Fun Behind the Boat: Which Watersport Works for You?

If you’re new to boating or simply not plugged into the watersports market, the array of fun things you can do behind your boat can be dizzying. There are a lot of choices, and the only similarity, it seems, is the need for a boat and a rope.

For starters, the type of activity you take on behind a boat depends on a number of factors, namely your age, gross motor skills, your health, and your ability to heal. Those factors jibe with the “hierarchy” of watersports, which begins with tubing and crests with one of the more “extreme” sports. So, without further ado, let’s dive into some of the finer points of watersports and what’s involved.

Towable tubes have come a long way. Some are made for multiple riders. Photo courtesy of Rave Sports.

Towable tubes have come a long way. Some are made for multiple riders. Photo courtesy of Rave Sports

Tubing

Kids start out on tubes and it’s a great way to introduce them to towed sports. In my youth, tubing involved a truck tire tube sourced from repair shop, a length of nylon rope, and a few sadistic buddies who would whipsaw the rider to try to get him to fall off at speed. On Monday’s we’d be so sore and sunburnt, we could hardly function.

Luckily, the state of the sport has advanced. There are still tubes, but now they are purpose-built, with canvas or nylon covers that let the tube skip across the water easily. Oh, and handles, much-needed handles.

Kids as young as three or four can ride in tubes — wearing PFDs, or course. Having an adult back there with them is the safe approach, and there are now tubes for two, three, or even four riders, so mom and dad can ride with their little tikes. There also are towable bananas and even tubes that create lift to rise off the water — though those are probably best suited for teenagers, not preschoolers.

Kneeboarding

The next logical step after tubing is kneeboarding. It involves more skill than tubing because the rider has to do a deepwater start while holding the handle on the rope, then has to strap in once he or she is up on plane. It’s great fun, but as you might imagine, it can be hard on the tendons and ligaments in your knees, something that becomes more apparent as the rider begins to learn tricks that involve air time and landings. This is a sport for youth.

Kneeboarding is a more challenging game than tubing, best tackled by teenagers with supple knees and good back muscles. Photo courtesy of Jobe Sports.

Kneeboarding is a more challenging game than tubing, best tackled by teenagers with supple knees and good back muscles. Photo courtesy of Jobe Sports.

The sport has been greatly enhanced by today’s watersports boats, which create nice, sloped wakes that are great for big-air maneuvers. Again, the sport can be hard on your knees and because this is the first of many watersports where the rider holds onto the handle of a rope attached to a boat, back muscles you may not have known you had likely will be sore the next day.

Waterskiing

Anybody who ever visited Cypress Gardens in Florida back in the day has had the urge to go waterskiing, and odds are pretty good one of your relatives has an old wooden pair of waterskis tucked up in the rafters of their garage.

With kids, it’s best to start with the skis that are tied together with nylon rope. This keeps their legs together, and keeps them from doing a split as soon as they get on plane — then doing a face-plant. Even adults first learning to ski can feel like they’re being split from the groin up. Skiing on two skis will work muscle groups in your legs and back that don’t normally see that much stress.

The hardest part of skiing is the hardest part of most watersports, and that’s the deep-water start. The important thing is to let the boat do the work. Trying to stand up too quickly makes things more difficult than they need be. Stay in the crouched position until you’re up on plane, then straighten your legs.

Slalom Skiing

It never fails that as soon as you learn to ski on two skis, you’re going to want to ski on one slalom ski, and for good reason: It’s way more fun. Carving back and forth across the wake of the boat is physically demanding, and it is still one of the more extreme sports.

Slalom-skiing behind a fast boat takes serious skill, but is also serious fun. Learn on two skis, graduate to one, and start carving those turns. Photo courtesy of Nautique Boats.

Slalom-skiing behind a fast boat takes serious skill, but is also serious fun. Learn on two skis, graduate to one, and start carving those turns. Photo courtesy of Nautique Boats.

Most people start by doing a deep-water start on two skis, then dropping one. If you’re on a lake or lagoon, just remember where you left the ski. If you’re skiing on a river, take the current into account when you go back to try to find the other one.

When you get good — and if you have a powerful enough boat – you’re going to want to do deep-water starts on one ski. It can be  pretty tough to keep the ski straight and the line taught and not get pulled over to one side or the other when starting. For people just starting out, there’s a ski rope with a deep V that helps with deep-water starts. You just put the tip of the ski inside the V of the rope, and that helps the ski remain pointed forward as the boat is taking off.  Again, let the boat do the work to get you on plane before you try to stand up.

If you’re the competitive type, you can take on the slalom course and begin shortening the rope length. A word of warning, however:  It has been said that the day you begin to ski competitively on a slalom course is the day skiing ceases to be fun and becomes a quest.

Barefoot skier Zenon Bilas at age 53.

Barefoot skier Zenon Bilas at age 53.

Barefoot Skiing

If you’re really hard-core, you might want to try barefoot skiing. Skiing without skis introduces a whole new dynamic to watersports. It’s probably best not to try to learn to ski barefoot by yourself because the boat speeds are higher and the face-plants are more severe.

You also might need to travel to attend a class on barefoot skiing. Seven-time barefoot national champion Zenon Bilas is probably one of the best instructors in the sport. He’s been teaching it since 1982. Boats.com published a feature on him called  A Waterskiing Pro Looks back — and Ahead. Read his story and check out his website. If you think barefooting is for you, it’s best to learn from a pro rather than “perfecting your mistakes.”

Ski Jumping

In all honesty, I’ve never seen, known, or heard of recreational ski jumpers. Years ago, when I first moved to Orlando, Fla., there was a ski ramp in the middle of Lake Ivanhoe downtown, but I never saw anyone actually use it. I once idled up next to it and I could understand why. The end of the ramp is 6 feet off the surface of the water.

According to USA Waterski, “most jump distances for the average male and female range between 80 and 170 feet (24 and 52 meters); the Men’s world record is 250 feet.”

Water ski jumping requires a whole new set of equipment, too. The skis are different and a helmet is a must-have item, even for the pros, who aren’t allowed to jump without one lest they be disqualified. For men, “jump pants” are recommended, and if you watch a skier land, you’ll understand what they’re for. Along with the need for good equipment, you need good instruction for this. No one learns to ski jump by goofing around with a few buddies over a weekend. Ski jumping is one of three events on the professional waterski tour, which includes slalom and trick skiing. Water Ski magazine, the leading publication in the sport publishes a list of ski schools here. For a look at the current world record jump, check out this YouTube video. Notice how the skier lands in front of the boat pulling him!

Trick Skiing

The only place I’ve ever seen anyone do any trick skiing is in water-skiing tournaments. It’s not something recreational skiers do very often — but some do.

Trick skis are much shorter than any other kind of water ski, and they don’t have vertical fins (skegs) on the bottom.  This allows the skier to ride the edges, do slides and reverse slides, and do a front-to-back surface turn. One of three events on the pro tour, trick skiing can be as competitive as you want to make it, but it’s been a static sport for years. It paved the way for wakeboarding and eventually wake surfing, so it’s kind of a victim of its own success. You can learn to trick-ski without a pro instructor. In fact, USA Waterski publishes a guide to learning some basic moves (PDF).

The Air Chair lifts the seated rider clear of the water on a hydrofoil. Difficult, wild, and not cheap.

The Air Chair lifts the seated rider clear of the water on a hydrofoil. Difficult, wild, and not cheap.

Air Chair

I remember someone telling me that the Air Chair never really took off because it was done from a seated position, so it didn’t really count as a sport, let alone an extreme sport. It’s probably the most obscure watersport you can think of — and it is pretty weird.

It’s a chair attached to a really wide ski with two foot bindings on it. Then, on the bottom of the ski is a vertical strut with a foil attached to the bottom. The ski brings the rider up on plane, then the foil lifts the skier out of water. It’s a really bizarre thing to see, because the skier is riding a few feet off the surface of the water.

It’s not easy to learn, either. You control how high the chair rides by how you hold the handle in front of your chest. If you want to learn, consider attending a school. If you get bitten by the bug, be ready to fork out big bucks for an Air Chair of your own. Prices start around $1,500 and go up from there. Maybe that’s why the sport never really took off.

Wakeboarding

Wakeboarding was borne on the principles of trick skiing, and this sport has been credited with saving the water sports industry and reviving the tow boat market.

Perhaps the greatest thing about wakeboarding is that the deep water start is one of the easiest in all of water sports, which is usually the biggest hurdle. Just put the board in front of you, yell hit it, stay crouched and you pop on plane and the fins under the board turn it as you rise on plane. Now what? Well, the options are pretty endless, actually. Wakeboarding is one of those sports that takes you just a few minutes to learn and a lifetime to master, which means it’s fun early on in the learning curve and it stays fun.

A wakeboarder gets big air behind a purpose-built  Supra tow-boat.

A wakeboarder gets big air behind a purpose-built Supra tow-boat.

The amount of tricks you can learn will boggle the mind and there are a ton of resources online for learning new moves. What’s more, the majority of the tow boat market is geared toward wakeboarding, so whether you are looking for a new or a used boat, you will find one without any trouble.

Wake Surfing

A derivative of wakeboarding, wake surfing is largely the same except that the boat  throws such a large wake that a tow rope isn’t necessary. The rider actually surfs the wake. Thus the name. Clever, right? Wake-surfing boats are often specialized with built-in water-ballast tanks and  large tabs on the transom to create big hollows and big wakes for the surfer.

Boats designed for wake-surfers have built-in water-ballast tanks and transom tabs that help create major surfing conditions.

Boats designed for wake-surfers have built-in water-ballast tanks and transom tabs that help create major surfing conditions.

The deep-water starts take more skill than wakeboarding because the board has no bindings, but most wake surfers started out wakeboarding, so they should pick up the technique pretty quickly. Once you’re up and running, the list of tricks is nearly infinite and you can always improve your own performance.

Board maker Liquid Force has put together a primer on how to get started in wake surfing. Watch it below.

And no matter what behind-the-boat activities you choose, stay safe and have fun!

This article originally appeared in June, 2015.

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