired. The “rocker” refers to the shape of the board.
There are continuous rockers that are comprised of one smooth, continuous bottom curve and three-stage rockers, in which a more pronounced bend demarcates the leading and tail edges from the main underbody of the board.
Shorter, wider boards with three-stage rockers are generally better for tricks and jumps, while longer, narrower boards with continuous rockers are better for higher speeds and sharper turns.
Beyond the board, you absolutely must have a personal flotation device (check price on Amazon) for every wakeboarder, and these devices must be rated as lifesaving. See our complete guide to PFDs here for more information.
It doesn’t matter if the person you’re towing is an Olympic-gold-medal-winning swimmer, he or she must wear a lifejacket while wakeboarding. The best swimmer who ever lived can’t keep afloat after being knocked unconscious, and while that’s unlikely to happen, that’s possible with this sport.
To that end, it’s also highly recommended that all wakeboarders wear a helmet while being towed. A lightweight hard-shelled helmet like the Triple Eight Water Halo (check price on Amazon) won’t reduce the enjoyment of your ride at all, but it might keep you from being knocked out as you topple over after a big jump or a trick gone wrong.
To attach the board to the boat, you’ll need that long wakeboard tow rope that we mentioned earlier. You need a good non-stretch tow rope with a handle, and ideally you’ll select one that’s at least 60 feet long. Click to see an excellent wakeboard rope option here (check price on Amazon).
What Kind of Boat Can Tow a Wakeboarder?
Any boat that can muster a speed of 15 miles per hour will be enough to provide a wakeboarder with a fun, exciting ride, so almost any boat with a motor can be used.
And, for the record, many jet skis do have enough muscle to tow a wakeboarder.
Pontoon boats in particular make great vessels for towing wakeboarders thanks to having ample room for gear, floor space and seating for plenty of riders and for the boat’s ease of control, which allows the captain to provide just the right kind of towing experience.
How to Tow a Wakeboarder Behind Your Boat
1. Go at a Safe Speed for Wakeboard Towing
You’ll probably want to move at a minimum speed of around 12 miles per hour to get a wakeboarder up on top of the water and cruising along.
Towing a wakeboarder faster than 23 or 24 miles per hour is generally not advised, so you really don’t need a super high-powered speed boat.
An easy rule of thumb is this: 12 miles per hour is a minimum wakeboard tow speed, and double that, 24 miles per hour, is the maximum.
2. Watch Those Twist, Turns and Wakes
If you have a relatively new and inexperienced wakeboarder being towed behind your boat, the best thing to do is provide them with a smooth, steady ride that won’t force any cuts across the wake or balance through tight turns.
Once you’re up to cruising speed, avoid rapidly accelerating or decelerating, as this can pull the boarder off balance or draw them too close to the back of the boat, respectively.
When it’s time to turn with a novice wakeboarder in tow, execute a “keyhole” or “skull” shaped turn. For example, to turn right, you first steer slightly to the left, then steer right gently, creating a slow, broad arc.
This pattern will draw the wakeboarder wide to the outside of the turn and keep them away from the choppy waters of the wake.
If you must pull an inexperienced wakeboarder across your wake (or across the wake left by another boat), cross it at a 45-degree angle, rather than at a perpendicular. This minimizes the dramatic effect the peaks and valleys of the wake have on the rider.
3. Know How to Recover a Fallen Wakeboarder
Here’s a critical safety tip anyone at the helm of a boat towing a wakeboarder (or a tuber or water skier or kneeboarder) needs to remember.
After the person you’re towing falls over, you need to reduce the boat’s speed dramatically or even stop forward progress entirely before you turn to recover the downed rider.
Don’t simply start turning back to get them. You might be moving too fast to control the boat that close to a person in the water.
After a rider falls, slow to a near stop, them slowly turn and head back toward them. Fully stop the boat again once you’re near the person in the water, and then let him or her swim up to the boat, don’t motor all the way over.
4. Watch Your Surroundings
When towing a wakeboarder, keep your distance from the shore, from other boats, from piers or floating docks and from swimmers!
5. Have Fun!
It should also go without saying that wakeboarding is all about fun.
Provided your rider (or you) has the right safety gear on and is comfortable out there on top of the water, then go ahead and push it up to move 20 miles per hour and let that adrenaline junky cut across the wake and waves and get some air.
A skilled wakeboarder can complete flips, jumps, rolls and more.
In fact, there are dozens of named wakeboard maneuvers that go by titles like “Moby Dick,” “Fashion Air,” “Blind Pete” and other such fanciful terminology.
This is a sport where excitement and gusto are more important than rules and reserve.
So, let it rip!
Get out there and have some fun.