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Learning to water ski

Updated on August 19, 2013

Don Gately waterskiing

and riding the Air Chair

You don't have to be an athlete to enjoy water sports

You see all those people out on the water on skis, wakeboards, tubes, air chairs, and you think it looks like fun. It is - big time fun! You think maybe you’d like to give it a try, but you keep putting if off. It is probably too expensive, you think. Or it’s just for young folks. Or you need to be athletic.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. You don’t need a lot of money to give it a try. You don’t have to be young (I’m 76), and you don’t have to be an athlete. I have very little athletic ability. You don’t even have to be in good shape - but that would certainly help.


In my area, a state university offers a class in water skiing. They provide the boat, the skis, the instructor and even have dibs on a nearby lake. All the student pays is a very low fee, like he would for any class.

Not every city, or even every state, will have a school that offers waterski lessons, but you’d be surprised what you can find on the internet.

Go to a boat dealer and ask about getting started. They may see you as a possible future customer and be glad to give you a tip. They may know of a ski club in your area, or just a customer who likes to go out. Remember, boat owners need others to go water-skiing. They can’t do it alone. There always has to be at least 3 people - a driver, an observer (usually required by law) and the skier.

How about a club? In my area, Southern California, there are a number of clubs that welcome new members. Some are clubs that snow ski in the winter and are into water sports in the summer. Other clubs are strictly for water sports. These clubs will usually take you out once or twice to see how you like it before they will expect you to come with your own equipment. Not every area is like California, but you won’t know what’s happening in your area if you don’t check it out. Look in the internet to find clubs in your area.

Resorts are more expensive, but if you’re going to go on a vacation anyway, go to Club Med or Sandals or any of a number of resorts that offer water skiing as part of their activities. They’ll have expert instructors to help you.



What about equipment? You don’t want to bug others about borrowing their stuff more than once or twice. Not a good way to be popular. So, either go to a sporting goods store or look for used equipment at a garage sale, on Ebay, at a Salvation Army store, a Goodwill Store, or a Play it Again shop (if there are any of these where you live.).

You will probably want to start off with doubles. These are the least expensive, and the ones you are most likely to find used, because lots of folks don’t stay on doubles long before they want to move on to single or “slalom” skiing. Just be sure the bindings fit comfortably on your feet, and judge the length of the skis by your size - long skis for big folks, short skis for little folks.

You’ll want a ski vest. In fact, most places require it. It is a primary safety device. In the unlikely event of an accident, a good vest could keep you from drowning. Besides, it is buoyant so it will help you float while you are in the water, both before and after you are actually up and moving over the water.

Some folks like a helmet. I don’t wear one. Where I live, they are not required. But it is a good safety feature, and if it makes you feel more secure, by all means, go for it.

Gloves are a good idea. They help you hold on to the rope handle. And, when you get to a single ski, or even if your bindings on your doubles are tight, you may want to get some “slime” to help your feet slide into tight bindings. It is sold wherever water sports toys are sold. Or, you can just use soap to help you slip your feet into tight bindings - although soap is a bad idea for the environment.

And, I’d advise wearing a bathing suit. People might stare if you go without one.


If you just want to see what it feels like to get pulled over the water, get a ride on a tube. It’s fun. Kids usually love it. But, if that’s all you want to do, you wouldn’t be reading this.

So, you have a pair of doubles the right size, and your feet will fit in the bindings. You’ve found a boat, driver and observer. You’re ready to go.

Some people may advise a ‘shallow water start, where your skis touch the bottom. I don’t. I have no experience with that. Anyway, it sounds like a good way to get pulled over on your face.

I advise a deep water start - deep enough where your skis can’t touch bottom. So, now you have to put the skis on. This is, I think, the hardest part of the whole process. If the boat, hopefully, has a swim step, that will make it a little easier. Otherwise, you’ll have to throw the skis over the side, jump in, swim for them, then struggle to get them on. Now, either you’ve taken the rope with you, or someone throws you the rope. You have to get lined up behind the boat, straight behind the boat, with both skis pointed toward the boat.

Now, the hardest part is over. Pull your knees up to your chest. The skis should be out of the water at about a 45-degree angle, facing straight at the boat. Hold your arms out straight. Relax.

Now - holler HIT IT! Keep your arms straight. My wife used to tell newcomer ladies to keep their tits high. The idea is to keep your chest pointed up - but don’t lean back much. Also, push with your legs to keep your body from being pulled over the front of the skis.

At this point, the most common mistake newbies make is pulling in the handle. Often, they do it over and over in spite of the driver - or whomever - urging them not to do it. They get a little slack in the rope and pulling in is instinctive. Every time you do that, you will fall down. You must overcome it.

Some people get it the first try. Most don’t. But usually, in one day, with a few tries (each try may be several pulls), most people are up and skiing. Maybe not too gracefully yet, but skiing. From there, it is just practice. Like anything else, the more you do it, the better you get at it.Most beginners are afraid of the wake. Don't be. To cross the wake, bend your knees to absorb the small rise and you'll glive up and over , then down the outside of the wake where you'll stand uprighrt again.

Usually, after people have done it for a while, after they’ve learned to get up every time and to cross the wake, they want to move on to a single ski.


You’ll need the same equipment for single skiing as for skiing on doubles, but the selection of a single ski is more important than with doubles. You’ll want to take a friend or someone knowledgeable about single skiing to help you get a ski that is right for you - or trust the sales person in a shop that sells water skis. Length, width and cut are important. Short people want short skis, tall people want long skis. The wider the ski, the more stable it will be, but the harder it will be to make cuts. Some skis are designed for experts, some for novices. Generally speaking, the narrower the ski is at the back, the more advanced it is. Bindings are a matter of personal choice. You may want wrap-arounds, or you may prefer step-ins with open heals.

As with doubles, you can save a lot of money by buying a used ski. Just be sure it has no cracks or openings. Check the bottom to be sure it is not scarred. If the rest is okay but the bindings are shot, you can have them replaced.

I think getting up on a single ski is harder than getting up on a wakeboard or, for me, getting up on an air chair. I was inspired to write this hub by a question asked on a previous hub that I wrote about the air chair. This fellow was trying to ski on doubles, then kick one off. I’ve been water skiing for more than 20 years, and I’ve never seen anyone try this. It sounds very awkward to me. I think I’d lose my balance and crash every time. And then, you’d have to worry about going back to find the ski you kicked off - before it gets lost or causes another skier to hit and crash and sue you and you’d lose your money, your wife, your kids would hate you ….but wait, maybe I’m getting carried away here.

But, I know some people have kicked off one ski and stayed up on the other. However, I think trying to start from a regular deep water position would be more difficult using half of a pair of doubles than it would be using a slalom ski, designed for the purpose.

Speaking of kicking off a ski, some skiers are skilled enough to start off on a single ski, then kick it off and ski barefoot. We have a guy in our club who does that. He waits for very smooth water (what we call “glass”), waits till the boat gets up to 38 or 39 mph, kicks off the ski and keeps going. We on the boat get a show. I don’t advise trying this till you’ve mastered regular water skiing.

Another technique I’ve heard about but never seen is the shore start. That’s where the skier is on the shore with the rope coiled up and as the boat surges forward and the rope uncoils the skier steps forward on to the water and off he goes. I think I’d do a lot of face plants and lose all my dignity trying this.

You'll need to decide which foot to place in front. If you've ever riddden a snowboard or skateboard, or practiced martial arts, this will be easy. If not, stand up straight with your legs shoulder width apart, weith evenly centered, and ask a riend to push you in the chest. The leg that automatically goes back to catch your weight is the leg that should be in back on your slalom ski. I recommend starting the same way i"ve recommended for doubles- Pull your knees up to your chest, arms straight, shout “HIT IT”, then hopefully, off you go. But I have to tell you, for most folks, it takes a lot more learning to get the feel for it than it does on doubles. One thing that can help is what we call an “easy up”. That’s a handle where the rope will fit around the tip of your ski.

After you master getting up, you probably won’t need one. You’ll just use a standard handle that you hold on one side of the ski or the other. But, to get started, and easy up can be a big help.


Where I live, in California, wakeboarding has become more popular than water-skiing. I suspect it is that way all over. I think it is because young people love to jump and that is the big appeal about wakeboarding. You don’t see people trying to jump the wake on a ski - or skis.

Like snow skiing, where the people you see on the slopes that are under 40 will probably be on snowboards, while those over 40 will be on skis, on the water the wakeboarders will usually be under 40 and the water skiers will be over 40.

For me, getting up on a wakeboard is much easier than getting up on a single ski. The procedure is the same – knees up to your chest, arms out straight, and don’t pull in. Point the tip of your board at about one o’clock. Then, you just resist the pressure from the water by pushing back with your legs, and as the wakeboard rolls over you just stand up. Once you are up, you don’t have to worry about keeping your skis together as you would on doubles, and you have a much bigger surface to balance on.

You’ll soon get the hang of it and want to start crossing the wake. To do this, just turn your body in the direction you want to go. Kind of like riding a bicycle. Depending on how big the wake is, you may need to bend your knees as you cross it.

Then, if you are athletic enough, you can start trying your luck at jumping the wake. Accomplished boarders can clear the wake, and the advanced ones even do flips.

Wakeboards come in different sizes. Some have fins on both ends so you can make 360 degree turns – again, if you are athletic enough. You’ll probably want to get some help from a friend or salesman in choosing a board, but you can probably find a used one on Ebay, or at a garage sale or in a second hand sporting goods store. That could save you a good bit of money. Later, as you improve in the sport, you may want to select a board that is better suited to your particular style and skill level.


I’ve written another hub on this subject, so I’ll be brief here. Air Chairs (the term has become generic, though the proper generic term is Hydrofoil) or Sky Skis, are, for me, the easiest to get up on and the easiest to ride – but it took me a long time to get the hang of it. It is just a matter of timing and balance. You can ride through big wakes and waves because you can be riding off of the water. To get up, just lean way back and keep your arms out straight. Once you are up. You steer by turning your knees in the direction you want to go. You can practice this on a barstool. If you get real good, you will be able to jump on a “chair”, and if you get really, really good, you can even do flips. Air Chairs can be expensive. You may find a used one for $1,000, but expect to pay up to $4,000 for a new one.


Tubes, knee boards, and wake skates can also be a lot of fun. Kids, particularly, seem to get a kick out of being pulled in a tube. They come in different sizes, and different quality, but usually they don’t cost much. Knee boards, as the name implies, are boards you ride kneeling down. They are easy to get up on and fun to ride – for a while. But your knees can get tired. They have a strap you can use to help keep you aboard. They are shaped much like a wakeboard, but are smaller.

Wake skates are also shaped like wakeboards, but smaller. They have no bindings, so they take more skill to ride. You won’t see many around.

One other thing is wake surfing. This is where riders on a board stay directly behind the boat and “surf” in the wake, a few feet from the stern. This is illegal in most places and people have died from doing it because the carbon monoxide from the engine is not detectable Don’t try it. There are enough fun things to do in the water without taking stupid chances.


Eventually, if you really get into water sports, you may decide you want your own boat. Perhaps you don’t have a friend, or friends, to take you out as much as you’d like. Or maybe you don’t have a club to go with. Selecting a boat is much like buying a car. A brand new boat will cost you much more than a used one. A new ski boat, or wakeboard boat (there is a difference) can set you back anywhere from $20,000 to $50, 000 or more. You can find old, used boats for as little as $2,500. Of course, you get what you pay for. So, if you have a friend or two that are knowledgeable about boats, enlist their help.

If you buy from a boat dealer, you are more likely to get a boat that is reliable. You will get a warranty with a new one, and maybe even with a used boat. But you will usually pay more than if you buy from a private party.

The main difference between ski boats and wakeboard boats is the wake. Skiers prefer a soft wake. Wakeboarders like a bigger wake to get more loft when they jump. Since most folks can’t afford both, they usually choose the boat that best meets their most common use, but then they also use it when someone wants to do the other sport – or sports. Wakeboard boats usually have high towers, again, so the jumpers can get more air. These towers aren’t cheap, but the boarders don’t want to go without them.

Whether you choose and inboard-outboard, an outboard or a jet boat, don’t get less than 125 horsepower. I’ve gotten up behind an 85 horsepower boat, but I am small, and I had to hang on longer to get up. If you are big, less than 125 horses is not going to make you happy.


Like any sport, you can get hurt on the water. You can also get killed walking across the street. If you take the proper precautions you will probably be fine. So, here are some general rules to follow:

Never, never operate a boat if you have been drinking. And no open containers on the boat.

Keep to the right side of center in the waterway. If it is a lake, drive counterclockwise.

Always wear a ski vest when in the water.

Have enough life jackets on the boat for the number of people in the boat.

Carry a red flag and raise it when someone from your boat is in the water.

Slow down and give a wide berth when you see someone in the water. The driver should hold us his arm to signal he sees the person.

Avoid coming close to another boat.

Watch for floating debris.

Carry a fire extinguisher on board.

Never push anyone overboard – they can get hurt.

Shut your motor off when approaching any person in the water – including your skier.

Get a manual on water safety and rules of the road. Read it, understand it, abide by it.

Have fun! How can you not?


If you enjoy nostagia, and if you like motorcycles, you would probaby enjoy my book, OVER THE HANDLEBARS, First published in 1975, then updated and enlarged in 2006, it is a collection of short stories and articles about all aspects of motorcycling. I also have written two other books about motorcycling available from  You can read them on your computer for just $2.99.  Go to

And, if you enjoyed this hub, you may want to check out some of my others. I have now posted over 50 "hubs". Go to hubpages//dongately. To see them all, click on more.


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