Watersports Safety Guide
Participating in watersports is one of the most enjoyable aspects of boating. Whether you prefer to waterski, ride an inflatable tube, wakeboard or wakesurf, these activities are a great way to bond with family and friends and truly make the most of your boating investment. As with all activities, however, safety should always come first.
Here are some basic safety tips and suggestions to help you enjoy any towable watersport.
Tips for a Fun & Safe Watersports Experience
- Whatever towable you choose, always wear a Coast Guard-approved life jacket. A Type III vest-style life jacket is the best choice. Its body-hugging fit won’t restrict movement, while the broad torso coverage offers a degree of impact protection in the event of a hard fall.
- Always have a designated spotter aboard, a passenger whose sole task is to keep an eye on the person skiing or riding and communicate their needs to the driver.
- The spotter and participant should know and understand the meaning of basic watersports hand signals. These include a thumbs up or down to indicate a desire to go faster or slower, a pat atop the head to request a return to the dock, and both hands overhead with fingertips touching to signal the rider is OK following a fall.
As the driver, the safety of passengers and the skier or rider is your responsibility. Here's a few factors to keep in mind:
- Underway, maintain a safe distance from the shoreline, other boats sharing the water, and any obstacles.
- Focus on a safe path and the water ahead, letting the spotter keep track of the action behind.
- When returning to a downed skier, always keep that skier on the driver’s side so as to never lose sight of their position relative to the boat.
- Never let a skier or rider gear up on the swim platform, slip into the water or reboard without first shutting off the engine.
Drivers should be aware of the average speeds used in each activity, and how strongly to pull a rider out of the water upon starting.
- Water skiers typically prefer between 25 to 36 MPH
- Wakeboarders 18 to 22 MPH
- Wakesurfers as little as 11 to 12 MPH
Pull board riders more gradually from a deepwater start; skiing typically requires more aggressive acceleration, particularly with larger riders or those riding a single ski. And remember, never drive for watersports, or participate in them, when under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Boat Tubing Safety Tips
Inflatable tubes may seem like the simplest of towables, but they deserve additional attention.
Always follow the manufacturer’s recommendations regarding the number of passengers and/or weight capacities. Overloading an inflatable will reduce its performance, but more importantly, it increases the risk of injury. Any towing speed limits should always be followed so that the inflatable behaves as intended.
Proper inflation is essential, not only to make sure the inflatable rides properly on the water but also to keep passengers safe. Inflatables typically feature an inner air bladder wrapped in a durable nylon cover. A properly inflated tube will behave as one unit, while an under-inflated tube will leave gaps between the cover and bladder that could potentially entangle a rider(s). Inflatables should also always be used with dedicated towlines designed to handle their increased load.
Take extra care when driving. Old-school “whips” are fun, but be aware that inflatables can reach surprisingly high speeds when slingshotted into a sharp turn. Likewise, watch those wakes, of both your boat as well as others on the water. Flinging riders through a turn or sending them flying off the rollers may seem fun, but if not done within reason can result in injury.
For more safe tubing tips, read Boat Safety Tips for Watersports Tubing.
Wakesurfing happens in close proximity to the transom (aka, the back of the boat), and as such requires a boat that positions the prop well under the hull and away from the rider should they fall. Inboards, V-drives and jet boats fit the bill, as do models featuring sterndrives with forward-mounted propellers. Traditional sterndrives and outboards, however, locate the propeller too close to the surfer and should never be used for surfing. Wakesurf-oriented boat models also typically feature an exhaust system that keeps harmful carbon monoxide from building up in the surfer’s prime riding area.
Here's a few safety tips to keep in mind when wakesurfing:
- Invest in a wakesurf-specific towrope. Its shorter length positions the surfer in the wake’s sweet spot, while the small handle, or a simple braided grip, lessens the chance of entanglement in a fall.
- When maneuvering the board into the wave’s pocket, never wrap slack line around your hand or arm.
- And though it’s not a safety tip per se, always be aware of the effect of wakes on the surrounding environment. In surfing mode, boats create far larger-than-average wakes. Should you ride too close to shore or other boaters, those wakes can cause damage.
- Always be respectful of both other boaters and waterfront property owners.
Looking for more on watersports or additional safety tips? Read...
- Boat Tubing Basics
- Wakesurfing: Tips on How to Get Started
- Life Jackets, Vests & PFDs: How to Choose the Right Fit
- Basic Safe Boating Tips
- Watersports Basics
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in June 2017 and updated in October 2019.