Whether your local spot is a tide-dependent saltwater bay that can get as shallow as 3-5 feet, or a lake with inconsistent depths, it’s important to know the draft dimensions of your surf boat before launching both for safety and wake quality.
The deeper a boat sits in the water, the bigger wake it will generally make. On the other hand, because a boat with a deep draft is more likely to hit the bottom of the lake in shallow places, you’ll want less draft when driving in shallower areas.
A question many people ask is, which boats create the best wake with the shallowest drive? A good option is typically to choose a direct drive such as the Malibu VTX with lots of added weight or a surf gate.
That said, you still need deeper water to develop a good surf wave – you’ll always get a small wave in 3-5′ shallow water no matter how much ballast you add.
How shallow can you wake/surf in?
Hitting the lake floor can cause significant damage to your boat hull, engine, and propeller while risking the safety of yourself, your passengers, and the rider behind the boat – faceplants and neck-breaking become a risk.
When driving in under 5 feet of water, you’ll also run the risk of hitting unexpected objects (rocks and tree stumps) below the surface of the water. There is little room for error when driving in such shallow water.
A boat with an average draft level will generally be able to reach a comfortable plane in 5 feet of water without sucking up sand and hitting the bottom.
While it’s possible to drive a boat in water as shallow as 3 to 5 feet, the quality of your wake won’t be optimal for wake surfing (and even wakeboarding).
Wake boats require a decent amount of water flow beneath the boat, which is pulled up and directed towards the back of the boat to create a wake.
In order for a wake boat to produce a good quality wake, you should generally be driving in at least 8-foot deep water (or even 10 feet). You might be riding a fine wave in 9′-10′ deep water, but as soon as you enter a 6′ area the wave will likely die.
As long as you’re over the 8-foot depth threshold, however, adding ballast weight allows you to improve the quality of the wake.
Tips for driving a boat in shallow water (below 8 feet)
- If the water is at least 8 feet deep, a surf gate will work well to refine the wake quality by directing water movement into the wake zone.
- However, if you’re expecting to ride in anything under 8 feet deep, disassemble or disable your surf gate. It will dig even further into the water, increasing the draft of your boat, and will make underwater collisions more likely.
- Distribute your ballast weight evenly across the boat vs focusing on just one rear corner. More even distribution of the weight so as to “sink” the entire boat.
- Keep an eye on the depth meter. Once you hit 6 feet, the wake will likely lose power and your rider will lose momentum. Depth in natural bodies of water can change faster than expected.
What type of boat is best for 3-5’ shallow water?
Boats that sit deep in the water and boast a V-drive engine are designed to create a good quality, clean curling wake. However, these boat qualities directly conflict with shallow water driving and require deeper conditions to work safely.
This being said, there are some V-drive boats that, when paired with other characteristics, can work decently in shallow water.
Jet boat for shallow water
Boats with a jet engine are the safest to run in shallow water, as their propellers don’t sit any deeper than the hull of the boat, therefore not increasing the draft.
However, even with weighted ballast tanks, these boats won’t produce high-quality wakes for wake surfing and wakeboarding.
Inboard jet engines (for example, the Seadoo Wake 230 or 210) work similarly to jet skis, which suck water through an impeller to propel the boat forwards.
These are safe for shallow water as there is no spinning propeller at risk of running aground. However they lack control when driving at slow speeds, which is necessary when wake surfing.
Regardless of whether you ride in shallow or deep water, jet engine boats create a washy wake which isn’t optimal for wakeboarding or wake surfing when compared with a V-drive or a direct-drive.
Unless you’re sure you’ll spend most of your time in 3 to 5 foot deep water, you should probably opt for a boat that produces a better wake and limit your shallow water driving time.
Stern-drive for shallow water
From outboard to outboard/inboard stern-drive engines, these engines come in center console (CC) and dual console (DC) layouts and are best used for fast cruising, fishing, and tubing. They don’t create a solid wake frame and shape.
Depending on the horsepower of your engine(s), a 150 – 200 HP outboard boat can work as an all-rounder boat that can reach a plane in shallow 5-foot water, while producing a small wake for beginner and children wakeboarders.
If you are used to Mastercraft or Malibu wakes, however, you’re in for some disappointment. Also, wakesurfing behind an outboard is never safe.
Direct-drive for shallow water
A direct-drive is a type of inboard engine which is positioned in the central underside of the boat.
Direct drives don’t place the propeller too deep into the water and create a flatter wake, making them the most popular engine types for ski boats.
This shallow positioning uses energy to lift the boat up onto a plane, rather than pushing its stern into the water.
Aside from being energy-efficient, it’s a safe option for shallow water as its draft decreases significantly as soon as the boat reaches a plane.
A direct-drive won’t dig the propeller low into the water when pulling up a wakeboarder and hence is technically a safe option in shallow water – it doesn’t increase the draft and is usually paired with a flat hull.
However, it generally won’t produce a big enough wake with lots of pop for a wakeboarder – through heavy weighting across the boat helps.
V-drive for shallow water
V-drive engines are positioned towards the stern of a boat, weighing down the back of the boat to create the best wake shape and size out of any other engines.
They do, however, sit deeper in the water, and require deeper water to be able to churn up and throw out a large wake.
V-drives are ideal for creating a quality wake when driving in at least 8 feet of water (which is still considered shallow).
That said, when driving in water shallower than 5 feet deep, a V-drive still won’t produce a decent-sized surf wave. You’ll also risk damaging the engine on the lake floor.
So to recap, jet boats and outboard/stern-drives are safer to run in super shallow water under 5 feet deep, and you won’t be risking damaging the engine as much as you would with a protruding direct drive or V-drive propeller.
However, you also won’t be able to produce a sizable, quality wake, so the decision will depend on how time you plan to spend in shallow water vs how important a quality wake/surf wave is to you.
How deep do boats sit in the water?
To measure how deep a boat sits in water, you’ll need to take a look at its draft measurements.
The draft of a boat is measured by the distance between the waterline and the deepest part of the hull and is determined when the boat is floating or idling at a stationary position.
The draft of a boat is naturally influenced by the weight of its passengers, ballast, and equipment, who could drop the draft an extra 9-12 inches.
It’s also determined by the body of water you drive in; a boat will have less draft in salt water than fresh water because salt water is much denser.
As mentioned earlier, another consideration is that when you start the engine and accelerate to reach planing speed, the stern of the boat will dig up to a foot lower into the water.
Once you reach a plane though, the draft will decrease slightly as the hull of the boat is propelled forward and lifted over the water.
For example, a boat with a 22-inch draft could decrease to a 14-inch planing-draft when driving at a stable speed.
Recommended surf boat for shallow water: Malibu Wakesetter VLX
The Malibu Wakesetter VLX is a great option if you’re looking for a quality wake boat that can drive in shallow water (over 5 feet deep).
It’s a V-drive with a 27″ draft, weighing in at 4200 lbs without added capacity. It’s a dedicated wake boat capable of producing a decent quality wake.
As discussed, V-drives can get low under water, increasing the risk of hitting obstacles below the surface. The Wakesetter’s relatively low draft for its size, however, makes it a good compromise for shallow-ish water (3′ +) while still offering a good wake at 10’+ depths.
The VLX features Malibu’s sport-specific “Diamond Wake Plus” hull: the rear of the boat lifts up when at planing speed, whereas most wake boats prioritize weighing the stern down.
This creates a softer and flatter wake. While ideal for skiers, it can easily be ridden by wakeboarders as well in shallow-ish waters.
When not riding in really shallow water, adding in weighted ballast tanks significantly increases the size of the wake for wakesurfing.
In short, the VLX may ne the closest you get to the best of both worlds, offering safety in relatively shallow water with a decent wake, and a potentially solid surf wave in deeper waters when set up right.
It’s not generally not advised to drive a designated wake boat in waters shallower than 5′. Wake boats with V-drive engines are designed to run with deep water underneath the boat to create a sizable wake.
While they may be able to safely drive in 5-foot water, most won’t produce a decent wake worth riding.
If you plan to drive your boat in super shallow conditions (under 5-feet deep) most of the time, you might be better off choosing a safer jet boat, reducing your expectations with regards to wake or surf wave quality.