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?

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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