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What is Water Skiing?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 23, 2024
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Water skiing is a recreational sport enjoyed in lakes, rivers, and less often, the ocean. The skier is pulled behind a powerboat via a ski rope, zipping atop the water on one or two skis. Beginners generally learn on double skis, then progress to a single ski.

Water skis have rubber-molded bindings to keep the feet in place. A set of double skis only has a single binding on each ski, but if one of the doubles is made to optionally use as a single ski, it will feature two bindings. Unlike a skateboard stance in which the lead foot is aligned straight and the rear foot is angled, the bindings on a single ski are both oriented straight ahead. Toes point to the front tip of the ski, one foot directly behind the other. Water skiing requires a good sense of balance.

To do your best water skiing, the ski must be the correct length for the skier’s build. Generally, water skis are roughly three times wider than snow skis, and are made of fiberglass composites. Some long-time enthusiasts from the 1970s and earlier might still have wooden water skis tucked away in the garage or boat.

The bottom contour of a water ski has a lot to do with how the ski will perform. A slightly concave bottom is standard. Competition skis often have deep concave bottoms that respond much faster, dig into the water, and throw a nice spray when the skier leans into or away from the boat.

Water skiing requires the skier to put on a floatation device known as a ski vest. Some water skiers also prefer to wear ski gloves to maintain a better grip on the rope handle. The skier gets in the water and is thrown the rope handle after getting her feet placed in the ski bindings. The nylon ski rope is fastened with a carabiner to a U-bolt on the back of the boat.

Ski ropes are various lengths, with shorter ropes used by more advanced skiers. If a rope is too long, there’s too much slack in turns. The rope can have a double or a single handle.

The boat that will tow the skier slowly pulls away until the rope is taught. The skier must balance in the water, “sitting” on the back of the ski(s) in a squat position, arms extended, holding the rope handle. The ski or skis must be held out in front of the skier with the tip(s) protruding from the water. When ready, the skier commonly calls, Hit it! and the boat accelerates at full speed to get the skier up. Once the skier has stood up fully, the boater backs off the throttle to cruising speed.

All boats throw a wake or path of churned water behind the prop. Water skiing usually involves zipping back and forth across the wake. Some water skis are made with a small hole in the back to throw up a tall spray of water known as a “rooster tail.” Rooster tails make water skiing very showy.

While water skiing, a skier can use hand signals to communicate with the people in the boat. A thumbs down indicates the skier wants to slow down, while a thumbs up indicates a need for speed. When the skier falls or drops off, a red flag must be held up in the boat until the skier and rope are recovered. This is to warn other boaters nearby to stay clear. Hence, water skiing requires at least three people: the driver of the boat, the flag bearer whose job it is to watch the water skier at all times, and the skier.

Water skiing is a very popular activity, created in 1922 by Ralph Samuelson of Minnesota. Today, slalom skiing, hydrofoiling and wakeskating are all additional sports borne of water skiing.

Sports n' Hobbies is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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