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Be A Better Wakesports Driver

A seasoned pro offers 3 key tips for boat skippers to ensure a fun, safe day on the water.

Heading out to open water for some watersports fun

The driver is heading out into open water for some watersports fun, well away from this narrow residential ­waterway. (Photo: Zenon Bilas)

The wakesports boat driver is much more than someone who sits behind the wheel and moves the throttle. The driver is critical to having a successful, fun, and safe experience behind the boat and has two responsibilities: Keep the person in tow and everyone in the boat safe, and drive in a way that ensures fun and success for the individual behind the boat. Good driving is important for all who love wakesports, from pros to those who enjoy riding a tube.

The pros can tell when the speed is too slow or too fast by as little as one-third mph, or when the boat veers just a few inches from a straight path. Recreational enthusiasts, however, are less aware of the driver's contribution. But by paying attention to three keys, the driver will maximize everyone's success, fun, and safety.

360-Degree Awareness

Develop an awareness of what's going on around you — both on the water and inside the boat. The driver should look for calm, open waterways free of docks, channel markers, and anchored boats, at least 10 feet deep, a minimum of 150 feet away from structures or shore (or follow local boating laws), and with minimal boat traffic.

In the boat, make sure passenger weight is evenly distributed. This keeps the boat level, creating a flat table and symmetrical wake. Passengers in the bow should move to the cockpit or sit low to give the driver an unobstructed view of the waterway.

Bilas coaches a seminar attendee during one of his presentations

Bilas coaches a seminar attendee during one of his presentations of For the Love of Wakesports at the Atlanta Boat Show. (Photo: NMMA/Johnny Cain)

The driver should make sure the tow line is attached correctly to the pylon or the tow harness connected to the transom eyes. Never attach the tow line to a cleat on the boat. The driver should ensure all safety equipment needed, such as U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets, is on board.

The most important accessory for a wakesports driver is something many weekenders don't think of: a rear-view mirror. Specialized wakesports boats come standard with a mirror. However, aftermarket mirrors are available for all boats, including center-consoles and pontoon boats, allowing the driver to watch the person in tow while facing forward. The mirror also helps alert the driver to any boating traffic behind the person in tow.

The spotter should sit next to the driver, facing aft, providing another set of eyes to watch the person in tow and for any boating traffic behind or to the sides of the boat. The spotter also can communicate any signals given from the person in tow to the driver.

6 Safety Tips

1. Make sure passengers' hands and feet stay clear of the line.

2. Turn engine off when skier/rider enters the water and before climbing into the boat.

3. Use the mirror to see how skier/rider is doing and to know immediately of a fall.

4. Veer away from other boating traffic to keep the person in tow safe.

5. Use your smartphone to ensure accurate GPS speeds.

6. Never intentionally try to throw a rider from a tube or to put the skier/rider in harm's way.

Clear Communications

A sound system is a fun addition to your boat, but it should be muted when driving for wakesports. This allows the driver to listen for boating traffic and to communicate better with the spotter and person in tow.

The person in tow should use a few simple verbal commands when starting. When the individual is ready and the tow line is stretched out, he or she should say "in gear" and "hit it." That tells the driver to put the throttle into gear and then to accelerate. The person in tow should use the command "stop" when wanting the driver to put the boat in neutral. The skier/rider should never say "no" or "go" as it's easy for the driver to mishear these commands. Once on top of the water, the person in tow should communicate with hand signals. (See "Common Watersports Hand Signals" below to learn common ones.) Ask for input after each pass and at the end of the session.

Common Watersports Hand Signals

Waterskiing hand signals illustration

1. Faster: Thumb up
2. Slower: Thumb down
3. Go right, go left: Point right, point left
4. We're turning around: Driver's or spotter's arm up, pointing, making circles
5. Make another loop: Skier's arm up, pointing, making circles
6. I'm finished and letting go of tow rope: Skier uses a hand to simulate "slice across neck"
7. I'm OK: Skier in water, arms overhead forming a circle, fingertips touching
8. That's just right: Skier makes the OK symbol
9. Stay behind the boat. Danger ahead: Spotter extends one arm in front of his/her body and moves it up and down
10. Get me back in the boat: Skier pats head
11. Possible injury. Boat should return to skier immediately: No movement, skier in water

In 1922, a teenager named Ralph Samuelson strapped a couple of pine boards to his feet and got a boat to drag him through the water of Lake Pepin, Minnesota, becoming the inventor of waterskiing. The new sport grew quickly with the rise of family powerboating, and at last count (the U.S. Coast Guard's 2011 recreational boating survey), roughly a third of U.S. boaters went waterskiing, wakeboarding, and tubing during the course of a year. If you're new to the sport, don't expect to perfect the human pyramid your first time out — you'll be lucky if you stand up — but you must learn the hand signals to communicate with the spotter and the driver of the boat. There aren't many signals (you aren't negotiating a peace treaty here), but knowing them will make your outing go more smoothly and be more fun.

First of all, when the skier is still floating in the water, and the driver and spotter are getting ready to go, verbal communication is important. The spotter should call, "Ready?" and the skier should respond, "Hit it" or "Wait." Never use the words "go" or "no" as they sound too much alike over the roar of the engines. The driver will have his or her eyes on the path ahead, and the spotter will have eyes on the skier. So the following signals are an important part of a great, safe day of watersports. Review them with your crew while everyone is still in the boat.

— Chris Landers

Develop Wheel & Throttle Sensitivity

The driver should focus on the person in tow, developing a feeling for what's going on behind the boat. At the start, ask the individual if he or she would like a slower or faster acceleration and the speed the skier/rider prefers (see "Suggested Wakesports Boat Speeds" below). The driver should have the person in tow directly behind the boat with a tight line before starting. Then accelerate smoothly when the person in tow says "in gear" and "hit it."

Suggested Wakesports Boat Speeds

  • Tubing: 15 to 20 mph
  • Wakesurfing: 10 mph
  • Wakeboarding: 15 to 20 mph
  • Kneeboarding for kids: 10 to 15 mph
  • Kneeboarding for teens and adults: 15 to 20 mph
  • Water skiing for kids (two skis): 15 to 23 mph
  • Water skiing for adults (two skis): 20 to 25 mph
  • Slalom skiing (kids): 20 to 25 mph
  • Slalom skiing (Adults): 25 to 32 mph
  • Barefooting: 30 to 40 mph (speed depends on body weight)

When approaching wakes or bumpy conditions, the driver should slightly reduce the speed to allow the skier/rider to handle them more easily. If the waves are large, the driver should stop the boat before reaching them. If the skier/rider falls, the driver should immediately slow down, turn, and head back to the fallen skier/rider. Look for other boats that may be approaching the person in the water and be prepared to signal. When approaching, the driver should slow to an idle and keep the skier/rider on the driver's side to better see the person in the water. It's also helpful to approach from down wind or current.


Read the article "Wakeboat Etiquette" to learn how to minimize conflicts with other boaters.

Driving well for wakesports can be an empowering and satisfying experience — a collaboration between driver and skier/rider. The more engaged the driver is, the more enjoyable the experience. So work on your driving skills, and watch everyone in the boat stay safe and happy.

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Zenon Bilas

Contributor, BoatUS Magazine

Keynote speaker, writer, competitor, and coach, Zenon Bilas ( began water skiing in 1975 and later won nine USA barefoot water ski championship titles and a gold medal at the 2022 World Masters Barefoot Water Ski Championship. He was inducted into the Ukrainian Sports Hall of Fame in 2020.