I grew up in Washington, D.C., but my grandparents on my dad’s side lived in San Antonio, Texas.
What I recall less fondly is the water skiing. At age eight or nine or so, I absolutely hated it.
At that age, for me, water skiing involved more time spent falling over and being dragged through the water—I know, I know… you just let go of the handlebar—than it did skimming along atop the lake in control and enjoying the ride.
I have a feeling my grandfather, a former air force pilot, probably kept the boat at top speed regardless of the age of the skier.
Flash forward a few years. By the time I was eleven or twelve, all of that fear had evaporated. At that age, I spent a few weeks each year on a lake in Michigan, and a lot of the daytime activities involved water skiing, tubing and wakeboarding. I loved nothing more than being bounced off a tube and flying fifteen feet in the air or flying over the wake on a pair of water skis even with twin outboards heading toward their top speed. What a difference a few years make.
These days, I’m somewhere in the middle. As an adult, I’m not needlessly afraid of speed on the water, but I’m also not looking to push the envelope and go so fast and hard that I invariably fall over. Nor would I attempt to make anyone I was towing take an aquatic tumble either. (FYI tween and teen boys? Yeah, they will try to make you fall over as you water ski. Kind of crazy to realize there was often a 13-year-old at the wheel of the boat! Different times, right?)
Here, I’ll tell you everything you need to know to start towing water skiers safely, while still making sure everyone has a fun experience.
Let’s start with the basics of how to tow a water skier.
How to Smoothly Tow a Water Skier of Any Age or Experience Level
1. Starting the Ride: Getting the Skier on Their Feet
As a water skier gets into the water, the boat’s engine should be turned off. Not just at idle, but fully off. This is true for all types of boats.
If there’s some very good reason why you can’t do this, then at least make sure the person gets into the water over the bow or side of the boat and nowhere near the propellers.
The skier should swim back to where the line is pulled taut, or you can idle the boat along once they’re a few yards away from it.
Tips Up, and Away!
Once the water skier is in position, with the tips of their water skis (or ski, if they’re using one plank) up out of the water and with their legs and feet facing toward the boat, you can give it some power. But not much.
Ease the boat up to the minimum speed needed to pull the skier up onto the surface of the water, and then maintain that speed for a few moments before you start to increase it. Gunning the motor too soon will pull the line out of the skier’s hands and/or will pull them off balance and over into the water.
To Dock Start or Not to Dock Start?
Listen, dock starts look cool. For the record, this is a move where you’re up out of the water on a dock or pier and a boat pulls you off onto the water, with you landing upright and immediately stable.
It can also result in a tumble into the water, if it’s not done just right.
Until you have mastered the basics of water skiing, just start from in the water. The dock start presumes you already have your balance and basic technique down pat.
2. The Ride: Towing the Water Skier
Once the water skier is up on his or her feet, the fun can really begin.
Make sure you talked to the person being towed prior to the ride so you all have the same idea of just what constitutes that fun!
The Need for (Not Too Much) Speed!
For a beginner water skier, a cruising speed of around 20 miles per hour is a fine pace. It’s fast enough to keep the skier upright with tension on the line and is plenty fast enough for their enjoyment, but it’s not going to cause undue nervousness nor will it make the ride unnecessarily challenging.
For experienced skiers (or the fearless amateur demanding action) speeds up to 30 MPH are probably just fine. For the record, the maximum speed recommended for most professional water skiers taking part in competitive events is 35 miles per hour. It’s a good idea to consider that as the very top speed at which you should ever tow anyone.
For the smoothest, safest and most comfortable turn, your boat should trace the basic shape of a keyhole on the surface of the water.
That means that, to turn right, it should first make a smaller turn left, then complete a long, slow arc to the right. This maneuver gently pulls your water skier out of the wake and allows them to follow the turn without battling chop and waves.
If you must pull a skier across the wake or if he or she has expressed an interest in crossing the wake for fun, try to pull them across it at a 45-degree angle. That will help minimize the effect of the waves and allow them to maintain best control even as they get a bit more excitement. (This approach is also true for cutting across the wake of other boats or across natural waves.)
3. Water Skiing Safety 101
It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. But with proper planning and attention to safety precautions, you can minimize the chance of that happening and can stick to the fun and games part!
The best swimmer in the world can’t save herself from drowning if she has been knocked unconscious by a water ski as she fell over. And even the best water skier in the world is going to fall over now and then.
Bottom line: If you’re being towed by a boat, you should be wearing a flotation device made for water sports (such as the one seen right, which you can purchase on Amazon).
They’re called “life jackets” for a reason, y’know?
Don’t let the skier skip wearing a helmet either, especially if they’re new to the sport. A lightweight yet hard-shelled helmet like the Triple Eight Water Halo (check price on Amazon) is a great one to have on board for water skiing and other sports.
It Takes Two (Actually Three)
Safe water skiing involves one person in the water (obviously) and at least two on the boat: One person who’s controlling the boat, and one spotter who’s observing the water skier and watching to alert the driver as soon as they fall or if they signal for a stop.
Keep Your Distance
A water skier should never be towed close to shore, to other boats, or to anything, really.
As a general rule, you should keep a water skier at least twice the length of the rope he’s using away from the shore, buoys, boats and so forth. So, if the skier is being towed 50 feet behind the boat, keep him 100 feet from shore.
Invest in a tow rope built to withstand watersports that’s at least 75 feet long, as seen right (check price on Amazon).
Practice Hand Signals
With a few basic gestures agreed upon before the ride, a water skier and the spotter and driver on the boat can relay messages that ensure the most enjoyable and the safest ride.
At the very least, have signs for “slow down,” “speed up” and of course “STOP!”
As long as you keep all of the above in mind, you’ll be more than prepared to tow a water skier behind your boat.