It’s a special kind of magic. You put on skis, jump into the water, hold onto a rope that’s attached to a powerboat, bob around in your lifejacket until the driver hits the throttle — and suddenly you’re rocketing across the lake.
Once you have your sea legs, you can jump the wake. Then you might “crack the whip” behind the boat, goosing both your speed and the thrill level. Perhaps you’ll drop a ski and carve a few turns. No matter what, you’ll likely return to the dock feeling tired, accomplished and happy.
Waterskiing has been an essential part of lakefront living and cottage culture for a century, and older generations are eager to introduce the younger ones to the fun.
“Skiing with family and friends, that’s how most people get started,” says Kevin Ostermeier of the Mercury-powered Rock Aqua Jays Waterski Show Team in Janesville, Wisconsin. He has been skiing for more than 20 years, since he was eight years old.
Once you learn how to ski, he observes, you can take that skill set and apply it to a wide variety of disciplines. Some of those disciplines focus on one particular skill, while others rope them all together.
Welcome to the wonderful world of waterskiing.
1. Traditional Skiing: Slalom, Trick, and Jumping
Traditional skiing is the oldest discipline, with roots in the earliest days of the sport. It comprises three events: slalom skiing, trick skiing, and ski jumping.
A slalom skier uses one ski that has double bindings. On a single ski, you can make sharper turns and achieve a higher rate of speed.
In a competition, you’ll navigate a course marked with buoys. The winner is the skier who successfully rounds the most buoys and avoids falling.
Trick skiing is exactly what it sounds like: You perform tricks on the water. The short, wide, smooth, finless skis allow you to engage in on-water gymnastics; you can use one or two skis and hold the rope in one or two hands.
During competitions, skiers are allowed two 20-second passes to attempt as many tricks as possible. These include turns with a foot in the handle, flips, ski-line tricks, and wake tricks.
The third traditional-skiing event is ski jumping, a discipline that is all about distance out of the water. For support on the ramp, you need long skis with short, wide fins.
And for the jump itself, you must determine how to best increase speed and execute the longest possible jump. That involves degrees of what is called “cut in.”
The slowest cut-in is single. This means you’re standing on the left side of the boat’s wake, and then you pull left to ride over the ramp. This is where beginners start, because you don’t have to cross the wake prior to your jump.
Next is three-quarter cut-in, which requires a longer run into the jump ramp. You’ll start on the right-hand side of the wake, widely pull out to the right, and then at the widest point, you’ll turn your skis sharply to the left — the direction of the ramp. You’ll cross the wakes as you accelerate toward your jump.
The fastest approach is double-cut. You’ll start on the left of the wake, turn to the right, cross the wake, and then cut back across to the left. This gives you more speed (you’ll definitely feel the G-forces), which allows you to jump farther.
Male skiers have set records for jumping more than 240 feet from a 6-foot ramp, while female skiers have set records for jumping more than 170 feet from a 5-foot ramp.
2. Adaptive Skiing
Physically disabled athletes can participate and compete in traditional skiing as well, with tournaments offering dedicated slalom, trick and jumping events for them. Many can use the same equipment as able-bodied athletes, while others have the option of using prosthetics or a “sit ski.”
Beginner sit skis are usually 15-plus inches wide, have either flat or slightly concave bottoms for stability, and feature a starting block or cleat to hold the rope and assist the skier with getting on plane. For additional stability, sit skis also might have outriggers, which are two short ski tips attached to the sides of a sit ski.
Additionally, adaptive skiers can use a padded backrest if they have limited or no sitting balance or simply wish to have an extra measure of safety so they cannot fall backward. Then there is the Edge Triple Bar, a 6-foot handle attached to the boat that allows two instructors to physically assist a beginner skier; once the skier is balanced, then the instructors can separate, and the student will be solo skiing.
For more information about adaptive skiing, visit usaadaptivewaterski.org.
3. Speed Skiing
Speed skiing, or ski racing, is the fastest type of waterskiing. This competitive sport incorporates a boat driver, an observer who relays signals to the driver, and one or two skiers.
Race courses are either circular, with skiers completing laps, or point-to- point along rivers. They can be 2-kilometer sprints or hardcore endurance events of 150-plus kilometers, and speeds are typically 120 miles per hour or more.
New ski racers can participate in novice divisions with shorter races.
4. Barefoot Skiing
Although barefoot skiing might seem intimidating or even discouraging at first, enthusiasts say it’s a highly rewarding watersport to master. Newbies might appreciate learning this discipline with a slalom ski and an aluminum “barefoot boom” that attaches to the boat.
The boom is a long training bar attached to the tow boat, and for barefoot skiers, it is much easier to learn with a boom than just a tow rope. Booms got their start at Florida’s Cypress Gardens in the 1950s, and they became a more widely used training aid in the 1970s.
For successful barefoot skiing, the tow boat will need to be capable of reaching speeds of 45 miles per hour and up. A cooperative Mother Nature wouldn’t hurt, either.
“You need calm water for barefoot skiing,” Ostermeier advises.
5. Show Skiing
USA Water Ski & Wake Sports calls show skiing “an aquatic Broadway musical featuring several waterski acts choreographed to music and built around a theme that tells a story.” Those acts incorporate multiple boats and skiers, and unique to these performances are ballet/swivel skiing, adagio doubles, freestyle jumping and human pyramids.
In a competition, the team with the most difficult performance and the most elaborate showmanship wins.
Show skiing is part of waterski history, with the first show taking place more than 90 years ago. In the decades to follow, destinations such as Wisconsin Dells and Florida’s Cypress Gardens became synonymous with ski shows and featured some of the top waterski athletes in the world.
Where to Begin?
One of the best ways to learn to waterski is simply to get out on the water with family or friends who have a boat. If that’s not possible, however, other options are available.
More than 50 schools across the country offer collegiate waterski and wakeboard programs. Beginners have opportunities to compete alongside junior national and world champions in a relaxed and inclusive environment.
If you’re interested in racing and don’t have your own boat, simply attend a race event and become acquainted with the developed teams. Many are willing to tow novice skiers.
Show skiers are just as welcoming, according to Ostermeier, who has been with the Rock Aqua Jays for nine years. He says team members host learn-to-ski events in the summertime, and they love to find new people who are eager and want to learn more.
“We find joy in teaching them,” he says. “It’s so rewarding. So, track down your nearest show ski team! There are so many ways to be involved, plus you’ll make friends and have fun.”
And if you’re a boat owner who is planning to take a turn at the wheel, don’t forget about Mercury Marine’s Smart Tow. This innovative, intuitive system assists with the perfect launch, speed control, and vessel control, ensuring a smoother ride for everyone. You simply select your preferred profile, hit the throttle, and go.
You can choose one of five preset profiles, or create up to eight custom profiles. Smart Tow is available on Mercury VesselView displays, SC1000 gauges and most MercMonitors. Check with your dealer to verify engine compatibility.
To learn more about the many types of waterskiing — as well as sister watersports such as wakeboarding, wakesurfing, kneeboarding and hydrofoiling — visit usawaterski.org.
For more information about Smart Tow, visit https://www.mercurymarine.com/en/us/boating-experience/smartcraft/product/smart-tow.