You have already discovered that riding a slalom ski is a terrific way to have fun and stay fit behind a boat. As you progress from simply standing on a single ski to crossing the wake, making sharp turns to throw big walls of spray, running the slalom mini course and conquering the full six-buoy course, slalom skiing offers challenges, physical fitness and exhilaration.
How quickly you advance will depend a great deal on body position. Of course you are eager to get up and begin crossing the wake, but think first about how you are standing on the ski. To use the ski’s design and make it work to its potential, you need to be balanced over its bindings. That might sound obvious, but many slalom skiers — including competition skiers — stand too heavily on the tail of the ski. Some skiers believe overweighting the tail is the way to accelerate. Other skiers stress bending the knees, but that can lead to a squatted position, which places too much weight on the tail of the ski. Both are counterproductive. The ideal position is to be balanced on your bindings by having your ankles flexed.
Slalom skiers tend to lock their ankles, which pushes the ski in front of one’s hips and puts weight on the heels. If the ski feels slippery, then you are on your heels. Having locked ankles also makes the ski pop up during wake crossings. Instead, think of flexing your ankles, like a plie in ballet. Relax your calves and feet and bring the ski under your knees. Simultaneously, make sure your hips and seat are raised tall over your bindings. Visualize a stacked position, with your head and shoulders over your hips and your hips over your knees and ankles. Such a stack positions your weight directly over the center of your feet, delivering optimal control of the ski.
Your back should be tall and your arms fairly straight, with just enough bend in the elbows that you can position the handle near waist level. Having your arms at chest level — a common mistake for recreational skiers — causes a weak position, because your shoulders will be absorbing the pull of the boat. When the handle is at waist level, the pull of the boat is spread throughout the body, which reduces the chance of falling forward. To enhance your leverage when crossing the boat’s wake, use a baseball grip on the handle instead of having the palms down on the handle, which is preferred for skiing on a pair of skis or riding a wakeboard.
Boat speed is an important element of success on the water. In slalom competition, the open division men ski at 36 mph, the women at 34. However, depending on weight, 25 to 32 mph is the speed range for recreational slalom skiers. Beginners should start closer to 25 mph and then slowly increase boat speed as they improve.
To cross the wake, point the ski at a mild angle away from the boat using your lower body — feet, knees and hips — to direct the ski at the wake. Make sure to stay in a balanced body position. The goal is to keep the ski on edge through the boat’s wake. Initially, cross the boat’s wake slowly, to develop a rhythm of crossing back and forth. Slalom skiers who go too fast at the wake often let off the edge just before crossing the wake, making the ski ride flat. When a flat ski hits the wake, the ski pops up. You want the ski to slice through the wakes, so it needs to stay on edge. Think pendulum: be fluid and rhythmic. Remember those flexed ankles. Keep your chin up and your eyes at horizon level, so you’re not looking directly at the boat’s wake.
Keep pushing yourself to ski wider (farther away from the wake). Initially, keep both hands on the handle when turning back to the wake; however, as you learn to ski farther away from the wake, begin to release your outside hand — skiing to the right, release your right hand — from the handle to change edges and initiate the turn.
Though you use your lower body to direct and turn the ski, your hands play a big part in any success as a slalom skier, as they and the upper body control the handle. As you ski farther away from the wake, the boat’s pull will bring your hands away from your body. Focus on controlling and keeping your hands near your waist, especially as you ski farther from the wake. Keeping the handle near your waist will help you to ski away from the boat more effectively and yield precise turns.
As you master the basics and develop an understanding of crossing back and forth through the wakes, increase the boat speed. And when you become a slalom addict, you can then test your new skills by conquering the mini-course and finally zigzagging around those six buoys in a slalom course.
Boats for Slaloming
The best boats for slalom skiing are boats with small wakes. Most boats with a shallow hull deadrise (flat hull bottom) create small wakes. For example, even the specialized V-drive wakeboard boats don’t have much hull deadrise. If the ballast is empty and weight kept low in a wakeboard boat, it can provide a low wake ideal for recreational slaloming. Also, single outboard–powered boats often create a low wake ideal for slalom skiers. Outboard-powered deck boats, center consoles and family boats are perfect for recreational slalom skiing.
Using one ski from a combo pair is a great way to learn to slalom. But once you master skiing on a single ski, it’s best to move to a specialized slalom ski that fits your weight, ability level and skiing speed. Slalom skis for adults and teenagers typically come in 2-inch increments, starting at 63 inches and reaching 69 inches. Manufacturers also make slalom skis for junior skiers. Specialized slalom skis have design features in the ski’s bottom and fin that make it more effective to edge through the boat’s wakes and turn the ski.
A slalom line (with a handle) is 75 feet long. Slalom lines for course skiing come with takeoff loops to shorten the line, with the first loop at 15 feet (shortening the line by this amount). If your boat has a small wake, slaloming with the 15-foot takeoff loop on the pylon provides a pendulum effect with the shorter line and less slack when making turns.
Invest in a pair of waterski gloves. They will help with starts, provide a better grip on the handle and prevent blisters.