This article was written by Connor, one of our founding editors. Connor is a full-time travel and lifestyle photographer with extensive experience in the outdoors industry.
Although it’s not as strict as road driving laws and regulations, waterski boat drivers still need to be aware of the rules of the water. Rules are in place to ensure your safety as well as the safety of your skier and other users of the water.
Due to the dynamic nature of waterskiing, accidents can and do happen. The sport is incredibly diverse and can be performed at a beginner/recreational level through to a highly advanced level which involves skiing at speed. Thanks to and improvement in equipment and education, as well as the regulations we’re going to run through, injury through waterskiing, has been on the decrease over recent years.
Interestingly, each state has its own regulations and although similar, they vary enough for you have to brush up on the local rules. We know, reading through all the rules and regulations isn’t a fun task for anyone but it will help you to stay on the correct side of the law and allow everyone to have fun safely.
We’re going to help you with the process by outlining some of the key areas you need to be aware of. We’ve also included useful official resources which you can refer to, to keep you on track.
Most states require the skier to wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved personal floatation device, although not all. Mississippi, for example, doesn’t require the skier to wear a PFD, however, you do need to have one available in the boat. Here is a useful resource that defines, state by state, the rules on PFDs as well as the use of ‘skier down flags’ and self-propelled skis.
Now, if your state doesn’t require the skier to wear a PFD, does it mean that it’s wise not to wear one? Probably not. A 2016 report showed that a staggering 83% of drownings from boating incidents were from those not wearing a PFD.
You should also consider the regulations for recreational boating when it comes to you and others in the boat wearing a PFD. This can widely vary depending on the size of your boat to the age of those on the boat.
Due to the nature of the sport, it is absolutely essential as a responsible tower that you keep a careful watch on the skier. Falls are inevitable and depending on the speed or landing, there can often be some nasty crashes. It isn’t uncommon for a skier to blackout for a few seconds if they hit the water with force. Not only is it good practice for safety, but it’s also useful to be able to instruct your skier and give them pointers.
Watching the skier can be done two ways – with a mirror and/or a spotter. Some states require you to have a rearview mirror and then there are sometimes regulations stating that it needs to be a wide-angled mirror.
States which don’t require a mirror will often require that you have a third person i.e. a spotter who is readily available to keep an eye on the skier. Conversely, some states require that you have an observer (spotter) present when you’re pulling a skier but you might not need to have a mirror.
Unfortunately, you can’t just plonk any old person on your boat and call them a spotter – there are sometimes requirements for this, too. For example, some laws state that the observer needs to be deemed as ‘competent’ and above a certain age. The age is usually 12 years old but sometimes 14.
The length of your tow rope is usually an afterthought but it is in fact regulated in many states. The maximum length of tow rope is usually around the 75ft mark but it can vary from state to state.
One of the easiest ways to check your state is to perform a Google search for ‘Requirements for Towing a Person With a Vessel’ + your state. This will bring up a page similar to this which states that for New Jersey, the tow rope must be a minimum of 35ft and no longer than 75ft.
Did you know that many states, if not most, have restrictions on when you can legally tow a skier? In most instances, the prohibition will be between sunset and sunrise but any include a half hour to hour leeway. This document will let you know the rules for your state.
Additionally, waterways usually have speed limits in place, a bit like driving on roads. It is your duty to know the limits and abide by them to keep your skier and other waterway users safe.
To avoid overwhelming you, we’ve only covered some of the core and basic information that you need to know when you’re towing someone. There are many more regulations that you need to be aware of as a boat driver and tower. The United States Coast Guard Auxiliary website is full of everything you need to know, from reporting incidents to making sure your boat has all the legal safety equipment.
There’s a lot of background noise from the engine and the sound of the sea which makes it hard to effectively vocally communicate between the driver, observer, and skier. A set of hand signals has been created to make communication easy and quick.
Communication is important because it will allow you to know that the skier is safe and allows the skier to let you know if they want to stop, slow down, speed up, and more. The only time verbal communication is really used is when the boat is stopped. When you’re on the move, the hand signals become incredibly useful.
These are just some of the hand signals which you can use when you’re towing someone. They help to highlight the importance of using your ski boat mirror or spotter frequently to make sure that the skier is happy at all times.