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Guide to  Driving a Ski Boat and Towing a Wakeboarder / Water Skiier / Towable Tube

How to Tow a Wakeboarder / Water Skiier / Towable Tube


This article is aimed at anyone wishing to tow a recreational Wakeboarder, Kneeboarder, Waterskiier, Wake Skater, Towable Tube, or indeed anything that involves pulling someone along on the water behind a boat. We use the generic term "rider" to mean the person taking part in the activity.

The Essential Boat Driver's Checklist

The first thing to understand when you're the driver of a boat that will be towing a participant in any form of water sport is that you are in a position of great responsibility. Please do not take this responsibility lightly as your actions could literally be a matter of life or death. However, don't let this put you off either as with a few basic skills under your belt you can make it safe for everyone and have an fantastic time during the process.

Safety is by far the boat driver's no 1 priority so please read this article carefully, commit it to memory, and recite it to yourself before every outing.

Before You Head Out

Firstly, it is essential that you always have an assistant in the boat with you (known as a spotter). This person will be responsible for communications between you and the rider and for ensuring the rider's safe transition between boat and water (and vice versa). Never go out without a spotter as the driver's job is to concentrate on looking in the direction of travel to safely avoiding potential obstacles etc, not looking backwards. Playing the part of the spotter and the driver is extremely dangerous and usually ends in tears. A ski mirror is no substitute for a spotter.

It is your responsibility to ensure that the boat and equipment are up to the job as people's safety will depend on it.

Check that your emergency kill cord is present and that it works properly (i.e. it kills the engine when deployed). Your kill cord is one of the most important safety devices onboard If you don't have a kill cord then don't go out. End of!

Check the fuel level. Skiing and Wakeboarding can drain fuel from a boat's tank like an open tap so always make sure you have a full tank before heading out.

Check the condition of the battery as skiing requires numerous engine kill / start sequences and you do not want a dead battery when out on the water, especially in open seas.

Check the state of the tides (if applicable) and remember that it is dangerous to ski in less than 5 feet of water.

Check the water sports equipment itself for damage or signs of wear. A cracked or loose binding coming apart at high speed could cause serious injury.

Check that you have the correct spec / type / length of tow rope for the job and check for signs of chaffing / fraying. Remember that if a damaged rope breaks when under load it is not just annoying, it is also dangerous as the section still attached to the boat will almost certainly recoil back into the boat at very high speed!

Check the tow eye on the boat is in good condition, or if the boat has d-rings check that the bridle and carabiners are all OK. If you have a Wakeboard Tower, never tow inflatables from this as the excessive loads could cause serious damage to the boat and the Tower itself.

Check that there's plenty of towels, warm clothes, water and chocolate bars on the boat.

Never go out late in the evening when the failing light could become a problem. Darkness falls surprisingly quickly when you're having fun and are distracted. If in doubt, don't risk it.

It sounds obvious, but never go out if either the driver, the rider or the spotter are under the influence of drink or drugs.

In addition to the boat and associated hardware, check your rider(s) too: -

Are they wearing the correct wetsuit for the conditions? (remember that a cold rider will tire very quickly and could struggle to even tread water after a hard fall).

Does their buoyancy aid fit correctly? (an ill-fitting buoyancy will not only be uncomfortable but it can also be dangerous).

Can the rider(s) actually swim (never just assume that they can!).

Remember that inexperienced riders don't know what they don't know so it is up to you to check them over and adjust everything so that they are both safe and comfortable. Unfortunately, if you are not happy that a rider is going to be safe then you may have to make some difficult decisions about whether or not they can take part, but at the end of the day this is your responsibility.

The Essential rider Safety Briefing - Dockside

It is your responsibility to make sure that everyone knows what they're doing: -

Always brief your rider(s) and spotter while you are still on the pontoon. Make it a relaxed chat and be upbeat about how much fun they are going to have and how you are totally committed to safety.

Explain the boat entry / exit procedure. Show them how the transom ladder on the boat is extended / retracted and how they climb back on board.

Explain how to get into the start position and what you and the spotter will be doing before a run.

Explain how the bindings adjust and how to tighten / slacken them. Let the rider practise doing this on dry land as this simple task can suddenly seem much more difficult when treading water (dip the bindings into the water first or they'll never be able to get their feet into them).

Explain how a run works and what they can expect.

Explain the retrieval process after a fall. Go into detail and concentrate on the safety aspects so that the rider is reassured and feels confident.

Explain how to get back into the bindings whilst treading water if either foot has come out. For wakeboarders and water skiiers, also explain how to flip onto your back if you have crashed and are stuck on your front with feet and board / skis behind you.

For Tubers, explain how to get back into the tube if they have fallen out

Explain the role that the spotter plays and how to communicate with them.

Check that everyone knows the correct hand signals to use (trying to communicate with a rider on the end of a 70ft rope above the noise of the boat is impossible without hand signals).

Go through all of this even if they are experienced as it's always better to be safe than sorry.

Out On The Water

When you are happy with the boat, the rider(s) and the rest of the kit, PUT YOUR KILL CORD ON and make your way out to the planned ski area and make an assessment of the conditions.

If the water is busy with other boats or swimmers then don't even think about it. You will be travelling at relatively high speeds and will need a lot of space, especially in the turns.

Remember that boats take time to slow down and people on the end of a 70ft rope are vulnerable.

Find a quiet area with fewer (preferably zero) obstacles, and if you can't find such an area then call it off.

Avoid skiing if the water is rough or choppy as it can make boat entry / exit dangerous as the stern of the boat and swim platform can pitch up and down quite heavily. If you've ever tried climbing into a stationary small boat in choppy conditions you'll understand exactly what we mean.

Remember that rough conditions also make it more difficult to perform deep water starts, falls can be that much harder, and riders can tire that much quicker.

When assessing the conditions, always trust your better judgement and remember - if in any doubt whatsoever, don't risk it.

Performing a Run

Before anyone even gets in the water, find a safe spot (away from the shore, fixed obstacles and other boats), kill the engine and have a quick refresher chat with the rider(s) and Spotter. Repeat the boat entry / exit procedure, the retrieval process if they fall, the role of the Spotter, and double-check that they know the hand signals. Then take time to carefully prepare everything, unwind and connect the tow rope etc. Only when everyone is completely comfortable should the rider actually prepare to exit the boat.

Remember that when anyone is in close proximity to the rear of the boat you MUST kill the engine. It is not sufficient to leave the boat in neutral as the throttle lever could easily get nudged into gear by mistake as people are moving around inside the boat. Remember too that most inexperienced people would be freaked out by the sound of the engine and exhaust if you asked them to go anywhere near the back of the boat with the engine running.

With the engine switched off, allow the rider to slip into the water in their own time. Once in the water, give them a few seconds to relax (especially if it's a bit chilly and the first bit of water has just entered their wetsuit!). Beginners will probably want to sit on the swim platform and put their Wakeboard / Water Skis on before they go in, whereas more experienced riders will be fine jumping in and doing this in the water. Either way is fine, but try to encourage inexperienced riders to get in the water first and put their Wakeboard / Waterskis on whilst treading water as this is an essential skill. Also, Wakeboards and Waterskis can be large and cumbersome when they are not in the water and can easily cause damage to people, equipment, or the boat itself.

Allow as much time as necessary for the rider to make any adjustments to their kit and to compose themselves. If it's windy, remember that boats can be blown downwind very easily so make sure that your rider leaves the boat in such a way that the boat is not going to blow straight on top of them i.e. get them upwind as soon as they are in the water. Another top tip is to never anchor up as it is always prefferable for the boat to be drifting in the same direction and at the same rate as anyone in the water.

Now ask the rider to use their arms to paddle away about 15 feet or so. Remember that the buoyancy of wakeboards and waterskis make them tricky to swim with on your front so make sure the rider is on their back facing the boat as they paddle away. At this point, get them to practise putting the Wakeboard / Waterskis on and off a couple of times while treading water. For Wakeboarders, also get them to practise flipping from their front to their back a few times. This might seem weird but many early wakeboarding tumbles result in the rider being on their front with the wakeboard holding their legs firmly behind them. In open seas this can feel quite scary (especially for younger or smaller Wakeboarders) as you end up stuck on your front with your legs held behind you and it can be difficult to keep your head above water if it's slightly choppy. Being able to flip over is actually quite easy but just takes a bit of practise.

Once the rider has got the hang of getting their Skis / Wakeboard on and off and is able to flip from their front to their back (if they're wakeboarding) then ask the spotter to throw the handle out to them and check that the rider has grabbed it (they may need to paddle over to it) and that the rope is not likely to get wrapped around them. Also make sure that the spotter keeps an eye on the boat-end of the rope so that it doesn't end up wrapped around the prop.

Ask the rider and the spotter if they are both happy, then have a good look round to make sure nothing is approaching or directly in your path (such as a swimmer, another boat etc.) and then let the Spotter know that you are about to start the engine. With the rider in view at all times in the mirror, start the engine and put the boat gently in gear but do not open the throttle yet. Let the boat edge forward at a nice slow controlled speed. Ensure that the Spotter feeds the rope as the slack begins to get taken up. Also ensure that the Spotter continually checks that the rope it is clear of the prop.

Begin moving away from the rider at tickover, lining up in the direction that you intend to ski but without allowing the slack in the rope to be fully taken up. Ask the spotter to keep checking that everything is ok as you edge further away. Do everything, slowly, smoothly, and under control. As soon as the line starts to become taught put the boat in neutral or the rider will get pulled onto their front. At this point you need to be pointing in the direction that you want to ski in with the steering straight, the rider directly behind the boat, the rope slightly taught but not enough to pull the rider forward, and the boat in neutral. You are now ready to go!.

Before you open the throttle, your spotter must shout "READY?" to the rider, to which the rider must shout "HIT IT", which is the signal to accelerate, or "WAIT" if they need to compose themselves a bit longer. The words "Go" and "No" should not be used as they sound very similar and are hard to differentiate between from the boat.

When you get the signal to "HIT IT", put the boat gently into gear, ensure that the line is taught, and then open the throttle progressively but not too hard or the rider will get a nasty jolt through the rope and will let go of the handle. Getting a rider out of the water requires a reasonable amount of power so be prepared to give the boat some guns, but do it smoothly and make sure it's only for enough time to get them out of the water or it will be too much strain for the rider. As soon as the rider gets up then throttle back smoothly to the desired towing speed (see table below). Tubing does not have the same initial resistance so you do not need to open the throttle anywhere near as hard in order to get going.

Once your rider is up on their feet you need to be extremely alert and totally aware of everything that is going on around you. Continually scan for obstacles, swimmers, and other boats, and remember that other boats can approach you from the side or from behind surprisingly quickly. At this point your spotter needs to be paying total attention to the rider and communicating any hand signals they make back to you.

At some point you are likely to run out of water and need to make a turn. When you are ready, be very conscious of the pendulum effect that your rider will experience on the end of that rope. Make slow wide turns that keep the boat on the plane and don't allow any speed to scrub off.

Use this table as a guide to towing speeds: -

Beginners / Combo Skiing - 25 mph
Slalom Skiing - 19-36 mph
Wakeboarding - 16-19 mph
Kneeboarding - 16-19 mph
Barefoot - 30-45 mph
Towable Tubes / Ringos - 8-25 mph
Bananas - 10 mph

Retrieving a Fallen rider.

Collecting a fallen rider is really easy if you follow a few simple steps. Remember that the rider may be a little shaken (or possibly even slightly injured) so get to them as quickly as you can but make sure you don't freak them out or endanger them in any way.

As soon as you are aware that your rider has fallen, spring into action and start the retrieval process without delay. However, never fling the boat immediately into a 180 degree turn as there could be something in your path (such as an approaching boat). Make a swift but thorough assessment of what is going on around you and then safely turn the boat around, remembering that there is still 70ft of rope trailing somewhere behind you that you do not want wrapped around your prop. Get your spotter to do a visual check but generally speaking there isn't usually a need to bring the rope back on board at this stage. Just remember not to drive straight over it! Now head back to retrieve your rider at a reasonable speed (reassuringly attentive but not scary from the perspective of the fallen rider).

Remember that boats seem much bigger and scarier when you are bobbing about in the water with your head at the same level as the boat's waterline. As a driver, always keep this in mind and never approach a fallen rider at high speed or drive directly at them.

The most important this at this stage is that you MUST be able to see the fallen rider at all times. Stand up at the helm if necessary but NEVER lose sight of them. Approach the rider at a reasonable speed but with the boat travelling such that the rider will pass about 30 feet from the driver's side (i.e. do not head directly for the rider). Throttle back slowly as you approach them (approx. 100ft away) in order to minimise your wake. You should have have already briefed the rider on how the whole retieval process works so they should be comfortable with what's going on.

As you get closer, bring the boat slowly and gently back to idle but remain in gear (so that you still have some steering control). Speed and wake should be kept to an absolutely minimum now. Understandably, novice riders will be feeling vulnerable at this point and will automatically start swimming towards the boat. If this happens, calmly tell them to just sit back and relax as you are going to do all of the work for them.

If the rider has had enough at this point and wants to get back in the boat then simply kill the engine and ask them to swim to the stern. Tell them clearly that you've completely killed the engine and that they are safe to get back onboard. Be aware that even a gentle breeze can easily push the boat on top of the fallen rider so always stay downwid of them. For everyone's safety and comfort, NEVER ALLOW ANYONE TO SWIM TO THE REAR OF THE BOAT WITH THE ENGINE IS RUNNING as the boat could potentially be knocked into gear by mistake which will start the prop turning straight away. Try not to let equipment (wakeboards, waterskis etc) drift off at this point as they tend to flip upside down and can then be difficult to find. Remember too that there is still 70ft of rope out there somewhere so make sure someone has wound it neatly back into the boat before you try to head off again. Now make sure the rider is happy and warm and offer them water and a well earned chocolate bar!.

Assuming the fallen rider wants to have another run, just crack on with the retrieval process. When you are about 30 feet away from the rider make a very slow turn to pass 180 degrees directly behind them and then take the boat out of gear and let it drift naturally to maintain the arc. Keep the rider on the same side as you are and DO NOT LOSE SIGHT OF THEM. Even if your spotter is talking to you and asking you questions about what to do next do not leave the helm of the boat and do not lose sight of the rider.

At this point you may notice that your rider may suddenly looks anxious and becomes fixated with the boat's propeller. Be 100% sympathetic to this as it is a very common and very natural fear. Tell them that the boat is in neutral and that the prop is not turning. If they become excessively nervous (which does happen, especially with younger riders) then kill the engine completely and tell them that you've done it. Again, if you feel that you are getting too close to the rider for any reason then kill the engine immediately, tell them that you've done it and get them to swim away from the boat.

If everything is going well then proceed slowly round the back of the rider whilst still in neutral and maintaining a safe distance (30ft), then as you complete the 180 degree turn and start moving away from the rider again put the boat back into gear at idle. As you are doing this, the tow rope will gradually follow the boat, passing slowly behind the rider so that it comes withing their reach. You should be able to see the handle quite clearly from the boat as it creates a small ripple as it is dragged along, but it can be much more difficult when you are in the water so assist the rider if necessary with hand signals (i.e. just point to where the handle is and track it along).

As the handle gets nearer to the rider (20ft) take the boat out of gear so that the line is not under any load or the rider will be pulled onto their front as soon as they grab it. When the rider has got hold of the handle and is composed etc you are ready for another run so just repeat the whole process again.

Towing Towable Tubes / Towable Inflatables

Tubing is less energetic than wakeboarding or water skiing, but it can be just as exhilarating and just as dangerous so always remember these pointers to ensure that no-one gets hurt.

To give tubers the best ride simply weave slowly from left to right in gentle but steady arcs so that the tube(s) cross back and forth over the wake in a steady motion. It's all about the timing but you'll soon get the feel for it. Basically, as soon as the tube loses impetus out on the whip and starts to head back towards the wake again, that's the time to slowly start making your next turn. This keeps the line taught and keeps the pendulum action going. Shallower turns as slower speeds give a nice safe rider while deeper turns at higher speed give the most exciting ride.

Don't overdo the speed or the tightness of the turns or things will go very wrong very quickly. Remember that there's a fine line between excitement and danger and it is entirely down to you to make sure everyone has fun but doesn't end up in A&E.

After the first passes, stop the ride and just check that everyone is comfortable with the speed etc. Knowing the correct hand signal for asking the driver to slow down is all well and good if you are unable (or too scared) to let go of the handles then it is useless.

To give young kids the best ride, do everything you would do for an adult but 50% slower. They won't notice that you've done this so will still feel like they're doing 100mph, even if it's actually only 10.

Use a rope that's at least 50ft long or your tubers will be gulping great mouthfulls of toxic boat exhaust fumes.

Don't fall into the trap of thinking that flipping people out at high speed is the aim of tubing. This is when most injuries occur, and many towable tubes are really difficult to get back into from the water so you'll waste most of your time getting people back into the boat so that they can back into the tube again.

Be totally aware at all times of obstacles on each side of you so that you don't inadvertently slam your passengers into a solid object such as a dock or another boat. When your tubers are out on the whip they will be up to 50ft to one side of you so always bear this in mind when making a turn. Spinning the boat round when you are 30ft from the dock is normally fine when it's just you and the boat but a tube load of passenger out on the whip will hit that dock 20ft from the end.

Be aware that tubers lying on their front can suffer back injuries if you bounce them around too much.

Be aware that tubers riding in the seated position carry the additional risk of their knees bouncing into their head.

If you are pulling two tubes at the same time, ensure that the ropes are the same length and be extra vigilant so that the inevitable collisions are kept gentle and under control.

It is easier to avert danger when you are Waterskiing or Wakeboarding as you can steer or let go of the rope. Tubers don't have this luxury so their safety is entirely in your hands.

Essential Safety - Rules of the Sea

If a rider is being closely followed by another boat, the rider should remain inside the wake and refrain from performing tricks until the other boat is at a safe distance.

When two boats are approaching each other on a head-on course, the rule is that you should turn slightly starboard (right) and pass port to port (left to left).

When two boats are moving in the same direction, the faster boat may pass the slower boat on either side, but passing on the port (left) side is preferable.

When two boats are approaching at 90 degrees on a collision course, the boat on the right has the right of way and should maintain its course while the boat on the left should change course. However, a certain amount of common sense is required so don't deliberately cause an accident just to hold your ground and prove a point.

Sailing boats and those propelled by oars or paddles have the right of way over motor boats.

Basic Boat Tips

Always keep your boat deck tidy of tow ropes, watersports equipment and other personal possessions / junk. This will allow people to move freely around the boat and will minimise trip hazards.

Inflate any towable tubes just before you need them and deflate them again when not in use. Tubes can lift off when the boat is travelling at speed and can strike passengers.

Make sure there's plenty of towels, warm clothes, water and chocolate bars on board for hungry / tired / cold passengers.

Keep a carrier bag on board for all of the rubbish that always seems to accumulate. Always take your rubbish home with you, never ditch it over the side.

Always observe speed limits, swimming areas, and no-ski zones.

Be courteous to other people at all times and always observe the "Rules of the Sea".

We hope you found this article useful but if you have a question that is not covered here or you just need some advice then please do get in touch and one of our friendly and knowledgeable staff will gladly assist you.

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