Boating Rules and Safety
We'll start this month's article with a brain teaser: when water skiing, what is the single most important safety device? (Answer at end of this article.)
The driver, above all, determines how safe any ski will be. The driver is the 'skipper' and is in charge of the boat, the crew and skier at all times.
Before you leave the shore, consult with the skier and plan out your route. While a novice skier may be happy to do one big circle around the bay, a hard-out slalom skier or bare footer will probably want you to keep the boat going straight as much as possible and in clam water.
Check you are on a tank that has enough petrol for the ski. You also need to check the beach and the open water for any sign of obstacles, either floating or submerged.
If I am about to tow a skier I don't know, then I like to understand their ability and requirements for things like starting and speed once up and planning.
Driving tip #1: Plan your ski before you leave the shore.
Ideally, the boat driver should concentrate on driving and the observer on observing. The perfect combination on the water is like the driver and co-driver in a rally car. The driver has more than enough to concentrate on looking out for other boats, objects in the water, floating or submerged hazards. An expert observer should be able to relay all signals and other information about the skier direct to the driver, and deliver any special instructions, freeing the driver to concentrate on the complex task of driving the boat.
However, great observers can be hard to find. Often the observer is either too young to be fully relied upon, or maybe they just lack experience. In practice, you should let the observer observe when the skier is up and away. While the skier is in the water the driver has a bigger role to play even when the observer is mature and experienced.
The driver should also be aware of the location of the skier at all times, preferably via a rear view mirror which allows the driver to see the skier with glance quick sideways glance, rather than having to turn to look aft (that means to the back of the boat!)
While maintaining a forward watch, particularly while the boat is under power or in a river current, you should practice making quick glances to either side of the boat, and in your rear view mirror, so as to keep tabs on the skier. That's a big task I have just described - 360° awareness – more like flying an airplane than driving a car!
Driving tip #2: Ensure that you are able to monitor both hazards in front of you, and the progress of the skier behind you.
Skier in the Hole!
The safest place for a skier, apart from on shore or in the boat, is standing on the water at the end of a taught ski rope while the boat is at planning speed. Any time a skier is in the water, their ability to move quickly is gone, so they are at the mercy of any boat which comes near, including yours!
Driving tip #3: The driver must keep the skier in the water in sight at all times.
This means you approach a skier keeping the skier on the driver's side.
Driving tip #4: Approach and maneuver around a skier at idle speed and always pick up the skier from the driver's side of the boat.
Propellors have a bad tendency to mince skiers, so the driver must never start the engine or move into gear if the skier is at all likely to come into contact with the prop. My rule of thumb is not to start the motor or move into gear until the skier is far enough away from the motor so that there is no way that they could get the ski in the prop, even if they tried.
On the same note, when a skier is boarding the boat, or entering the water for their ski, the engine should always be turned OFF.
Driving tip #5: When the skier is at the boat or near the prop, the motor is turned OFF.
There is one further danger for a skier in the hole – the tow rope. If the rope gets caught around the skier then there is the potential for serious injury or death.
Driving tip # 6: The driver must always be aware of where the rope is in relation to the skier and must ensure that the rope does not get caught around the skier while the boat is moving.
I like to monitor the rope straighten out behind the boat as I move away from the skier prior to starting. When the rope comes taught I should be able to see it come tight from the ski pole out to the handle, which should be visible in the skier's hands. At that point I know we are safe to start when the skier yells "Hit it!"
The driver has a massive role to play in the success of each and every start, whether for a first timer or for an experienced skier. Ski boats tend to have high power to weight ratios, and one of the biggest driving faults I see is to use too much power to pull skiers out of the hole. Even if your boat is underpowered you still probably need to pull kids out of the hole at considerably less than full throttle.
But before you start the pull, you need to get lined up with the skier in the correct position, ensuring that the skier is clear of obstacles and that the rope is held fast in their hands, and not wrapped around them in any way. The only time to start the pull is when you, the driver, have verified with your own eyes that it is safe to do so, and then only after the skier yells "Hit it!".
Maneuvering before the start of the ski is a busy time for the driver because not only do they have to monitor the skier and the rope – the exact amount depending on how much you can rely on the observer - they also need to retain an eye on other boats and the water directly in front of the boat.
First time skiers may need to be supported by someone while in the water, but from the driver's point of view the key element is throttle control. This is the one time when you may need to take glances behind and hence continue a watch on the skier while you are pulling them out of the hole (all other times it is not advised: look ahead and check the skier's progress in the rear view mirror).
Light weight skiers (kids) are probably best pulled out of the hole starting from just above idle speed, then accelerating smoothly on to the plane, ending up at between 25 and 35 km/h. If you give too much throttle, the skier will be pulled over the front of their skis – if they recover from this they will then probably bend their arms and fall backwards.
Even adults should only be pulled out of the hole slowly and smoothly.
Driving tip # 7: All starts should be smooth and controlled, using only enough throttle to get the skier comfortably out of the hole and onto the plane.
The key thing to watch here is that you increase throttle smoothly, rather than banging throttle to wide open. Some skiers will require full throttle, e.g. if they are heavy and start with two feet in the bindings on a single ski, but most do not. Unless you have a racing engine, the rule of thumb here is to pull skiers out at a throttle setting that is about halfway between full throttle and the minimum they are likely to feel comfortable with.
The skier will soon tell you if you are pulling them out of the hole too slow, or you may observe them "wallowing", but no one will thank you for causing them injury via a full throttle start, especially if they have not skied behind your boat before.
Biskit riders have no control whatsoever over their ride, other than jumping off the back! So it is all up to the driver. Lighter riders may stay inside the wake throughout the ride but heavier riders will move easily outside the wake. Once this occurs, their speed must increase as you turn, in order to keep up with the boat. The faster you go, and the tighter you turn, the further outside the boat's path they will move, which means they are subject to hazards you, the driver, and the boat, are not.
Many nasty biskit accidents have occurred when the biskit has been outside the wake in or after a turn, and the biskit has hit an object such as the shore.
Driving tip # 8: Maintain clearance from the shore, other boats and any hazards in the water of at least two rope lengths to either side of the boat when towing a biskit.
Towing Slalom Skiers
The better a slalom skier is, the more they will appreciate (or demand) top driving skills. For free skiing, the driver needs to pay attention to water conditions – look for calm water. When you find a patch of calm water - stay in it! Drive up and down it with keyhole turns at either end so that you preserve good water for the skier.
If the skier falls, throttle back to idle immediately, then backtrack to the skier. Executing a high speed turn back to the skier is not only dangerous, but also puts wakes back through the calm water you've found.
If a slalom skier is leaning over in a turn then turning the boat will either pull them onto the water (boat turns away from skier) or give them a lot of slack rope (boat turns toward skier) – either way it's bad. Hence you need to signal to your skier when you are about to change direction. If they are busy skiing and don't notice, and you have to change direction, do it gently and while they are crossing the wake.
When a slalom skier signals for more or less speed, change by 3 km/h (2 mph) up or down, respectively.
Driving the slalom course is a specialized task and ideally you need instruction from someone who knows how. It's not that difficult, but there is no substitute for being shown. Nevertheless, here's some basics.
The boat must follow a straight line between the pairs of boat buoys in the centre of the course, as shown above. The two pairs of buoys at either end of the course are called the entry and exit gates. After the boat passes the gates on the way out of the slalom course, you should count to at least 3 (one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand) before you start your keyhole turn so that you can come back down the course the other way. The idea here is to give yourself and the skier adequate clearance and time to get lined up for the next pass through the course.
Buzzing Other Boats
There have been some nasty accidents when another boat, towing a skier or not, has come close by to buzz a boat. They have either hit the skier or a ski, or have caught the other boat's ski rope in their prop. Either way, it's potential disaster, so keep at least two rope lengths clear of any other boat while you are towing a skier or buzzing a stationary ski boat.
Driving tip # 9: Stay clear of other boats while towing a skier.
I have seen boats on the Taieri River at Henley towing skiers within a rope length of the shore, often with nasty looking rocks at water's edge. If you have a skier behind you, and they are or could be outside of the wake, then they could fall and hit the shore. You need to ensure that the skier has "falling room" between their furthest distance from the wake and any obstacles.
Driving tip # 10: Keep at least one and a half rope lengths from the shore or obstacles so that a falling skier will not be endangered if they fall.
The driver must be 15 years or older. A younger person can drive the boat but must be directly supervised (i.e. in the adjacent seat) by someone who is at least 15 years old.
The observer must be at least 7 years old.
You must keep your speed to under 5 knots while within 200 m of the shore or 50 m of another boat. There is an exception for ski lanes and certain other designated areas and access lanes.
If you're like me, the only time you ever operate in a ski lane is when no one else is there! Otherwise you end up skiing in everyone else's wakes. But if you are operating in a busy ski lane, you should exit to the right (standing on the shore looking to the water) and enter again from the left, i.e. operate in an anticlockwise direction.
I need to make one final comment on driving for water skiing. Sometimes, hopefully not too often, one breaks the rules. It might be to perform a stunt, or maybe an emergency. Here's a word of advice in these circumstances – don't! But if you must, then stick as close as you can to the rules for good driving practice. Deviate from these only when you have:
· Thought it through carefully – what could go wrong? How do I avoid a mishap?
· Ensured that you have some alternative or backup safety measures in case something goes wrong.
Answer to brain teaser: the driver's brain.
If you don't think driving a ski boat is a complex task then sit back and wait next time you are at a crowded ski lane.
Skiing usually makes me very happy but sometimes it makes me very sad, like when the unthinkable happens. This was posted on an Internet forum page at www.waterskimag.com dated 13/2/05: "I posted this several months ago and it is a few pages back. Just a reminder for you all to be careful on the water this summer. My daughter's friends accidentally ran over her July 2002 while wake-boarding. She bled to death on the lake. 24 years old. "
Let me relate to you two other true stories from acquaintances of mine. Freda (not her real name), who grew up in a water skiing family – her father regularly competed at slalom events and took the family boating and water skiing on summer holidays – was a very good single skier in her younger days. One day some friends decided it would be fun to increase speed from 50 km/h to 50 mph (that's 80 km/h) and drag her all around Glendhu Bay – great laugh, eh! Freda was terrified, but it never entered her head to let go the rope and just coast to a stop. Instead she held on with grim determination until eventually she got thrown wildly outside the wakes on a turn and took a very heavy fall. That fall broke her leg. Today she can no longer single ski but (thank heavens for small mercies) she can at least double ski.
Bill was double skiing just last Christmas on Lake Dunstan with his mate Alan (not their real names). About 300 metres from the shore Bill fell off and the boat and Alan continued toward shore with the intention of dropping Alan off. Now it so happened that the rope that Bill had been using was longer than Alan's rope. If you've ever seen the way a handle jumps around behind a boat when it is loose in the water, you'll appreciate how it was possible for the end of Bill's rope to wrap around Alan's ankle while he was still skiing. Alan fell off at this point. Unfortunately the driver and the observer in the tow boat weren't watching Alan as he disappeared under the water, which meant that he was dragged 60 metres underwater, all the while thinking "Alan, this is it." He did survive, but not without a very nasty set of injuries to his ankle and ongoing medical treatment which continues even as this article is written five months later.
And have we all heard the stories about biskit riders that have been killed or seriously injured hitting obstacles on the shore?
There is one common feature of all the above stories, and many others as well. THEY WERE ALL EASILY PREVENTABLE. Water skiing has its natural hazards, for sure, but there is no point in taking stupid, unnecessary risks. So let's look at some simple safety pointers which will help make our next visit to the lake safe and tragedy free.
You must have an observer when skiing. The law says that the boat driver must be at least 15 years old, or be sitting beside and under the direct supervision of a person 15 years old, and the observer must be at least 7 years old. Now, you could argue that a 7 year old is not necessarily mature enough to maintain a constant watch on the skier, and a driver in this situation would need to maintain a watch also in their rear view mirror, for example. But ideally, the boat driver should concentrate on driving and the observer on observing.
Safety tip #1: The observer must maintain constant vigilance on the skier and immediately transmit any hand signals from the skier to the driver.
Safety tip #2: When the skier is ready to start and yells "Hit it!" the observer should repeat this to the driver. When the skier falls off the observer should yell "He/she's off!" to the driver.
The only verbal signal a skier usually makes the boat is to yell "Hit it!" when they are ready to start. This phrase is recommended because it is not easily confused with anything else. A lot of people like to yell "Go!" but this could be confused with "No!" resulting in a start when the skier is not ready. The driver should not pull the skier out of the water until they are sure that "Hit it!" has been called, either directly or via their (trusted) observer.
Safety tip #3: When you, as the skier, are ready to start yell "Hit it!".
The common hand signals are shown below. But note that the driver is technically in command of the boat so ultimately it is the driver's decision whether or not to follow the signal. Drivers should treat any signal from the skier, other than requests for immediate stop or to change speed, as a request rather than as a command. The driver must determine at all times the best course of action in order to preserve the safety of boat, crew and skier.
Thumbs up - speed up
Speed up or down by 3 km/h (2 mph)
Thumbs down - slow down
One finger is held in the air and moved in a cricular motion.
This is a request for a "keyhole turn" which will take the boat back down it's track, thus minimising the number of wakes the skier will cross. The keyhole turn is described below.
Take me back to shore.
The signal is made by indicatin a cut across the throat. "I need to stop – stop the boat." In this case, the skier can always just let go the rope. For example, they may be tired or sore. There have been numerous instances, however, when driver and observer are not watching the skier when the skier is signallng stop, but reluctant to let go lest they be hard to find again!
Safety tip #4: Use the common hand signals between boat and skier.
Safety tip #5: If you are skiing with a new driver or observer, check before your ski that you all know to use, and understand, the same hand signals.
It is good practice for the observer or driver to acknowledge hand signals by repeating the signal back to the skier. But if the skier has not signaled, then it is essential that the driver give the skier the appropriate signal before changing speed, direction, etc. This gives the skier warning and allows the skier to adjust their ski until the maneuver is completed.
There's one more signal I've seen used occasionally, which I think skiers may use to express disapproval of the driver's abilities or perhaps behaviour of others in the boat!
There a wide range of excellent personal floatation (PFD) devices on the market so there really is no excuse for not wearing one. Some wet suits, e.g. those designed for barefoot skiing, have PFDs built in, but you should not rely on a normal wet suit to give you sufficient flotation.
Safety tip #6: Wear a PFD.
However, be warned that PFDs designed for water skiing do not turn an unconscious person over on their back so they can breath – if anything they appear to do the opposite. Although being knocked unconscious while skiing is very unlikely – slalom skiers and wakeboarders, in particular, do sometimes report seeing stars or having headaches after crashes – the observer must continue to watch the skier after a crash and verify that they are floating with clear air.
Skiers should also ensure they are fit enough and have the skills for what they are attempting. For example, if you've had back surgery and haven't skied for 20 years (this is a true story), then it's a good idea not to beach start on your first ski – launch on two skis and drop one, then work back up to your old prowess.
I have experienced two rope breakages while skiing behind someone else's boat using their ski rope. The first time it happened I thought I had broken my hand. I learned at that point to thoroughly check an unfamiliar setup or unfamiliar gear before using it. I now always make a quick check of the rope and if it is frayed, damaged or obviously a cheap one, then I won't use it. I also cast a quick eye over the ski pole to make sure it is securely fastened to the two boat.
Safety tip #7: Check an unfamiliar setup or borrowed gear, before skiing.
Talking about ropes breaking, there are a lot cheap ropes out there that stretch and that really are not strong enough for general purpose skiing – they are suitable for lightweight novices. Ropes also fray over time, becoming weak, and eventually they will break while someone is skiing with it.
Safety tip #8: Always ski with a good quality, low stretch ski rope that is not frayed and not otherwise damaged.
Ski ropes range from $25 to over $200. There is no hard and fast rule, but you probably need to spend $60 - $80 to get a decent rope.
The Keyhole Turn
The keyhole turn is made at the end of a slalom course to bring the boat and skier back down through the course. It can also be used for more experienced skiers to give them a ski with minimal wake crossings.
In the diagram the boat's track and direction is shown by the thicker line. The boat veers to the left (or right) until there is enough room to complete the turn. The turn to the right can be as gentle or as tight as boat, skier and driver will allow, but note that the boat will lose speed in a tight turn, possibly causing the skier to sink awkwardly. As the boat hits the apex of the turn the driver should look back down the boat's track to locate its wake and therefore the point to aim for when the boat straightens up going in the opposite direction. In a keyhole turn the skier makes only one crossing of the wake at the end of each keyhole, having otherwise calm water.