How to Communicate with Hand Signals

Verbal interaction isn't always possible during a wake session. An understanding of visual cues can make all the difference.

One of my favorite things about watersports is I get to do them with family and friends. Recreational boarders and skiers can pack up the boat, a cooler, some sunscreen and hit the water for the day with people they enjoy. Everyone drives; everyone gets time behind the boat.

What always cracks me up is when someone tries to “talk” to the boat from 70 feet behind it. Most of us can’t yell that loud. And if the boat is going about 20 mph, the engine and wind are going to drown out the yeller’s voice. Kids, especially, look like they’re trying to tell everyone a story from back there, but no one in the boat is catching a single word. That’s why hand signals are so important, and generally universal.

There tends to be a set number of things the rider may want to tell the driver, and vice versa. Those things have very simple signals that communicate silently. Nobody needs to yell. The first couple pertain to speed. Riders can give a thumbs-up with a little upward motion if they want to go faster, and a thumbs-down with a little downward motion to go slower. If the speed is pretty close and the rider wants a small speed change, he should follow this motion with a pinching motion, indicating “just a little.” If the speed is way off, he should hold the thumbs-up/down motion for a longer time.

The next signal everyone should know pertains to stopping. To go back to the dock, the rider should put her hand on her head — an open palm or a closed fist indicates the same thing. If the rider needs the driver to cut the motor, basically pull over and stop for a minute, she should wave a flat hand horizontally under her chin.

Sometimes the rider or spotter needs to signal that the boat is going to turn around. To do this, put an index finger straight up in the air and make circles pointed at the sky. The rider can point toward a shoreline, if he wants to have the boat drive over there. And someone in the boat can point to a side, telling the rider to cut out to that side. And of course, a rider who falls should raise an arm and wave, to let the boat driver know he’s OK. Otherwise, the boat crew will assume he is injured and rush back to save him.

Those are standard hand signals that everyone on the water needs to know. In a direct coach-to-student situation, the signals advance a bit. At Freedom Wake Park, we use a lot of body demonstration. For example, if I want someone to pull her shoulders back, I’ll stand up, hunch my shoulders over and then exaggerate rolling them back. The same is true for any bodyposition correction. We can imitate locked out knees, shake a fi nger, and then demonstrate a body position with knees bent for better stability. To get a rider to balance his weight, we stand with more weight obviously on one leg and then even out the stance.

When it comes to getting someone to ride with his head up, we have a couple of signals. I look straight down and then either tap under my chin to bring my head up. Or I motion with my fingers that her eyeline should go toward the horizon.

Other common hand signals we use are for learning tricks. When I put my hands up and make the shape of a rooftop, that is the signal for “wake.” I generally use it to tell riders to use the wake better, or that they’re going early. They need to wait until the very top of the wake to take off for the jump. I tap my fingertips together like the top of a triangle to emphasize “top of the wake.” Sometimes it’s important to tell someone to push longer through the wake. I take two fingers and straighten them out downward, like an upside-down peace symbol, to indicate “push.” Then I open my hands far apart from each other to indicate “longer.”

We tell students to keep their chest up by patting our chest and then sending that hand toward the sky. You can even follow this motion with the “wake” signal after it, to indicate they should keep their chest up at the wake. The combination of signals is really where the coaching can advance. For example, I can put my hands out in front of me, open and close my fists, then hold them closed like they’re on a handle. This tells the rider to keep two hands on the handle. Then I can follow this instruction with the signal for “longer” and “at the wake.”

Most of these are pretty universal and easy to understand. However, hand signals are like their own language, and every region may have its own slang. I remember a friend trying to tell me that the water was shallow by pushing his hands together vertically. I thought he was telling me to go smaller. It made no sense at all. But we had a good laugh after we figured out each other’s hand signal lingo. Knowing that, it’s always a good idea to go over any unique phrasing ahead of time, especially if the lake has unusual caution areas.


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