In competitive tow sports events , an ideal tow (pull) is imperative for setting records and personal bests. Professional wakeboarders and waterskiers can tell when boat speed varies by as little as three-tenths of a mph, when the boat moves just a few inches from a straight path or when the tow boat is not perfectly level. But quality driving should not be exclusive to the pros.
Getting an exact pull benefits everyone from champions to beginners. In fact, a competent driver can instill confidence in an apprehensive beginner, while a less-than-optimal pull can lead to a fall. Master five skill sets competitive drivers possess, so you can deliver a fun and productive day on the water.
Truly great competitive drivers never drive for what they think the tow should be; instead, they drive for the person in tow. To do that, they communicate with participants before they get in the water. Ask riders whether they prefer a soft or strong pull for the start, and whether they have a preferred speed. Beginners may not know what they need, in which case it is better to be cautious and go softer on the pull up and slower for the top speed. A skier’s choice of a soft or fast pull up may not be based solely on weight. The size of the ski or board and the person’s technique also influence the type of pull desired.
Once the skier is in the water, make sure he says “hit it” before you put the boat in gear and accelerate. Make sure you and your skier know and use the proper skier/rider signals. If you are driving in a waterway that requires a turn at each end, ask the rider if he prefers to turn (spin) or set down.
Such communication demonstrates to skiers that you understand their individual needs, and it allows them to focus on performance.
Safe driving improves the rider experience. When riders know you are vigilant about safety, they will relax and focus on learning and having fun. Find a part of the waterway, preferably calm, far from docks or other obstructions. Choose an area with few other boats. In busy areas, get out on weekdays or early mornings. If you must interact with other boats, keep them at a distance and stay away from their wake.
Ask one person in the boat to be the spotter, someone who sits next to the driver, watches the rider, and relays any requests (e.g., faster, slower, back to the dock) or an alert if the person falls. Pick up fallen riders as quickly as you safely can. Either slow to idle and circle the tow rope around him for another start, or turn off the engine to pick the skier up if he is finished.
Even with a spotter, mount a mirror on the dash or to the windshield. The mirror allows the driver to keep his eyes on the horizon but see the status of the person in tow. Without a mirror, drivers tend to turn their head and shoulders around to look at the action, which is not only unsafe driving but can pull the boat off the desired path.
Speed varies from 10 mph for wakesurfing to 40 mph for a 200-pound barefoot skier, so be familiar with the various activities’ needs. (Reference the Towsports Speeds chart.) When the skier or rider is getting into the water, turn off the motor. Stretch the line taut at idle speed. When the towee says “hit it,” move the throttle from neutral to in gear and up to speed smoothly, seamlessly and progressively, taking care not to overshoot the target speed. Glance at the speedometer to set the throttle for the desired speed. The more you drive, the more sensitive to this you will become. To help get an accurate speed, use a handheld GPS speedometer on the dash as a backup.
STRAIGHT BOAT PATH
While occasionally you might want to give someone a leisurely tow around the lake, following the shoreline, generally you should drive the straightest possible path. With the boat tracking straight, the rider can focus on a trick, or a beginner or slalom skier can concentrate on wake crossings. A straight path also keeps the wake shape and size consistent. At the end of the pass, the driver can bring the boat to a stop, or turn and take the rider back down the original boat path.
LEVEL, BALANCED BOAT
Where passengers sit in the boat affects the shape of the wake. And except for wakesurfing, it’s better to have a uniform size and shape on either side. As you pull the person up, check whether the boat is level from gunwale to gunwale, and that the wake is uniform on each side. Don’t be afraid to move people around — even just a few inches — to achieve balance.
Zenon Bilas is a seven-time U.S. natio nal barefoot waterski champion. For coaching information, visit zenonbilas.com.