Guide: Towing waterskiiers

Some driver’s ed for helping skiers, boarders, and tubers get the most out of their time on the water

By Pat LynchPat Lynch


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At 12 years of age, Jake Thomas found himself bobbing in the middle of Riley Lake, his ski tips poking out of the murky depths, framing the family boat as it idled in the distance. “You ready to go, Son?” his father yelled from behind the steering wheel of the old runabout. Thomas raised a dripping thumb out of the lake, giving his pops the okay. “Alright, then, hang on!” The engine roared as the boat leapt out of the hole, the rope snapped taut, and Thomas popped up on a pair of wobbly skis, planing across the water’s surface. Looking back, he remembers seeing the back of his dad’s head, and the back of the spotter’s just before he hit the water, skis sliding off in opposite directions, the boat disappearing into the sunny distance. “I guess my dad and the spotter were having such a great time driving the boat that they didn’t notice I’d fallen,” he laughs. It wasn’t until they reached the end of the bay and started making their turn back that Thomas’s dad and his friend realized they’d lost their skier. “It’s a good thing that’s a small lake,” he says, playing up the scene with a voice quivering for dramatic effect, “or they might have never found me again.”

Twenty years have passed; Thomas got over this formative childhood experience quickly, having spent much of his youth on the water, competing nationally in kneeboarding, wakeboarding, and barefoot competitions, as well as running a travelling waterski school, the Pro Team, through his university years. Yet his cautionary tale is just one example of how things can go wrong on the water if the pilot of a vessel towing people around the lake isn’t familiar with some of the basic techniques for keeping skiers, boarders, and tubers safe, comfortable, and having fun on the waves. In the end, a better driver makes a better skier.


The rope You’re not doing your skiers any favours if you decide to save a few bucks on the towline. Cheaper ski ropes, sold for about $20 at your local hardware store, are often elastic, producing an uneven pull that may dump a beginner. “You want a no-stretch or low-stretch rope,” says Thomas, “one made out of material such as polypropylene or Spectra. They’ll cost a little more ($50–$150) but they won’t stretch and many are less likely to tangle, so it’s less hassle for everyone. And if the rope breaks or the skier lets go of it under tension,

it won’t snap back and hit anyone in the boat.” To avoid unexpected breakages, give your tow rope a visual inspection at the start of each ski session to make sure it isn’t frayed or nicked. Also, consider rope length. The standard rope, at 23 metres, is often too long for the average cottage runabout, placing skiers at an awkward place in the wake, where the rollers can be too large for less experienced wave riders to cross. “Every skier will find a unique sweet spot where the waves are easiest to cross,” says Thomas. “They need to get out on the water and look at the wake to find it. Then they can adjust the rope length accordingly and approach the wake at that spot. If beginners are able to cross the wake without getting intimidated, they’re going to have more fun and learn more quickly.” Multi-section slalom ropes, which typically come in 4.5-metre sections, offer drivers the opportunity to adjust rope length easily. “If you have a multi-section rope,” says Thomas, “make the rope about 18 metres long, so it’s more manageable for the driver of the boat.”

Ready for takeoff?

You’re almost there — you’ve got a fancy, no-stretch rope, you’ve secured it to the back of your boat, your skier is in the water, sporting her obnoxiously glowing, high-impact PFD, and you’re at the wheel with a spotter at your side. The weather’s good, and the water’s relatively smooth. You’ve got a reboarding device, such as a ladder or a swim platform on the boat’s stern. Hang on! Before you put the pedal to the metal, establish a set of hand signals that both you and your skier are clear on. They can be as obscure as you’d like, so long as all of you know what they mean (for examples, see the hand signals at left) and you’re able to communicate the need to slow down, speed up, return home, turn left and right, and cut the engine (a handy signal, particularly when your skier’s tired and well out in the middle of the lake). The skier should also have an “all okay” signal to use following a wipeout to show the spotter that the crash hasn’t done any significant damage.

You’ll need an empty seat for every person being towed: Under Transport Canada’s Small Vessel Regulations, if you’ve got a pair of screaming cousins riding a double tube, you must have a pair of empty seats for them on the boat. And, if you’re using a PWC, it must be a three-seater, minimum, according to John Gullick, deputy executive director of the Canadian Power & Sail Squadrons; one for the driver, one for the rear-facing spotter, and one for the skier. A little more complicated than you first thought, no?

This article was originally published on May 18, 2005

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