by Louisa Beckett for Mercury Marine
Looking for a way keep everyone in your family fit and have fun together at the same time? Why not try water skiing? This great American summer pastime, which was invented in 1922 on a Minnesota lake, has developed into the global tow sports industry, spawning dozens of boat builders and gear manufacturers as well as countless local clubs and competitions.
Or, if water skiing doesn’t appeal to your kids, they might go for wakeboarding, which nearly has surpassed its sister sport in popularity in recent years thanks to its “cool factor.”
Many water skiers and boarders are born into the sport, growing up with parents who keep a boat on a lake and a passion for the water in their hearts. But even if you’ve never tried tow sports, there are plenty of other opportunities for you and your family to check out before you make the commitment to rent or buy a tow boat.
“The best thing for a family getting into tow sports is if they can get a friend who’s into it to take them out,” said Dylan Miller, a professional wakeboarder for tow boat builder HeyDay.
“Sometimes the best first experience is going along with someone else,” agrees Greg Smedema, show skier and tow boat driver for the Webfooter Water Ski Show Team in Fremont, Wisconsin. “One of the things I’ve found with skiers is that they love to bring others into the skiing family. You want to make sure you have an experienced boater at the wheel.”
Also, dozens of “Learn to Ski” events are held each summer around the country. Visit USA Water Ski’s website at www.sharelifeonthewater.com/basic-skills.html to find an event near you, or check with your local ski club or tow boat dealer. Their water ski and wakeboard schools also are located in many lake resort areas across the country.
“In the right circumstances, people can learn in one day. Once you have the basics down, skiing is not a tough thing,” said Smedema.
Beginners typically start with water skiing before trying to wakeboard, but that’s not a hard-and-fast rule. It’s relatively easy to master the basics of both sports. Advancing to the point where you can do tricks or enter competitions takes a lot of practice, however. “Part of keeping it fun is celebrating the small advances,” he said.
Smedema and Miller agree that patience is an important virtue in a tow boat driver, especially with a beginning skier or boarder on the rope.
“The biggest thing is being patient and not being an aggressive driver,” said Miller. “Stay as far away from other boats as possible and be aware of what’s going on around you.”
“Sometimes I spend more time turning around to pick up a skier than I do towing them when they are learning a new trick,” said Smedema.
Heyday co-founder and Product Manager Benjamin Dorton advises beginning tow boat drivers to practice without a skier or wakeboard rider first. “What I like to do with a new driver is to throw out a lifejacket [pretending it’s a skier] and demonstrate how to approach them, how to get the handle back to them, and how to pick somebody up,” he said.
“Another skill is knowing when your skier is getting tired,” said Smedema. He advises drivers to tell their riders, “Try it one more time, and then if you’re tired, I’ll bring you in. A lot of times, that’s the pass when they make it,” he added.
A tow boat driver also should call it a day when he or she gets tired. However, new technology developed for marine propulsion systems is making towing a skier or boarder easier, letting drivers and skiers to stay out on the water longer and have more fun. Mercury Marine’s Smart Tow®, part of its innovative SmartCraft digital vessel monitoring and control system, lets a tow boat driver set the engine rpm to the perfect speed to pull a skier or wakeboarder up out of the water and help them enjoy a smoother ride. Better yet, the driver can enter a custom launch profile for each member of the family into the Smart Tow display. Then, all you need to do is hit the boat’s throttle and go.
Heyday boats now are available with a MerCruiser 6.2L inboard power option that enables the owner to add on Smart Tow. Calling this a “home run,” Dorton said, “It allows the driver to pull the rider up out of the water consistently, which is good for both driver and rider.”
Whether you are a beginner or a professional, following tow sports safety rules is essential to keeping the sport fun for everyone. Most states require a second person to be in the boat with the driver and act as a spotter, keeping the skier or boarder in view at all times and alerting the driver when the rider is down. “Check your state for its rules,” Smedema said. But regardless of the law, he added, “Having a spotter is a good idea; it lets everybody focus on their role. If there is an injury, it’s also easier to get the skier into the boat with two people.”
Before getting started, driver, skier and spotter also need to learn tow sports hand signals such as thumbs-up for faster and thumbs-down for slower. “A tap on the top or the back of the head means ‘Head back to the dock,’” Smedema said.
Another important safety rule is to be sure all skiers and boarders not only are wearing a U.S. Coast Guard-certified life vest, but one that fits well.
“I remember as a kid, you’d get a life jacket that’s a little too big and pull up around your neck, and you’d spend more time in the water worrying about the jacket than the skis and the rope,” Smedema said. Today, it’s easy to find life vests designed specifically for tow sports at your local water sports outfitter. “There are new neoprene ones that are awesome,” he said. “They are nice looking and tighter fitting.”
If the water where you plan to go skiing or boarding is cold, you also may want to outfit your family in wetsuits. Not only do wetsuits keep you warmer, but, as Smedema points out with a smile, “They also help with modesty.” Many a skier has discovered the hard way what launching out of the water can do to a bathing suit.
Once you and your family feel comfortable on skis or a wakeboard, you will want to purchase your own. This equipment typically is sized based on the skier or rider’s weight and skill level, so if you have kids, you may need to invest in a couple of different sizes. Like other sporting equipment, skis and boards are available in a wide price range, but it’s possible to get started for under $200. After that, all you need is a tow rope with a handle and a pylon or tow eye for your boat, and you can start enjoying the thrill of gliding over the water with your family.