The art of wakeboarding is like a tandem dance between the wakeboarders and the boat driver. Being pulled by someone who knows how to drive a boat for wakeboarding is essential for a good wakeboard session.
What are the most important skills to have for a boat driver to pull a wakeboard?
- Drive the boat at wakeboarding speed, e.g. 12-15 mph for a beginner wakeboarder, 15-18 mph for intermediate, 18-22 mph for advanced
- Learn drive patterns to avoid fighting your own wake and rollers and messing up water conditions
- Use steady acceleration to get the wakeboarder up and planing on the water
- Run straight lines as much as possible to create a steady wake for your wakeboarder
- When the wakeboarder falls, pull the throttle and wait for waves to disperse
- Use the right drive patterns at idle speed to pick-up a fallen wakeboarder
- Communicate with your wakeboarder using hand signals and stay focused on them and on your surroundings
- Learn to put slack in the rope by pulling back on boat speed to help soften hard landings
Let’s dig in a bit deeper into the appropriate boat speeds when pulling a wakeboard.
Pulling a wakeboard: wakeboarding speed
Towing a wakeboarder is different from pulling a water skier. Skiers typically require a strong, powerful start near full throttle. In contrast, a wakeboarder can get up and going on the water with a boat speed barely above idle.
The acceleration for wakeboarding should be much slower until the rider gets up on the board – no “hitting it” like for skiing. As a boat driver, you need to move the throttle up to speed steadily at take-off.
Smaller riders, e.g. younger kids and girls, and beginners, can get out of the water with a wakeboarding speed as low as 12 mph. Even though working the board is easier at faster pull speeds, starting slow is less intimidating and helps riders get started.
Beginners, however, often require a bit more throttle, as some learners tend to fight the pull and try to stand up early, as opposed to letting the boat slowly pull them up while in crouched position.
while 12 mph is the minimum wakeboarding speed, for average riders a 12-15 mph speed normally provides a nice and fun ride, and allows beginners to get familiar with their edges. Once a rider becomes more confident, you can progressively increase wakeboarding speed to around 18 mph.
For a struggling wakeboarder, you can initially drive at very low 5-10 mph speed to let them feel the rope pull as it lifts them out of the water, but without the intimidating force of a faster start. Then go a bit faster on each new attempt until the rider gets up.
When driving, you can tell a wakeboarder is ready for more speed if you see them cutting across the wake and attempting jumps without falling a lot. Maximum wakeboarding speed is normally in the 18-24 mph range for advanced riders. Pulling a wakeboard faster than that is not recommended.
For advanced riders, higher wakeboarding speeds (above the 20 mph mark) create a cleaner and more consistent wake better for doing flips and rolls – as opposed to soft and mushy low-speed wakes which tend to “absorb” the rider’s board.
Patterns for driving a boat for wakeboarding
There are a few patterns you can use when towing a wakeboarder. The objectives for these patterns are to:
- Create a clean and straight wake for the rider to try jumps
- Avoid towing the wakeboarder into choppy and messy water
- Keep the rider from losing control of their speed in turns
The first basic principle is to run a straight line as much as possible. As soon as the boat and wakeboard are planing, you should pick out and lock your eyes on a spot on the horizon or the coast and aim to it.
By doing this, you’ll reduce the boat’s turning and rocking, helping maintain a very clean and consistent wake for the wakeboarder.
Maintaining a constant acceleration is another important aspect since quick accelerations will create a sudden pull on the rope which may destabilize the rider. Sudden decelerations, on the other hand, create rope slack and can lead the rider to get too close to the boat.
Turning a boat when pulling a wakeboarder is another essential skill. Turns need to be broad and start with a pre-turn in the opposite direction before drawing an ellipse. This has two desirable consequences:
- With a wide boat turn, the wakeboarder gets pulled to the side into the calm water area away from the wake
- As you get into the turn, you can see the wave rollers you’ve made coming in, and you can go through them to break them apart and make it easier for your wakeboarder to cross
A common such pattern is a “dumbell”-shaped course. You’re going straight initially and get ready to turn around (let’s assume you turn right):
- First make a quick left pre-turn
- Then steer right 180º drawing a broad arc
- Get out of the turn and drive back toward the wake you made
- Slow down a little and go through the rollers using the same line
- Take the straight line in the opposite direction until your next turn
- Do a 180º turn again in the same manner, completing the dumbell
In contrast, an example of a bad boat driving pattern for wakeboarding is a wide oval course. With this pattern, your boat sends roller waves toward the center of the oval, completely messing up the water conditions for you and for other wakeboarders.
Important tip: when pulling a wakeboard, if you are forced to cross a boat wake, the best way is to do so at 45º instead of head-on (perpendicular). If your rider is proficient, he/she will probably take this kind of angle anyway even if the boat doesn’t.
Boat driver tips for recovering a fallen wakeboarder
In addition to using the right speed, acceleration, and driving course when pulling a wakeboard, you should know how to drive your boat for recovering a fallen rider.
The first thing you need to do as soon as your wakeboarder falls is to slow to a near stop by fully pulling the throttle. Turning the boat around at speed is not only unsafe for boat passengers and the fallen rider, it will create waves all the way to the shore and mess up the water for your next runs.
Once you’re back down to idle speed, steer the boat either left or right and let the waves turn the boat around fully. Stop and wait for the waves to fade out completely. Once the water around the boat is back to calm, you can idle slowly back toward your wakeboarder.
You should always approach the floating wakeboarder from the driver’s side so you can see him/her in front of you at all times and not risk hitting him/her. Steer past the rider, fully stop the boat and let it slide about 12 more feet from the wakeboarder.
Take into account any winds and/or currents, be sure to choose the right side for approaching to avoid the boat drifting against the rider.
Here again, there are a couple of common driving patterns you can use to pick up your wakeboarder, such as:
- Wakeboarder falls
- Turn the boat around and idle toward the rider
- Drive by and swoop around the rider to get the rope over them without it getting tangled around him/her
- Once ready, run the same line but opposite direction as before the fall
Another pattern for picking up your rider:
- Wakeboarder falls
- Turn around and idle toward the rider
- Loop around the rider, dragging the rope behind him/her
- Drive back to the previous line, in the same direction
Using hand signals for boat driver-wakeboarder communication
When pulling a wakeboarder, it’s crucial that you, the boat driver (or a spotter next to you) always keep an eye on the rider, e.g. using rearview mirrors.
Additionally, communicating with the wakeboarder using hand signs is essential for safety and coordination. Here are a few of the most common hand signals:
- Thumb up: go faster
- Thumb down: slow down
- Cut (neck cutting movement): I want to quit
- Patting your head: I want to quit (go back to shore)
- Grabbing your wrist above your head: I’m good (e.g. after a fall)
Additional tips for pulling a wakeboarder
The following are some important tips you should be aware of when driving a boat for wakeboarding:
- Keep your mind and eyes focused on the wakeboarder you’re towing, and on the water area ahead of you. Blasting the music can take your attention away and therefore is not a good idea when towing someone.
- If your wakeboarder is doing advanced jump tricks, you can make it safer for him/her by pulling back the throttle and giving rope slack while s/he is getting air and likely to land hard.
- Always a reasonable distance from the coast, swimmers, boats, other riders, etc.
Driving a boat for wakeboarding requires some skills and experience. If you’re used to towing water skiers, the speeds and accelerations involved in wakeboarding are different.
When pulling a wakeboarder, it’s also essential to maintain a straight-line course as much as possible as well as specific looping driving patterns so as to keep the wake clean for the rider to perform nice tricks.
Playing it safe when recovering a fallen wakeboarder is key, bringing the boat to a stop and letting the waves fade out before approaching the rider at low speed.
(1) Featured image: “Water taxi leaves Lund” (CC BY 2.0) by Ruth and Dave
(2) “2012_SX190_12” (CC BY 2.0) by Yamaha WaterCraft
(3) “Dan behind the wake” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by star5112
(4) “The Wake” (CC BY 2.0) by chawkfan91