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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Okay, now you’re really ready for takeoff…

Using the momentum of the boat, drift away from your skier at idle speed until the rope is fully extended and your skier, who is facing the back of the boat and being gently pulled by it, has let the spotter know she’s good to go. “If you don’t have a lot of horsepower,” advises Thomas, “then you’re probably going to have to go all out. But once you start to plane, the vessel will accelerate rapidly, so as soon as the skier gets on top of the water, you’ve got to be prepared to back off on the throttle to a speed that matches their ability.” If your boat is equipped with a speedometer, there are optimal speed zones for different watersports, based partly on the surface area of the ski or board (more surface area allows the towee to get up more quickly and stay up at slower speeds) and on the specifics of the sport (the tight turns of slalom skiing, for example, require more traction, which is increased by higher boat speeds). According to Thomas, the best speeds for wakeboarding are 18–24 mph; tubes and skiers on two planks should be tugged along at 25–30 mph; slalom skiers should travel 30–36 mph; and if you’re bare-footin’ it, expect to be pulled at 35–40 mph. Keep in mind that those speeds are simply guidelines — you’ll have to adjust them slightly for every skier, depending on the skill level and weight of the towee.

Drive through the keyhole

The best way to give your skier a smooth ride, says Thomas, is to drive along one line and stick to it. Many cottagers tow their skiers round and round in big circles that cross their own waves. Not only will that irritate every cottager within shouting distance as the waves bash repeatedly into their squeaky docks, it will leave your skier hanging on for dear life as she flies over a succession of receding waves. Instead, suggests Thomas, “drive in a straight line, and make a keyhole turn at the end of it, then drive right back down the middle of the line you’ve just made. Your skier will always have calm water because your waves are going away from your line of travel.” The keyhole turn is simply a teardrop shape — make a little left-hand turn, followed by a big right-hand turn that ends at your original wake line. For a less-experienced skier, make the turn a little wider; hotshots should be able to handle a tighter keyhole. Skiers should stay in the wake during the turn to avoid a high-acceleration whip as the boat changes direction. A skier following the boat through a turn has a safer ride, and the driver has the peace of mind of knowing that his towee isn’t racing shoreward a rope’s length outside of the boat’s turn. For towing tubers, who have less control over where they ride behind the boat, Thomas simply recommends the driver take it easy through the corners and make slightly larger turns.

Skier down!        

Inevitably, your skier or wakeboarder is going to take a spill. This is why beginners should learn to get up from an in-water position, rather than the old-fashioned dock start, which is, contrary to some antiquated viewpoints, actually much harder to execute than an in-water start. Also, when your skier does take that unexpected plunge, they won’t find a dock waiting for them in the middle of the lake, now will they? As soon as the spotter lets the driver know the skier has gone down, the boat pilot can begin to make his turn back to retrieve the fallen, keeping lake traffic in mind as the boat returns to the scene of the bail. Approach in a large circle, with the skier in full view on the driver’s side of the boat, and watch out for errant skis. Remain downwind from her as much as possible so you don’t drift too close. Check that the skier is okay and wants to get back up, then “start to make a big, slow loop around them,” says Thomas. “The rope will ultimately come close enough to your skier that they can grab a hold of it and let the slack slide through their hands.” Keep the boat in low gear while the handle makes its way back to the skier, nursing the throttle from neutral to the slowest forward gear until the rope handle is in the skier’s hands. Again, the boat’s momentum should tighten the line sufficiently while your skier readies for takeoff. Ensure you have a taut line and once the skier says hit it, check for traffic on the water. Pull your skier up as you would at any start, and resume driving your original line. If your skier has had enough and wants to get out of the water, drive near her, again keeping her in full view on the driver’s side, then shut off the engine and let her swim over to the boat.

Homeward bound

You’re amazed. This lady’s been skiing for what seems like hours, and it’s only those knocking knees that tell how tired she really is. Your spotter gets the “return home” signal, and you begin to head back. Rather than whipping your skier into the dock with a last-minute turn, approach home base by driving in a line parallel to shore, well away from the end of the dock. “Let them go outside the wake and have them drop the rope as you’re approaching,” says Thomas. “If you’re at all concerned about their ability to let go in time, just drive them near the dock and cut the engine. They can always swim in, and it’s better to be safe than to make them a part of the dock.”

This article was originally published on May 18, 2005

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