How to Water Ski: The Ultimate Guide

For nearly a century, water skiing has been the choice sport for thousands of water sports enthusiasts across the world. Back in the summer of 1922, American Ralph Samuelson decided to use his snow skis on a lake while being towed behind his brother’s boat, and water skiing was born.

Today, with countless developments made to the three essential elements of the sport – the skis, the tow rope and the boat – and with the a number of variations made to the processes involved, water skiing has grown into a widely popular sport, and ranges from riders zipping along on the surface of lakes to enthusiasts performing advanced jumps and aerial tricks.

Like several other sports, water skiing too has a steep learning curve, and early stumbles and falls can soon be turned into an exciting and exhilarating experience!

This guide will take you through the basics of water skiing, getting started with different variations of the sport, and the processes involved in improving your skills.


What Does Water Skiing Involve?

Water skiing in its basic form involves a rider skimming the surface of the water on one or two long skis – usually between 58 and 68 inches long – being towed behind a boat traveling at a speed of about 20 miles per hour.

Water skiing is done on calm waters, and unlike wake sports, it requires a boat that leaves minimal wake behind it, keeping the water not completely, but relatively smooth. The skis themselves come with in-built bindings that fasten the rider’s feet and allow them to stay securely on the skis while maneuvering themselves on the water.

Though skiing emerged as a summer, water-based alternative to skiing on the snow, it very quickly took on a life of its own as a distinct sport, and today it is practiced across the world recreationally as well as competitively. A number of water skiing federations exist in different regions across the world, and an International Waterski and Wakeboard Federation (IWWF) (previously called the International Water Ski Federation) was established in 1955 as a global regulatory body for water skiing in the international competitive arena. Since 1967, it has been recognized by the International Olympic Committee, and today has as many as 84 member nations.

With its wide reach and ever-increasing popularity, water skiing has become a fairly accessible sport to those who want to try it out, and people get involved with it at varying levels of simplicity or complexity. No matter what your experience or skill level may be with other sports, if you like spending time in the water are looking for a new activity, give it a go!

Preparing to Water Ski

Before you get started, make sure you’re well prepared and have all the equipment required for a smooth and safe experience.
The first step, and one of the most key ones, is ensuring you have the right set of water skis for your individual requirements. If you’re just starting out and are not sure of all the ways you may use your skis later, a pair of combo skis may be a good fit. Combo skis have front foot bindings on each ski, as well as a plate for the rear foot should you choose to drop one of them and ride on a single ski (slalom). Skis come in different sizes for riders of different weights, so make sure you get the best fit for yourself. Watch the video below for an idea on how choose your skis.

Next, get hold of a tow rope that’s been made especially for water skiing and not for any other tow sport. A water ski rope has a small amount of stretch to it, and is usually made of a material like polypropylene. A good rope will have a comfortable grip for protecting your hands during extended periods of water skiing, and will be buoyant and brightly colored, making it easy to spot in the water if your drop it. The standard length for a tow rope is about 70 feet.

Water skiing requires a motorboat towing the rider to go at a speed of at least 20 miles per hour. Make sure that the wake of the boat your rent or buy is fairly small, and that the tow point for fastening your rope is not too high and doesn’t create an upward angle when the rider grips the other end.

Make sure you never water ski without all the necessary safety equipment. Like other fast paced water sports, water skiing has the potential to be dangerous, so always wear your life jacket and a sturdy waterproof helmet before getting on your skis. If you’re out on colder water, you may also want to wear a good wetsuit to keep you warm.

Finally, before you begin water skiing, learn some basic hand signals and practice them with the driver of the boat and the spotter to ensure you’re all on the same page. A thumbs-up or thumbs-down signal indicates that you’d like the driver to speed up or slow down, and holding your left or right arm out sideways indicates you’d like the boat to go left or right respectively. Bringing your index finger and thumb together is an ‘okay’ signal, indicating that the speed or route of the boat is fine. Patting your head indicates you’d like to get back on the boat, while making a loop over your head means you’d like the boat to take another round. Making a slicing gesture across your neck mean ‘stop’, and clasping your hands over your head is used to indicate that you’re okay.

The last gesture should be made after every fall which leaves you unharmed, so the driver and spotter know you need help if ever you don’t make the signal after falling. Defining a clear system of communication with all those involved is an essential step that you must take the time to do before even learning how to get up on your skis.

Getting Started

If you’re a beginner, it’s a good idea to get comfortable with regular, two-ski riding before attempting to ride on one ski alone.
Make sure your feet are comfortably and securely fastened in the ski bindings, and get off the boat to prepare for a deep water start. Position your skis so that the front tips are slanting upwards out of the water, while the backs remain submerged. Get into a squatting position with your knees close to your chest, and hold your arms out straight in front of you on either side of your knees. Grip the handle with your knuckles facing upwards.

Get the boat to accelerate gradually, until the rope gets stretched tight and begins to pull you forward. Do not attempt to stand up on your skis immediately, instead, let the boat pull you until you naturally straighten up slightly into a more upright position. Only then should you actively stand taller, but continue to keep your knees slightly bent for balance and stability. Keep your back and head straight, and look straight ahead, ideally at a fixed point, to keep your balance.

Quick Tip: This may sound obvious, but don’t forget to breathe naturally! Many people instinctively tense up their muscles and hold their breath longer than usual when trying to get up and stay on their skis for the first time, but this is counterproductive for your balance and stamina.

Watch the video below to see what a smooth start on your water skis should look like, and how you can achieve this.

You may find it helpful to practice this start on solid ground before getting into the water. Fasten your skis, get into a low squat while leaning back slightly, and get a friend to pull on the tow rope to bring you into a semi-upright position. Stay in a seated position for a few seconds, and then straighten up.

Once in the water, it’s likely that you’ll fall a few times before being able to ride smoothly, but if you’re having trouble finding your balance on the skis, try a pair that contains a bar that can fasten the two skis together and keep them at a constant distance from each other. Alternatively, you can bind the skis together with your own makeshift fastenings until you feel more confident and are ready to try again with detached skis.

Remember, when you do fall, let go of the tow rope handle to avoid getting dragged in the water or injuring yourself, and don’t forget to clasp your hands over your head to indicate that you’re okay!

Once you’re able to balance and stay up on your skis, take some time just to ride straight behind the boat without maneuvering the skis at all. Make sure the boat doesn’t go too fast just yet, and that accelerations and decelerations are gradual. Though at first it may take tremendous energy and focus just to avoid falling, chances are you’ll soon be able to ski smoothly and almost effortlessly. Invest some time in mastering this ease of balance before trying anything different, and you’ll have learnt a skill that will stay with you for life!

Maneuvering and Controlling Your Water Skis

If you’re confident about your balance, and can ride comfortably behind the boat for a few minutes without falling, you’re ready to begin steering and maneuvering yourself in the water.

To do this, you’ll need to learn how to use the edges of your skis. Once you’re moving at a steady pace, lean slightly in the direction you want to go, shift your weight off that foot, and put pressure on the inside edge of the opposite ski. In other words, if you want to go right, lean to the right, shift your weight off your right foot and put pressure on the inside edge of your left ski. Ensure that you keep your back and arms straight, and your knees bent as you do this.

Chances are that you’ll find it easier to turn on one side than the other, but try and practice both equally so you get comfortable maneuvering yourself naturally whichever way you want to go.

One-Hand Grip
Soon after you’re able to steer your skis on the water, practice letting the handle of the tow rope go with one hand, and keep your grip with a single hand. Also practice alternating your hands, and passing the handle from one hand to the other. This is an important skill to learn as you’ll need to let one hand go every time you make a signal to the driver or observer on the boat. It’ll also come in handy if you want to try out some more advanced skiing tricks in the future!

Tricks and Jumps

By this point, you’re probably comfortable enough on your skis to progress to some simple tricks and turns. These can add a lot a lot of variety and excitement to your ride, but remember to stay calm and patient as you learn them, and go at a pace you can keep up with!
If you’re keen on this aspect of skiing, you can also invest in trick skis that are smaller and more oval-shaped than regular skis, and will allow you to be more agile.

Crossing the Wake
Up until this point, travelling in a relatively straight line behind your boat, it’s likely you’ve stayed within the wake. Now that you know how to steer, also practice skiing outside the wake after steering yourself out of its reach.

This is also a good point to try crossing the wake, going from one side of it to the other. Angle both your skis towards the wake, and ride almost straight on towards it. Bend your knees a little more to keep your balance and absorb the shock of the wake. Additionally, make sure the boat is going at a relatively fast pace as you approach the wake, as this will give you the momentum needed to cross it without falling over. As you cross, though your tow rope should remain stretched in front of you, avoid pulling it closer to your body as this will most likely disturb your balance and make you stand stiffer.

Once you’re confident about being able to cross the wake without falling and are familiar with the way your skis react to the edges of the wake, you can try reducing the angle at which you turn towards the wake for a more natural crossing.

Practice crossing the wake in both directions, and eventually, change directions seamlessly without pausing, to cut across left and right continuously.

Twist both skis simultaneously so that they are at a 90 degree angle to the boat, and ride ahead. Hold the handle of the tow rope at your waist to stay in position. Practice sidesliding in both directions, that is, by twisting to ride with your right ski closer to the boat as well as by twisting to ride with your left ski forward.

Surface Turns
You can turn on your skis in a number of ways once you’ve learned the basics of turning 180 degrees. To turn on your right side, bring in the tow rope handle close to your left hip, and let it go with your right hand. As you do this, keep your knees nicely bent and relatively close together, and spin your skis towards the right so they end up back to front, and you are facing away from the boat.
Simultaneously, your left hand should be close to the small of your back, and as you complete the 180 degree turn, grab the handle with your right hand as well.

Apply the same moves on the opposite side to turn left. Practice doing sets of these turns in different combinations – spinning front-to-back and back-to-front alternating between left and right, or going from front-to-back and back-to-front on the same side, which results in a 360 degree spin.

Backward Skiing
Once you’re able to turn smoothly, spin yourself so you’re facing away from the boat, and practice riding backwards! You can apply all the same maneuvers for steering your skis as you do this, riding left and right. Keeping your balance may be slightly harder as you do this, so try focusing on a fixed point and being extra careful of maintaining the right posture. Avoid leaning backwards towards the boat, bending slightly forwards instead to keep the tension with the row rope and stay upright.

If you’ve spent some time getting familiar with skiing on the surface of the water, you may want to try some jumps.
Begin outside the wake of the boat, and edge your way up to the wake at an angle. As you hit the crest of the wake, rather than bending your knees more as you would to cross the wake, straighten up your legs, simultaneously putting pressure on both your skis. This will propel you up into a jump as you reach the top of the wake.

Prepare for your descent as soon as you’re in the air by spotting your landing location. Keep your knees bent as you land to absorb the impact, and be careful not to tilt the front of your skis downwards to avoid falling face-first as you make contact with the water!
For high and far jumps, many water skiing organizations and tournaments use ramps that propel you with a lot more momentum than the wake of a boat would. To carry out such a jump, you’d have to begin well outside the wake and ride at a fairly fast pace.

Approach the ramp as you would a wake, and let it propel you as you reach the top. Ideally, attempt this under the guidance of a trained instructor. Make sure you’re fairly confident about your water skiing abilities in general, and your jumps and landings in particular, as doing this unprepared can cause you to collide with the ramp or land with a high-impact crash.

Competitive jump skiers use longer and lighter skis that make higher and longer jumps possible.

Slalom Water Skiing

If trick skiing is something that excites you, riding slalom with only one ski may be the thing for you. Slalom skiers fasten both feet on a single ski – with the front foot in a full binding and back foot in a toe-strap – and are able to carry out tricks and jumps with a lot more agility.

Riding in this way can feel completely different to using two skis, and you may need to go over some of the basics like your deep water start and edging techniques afresh. However, since by this point you’re already comfortable on the water, chances are the learning curve will be a lot steeper than when you tried on two skis for the first time!

A. Re-Learning the Basics

The first thing for you to do will be to figure out which foot you’re more comfortable keeping in front, and fasten yourself into your ski accordingly. As you would with two skis, get into the water for a deep water start. Though the basic technique and position are largely the same, getting up one just one ski, can be significantly more challenging. You will need to make subtle changes to the process to prevent yourself from missing the start or falling over as the boat pulls you forward. Watch the video below for some tips on how to approach your slalom deep water start.

Quick Tip: Begin your start by gripping the tow rope handle with the knuckles of one hand facing upwards and the other hand facing downwards. This will give you a more natural grip once you’ve straightened up and are riding on your ski.

To steer yourself on one ski, you’ll need to make some modifications to the edging process you learnt on two skis.

Use the heel-side and toe-side edges of your board to go left or right, depending on which foot you’ve placed forward. If you’re riding with your right foot forward, putting pressure on the toe-side edge of your ski and leaning towards your right – and simultaneously backwards, away from the boat – will steer you to the right, while putting pressure on your heel-side edge and leaning left will steer you to the left. The inverse of this applies if you’re riding with your left foot forward. While doing this, make sure your knees stay bent, and though you will need to lean away from the boat whichever way you’re turning, don’t lean so far back that you lose control of your balance on the skis.

Practice progressive edging, which involves gradually going into a deeper and deeper edge by putting more pressure on your ski.
There are several drills you can practice for improving your slalom technique, so spend some time really mastering the basics to give you a strong foundation and make you a better skier!

B. Slalom Maneuvers and Tricks

If you’re aiming to build your trick skiing skills, you may want to consider investing in a trick slalom ski specially made for this purpose. As with a pair of trick skis, a single trick ski is slightly smaller than a regular slalom ski, and has no fins at the bottom. This makes it harder to control, but allows you to be lighter and more agile as you turn, jump, and perform various aerial tricks.

Wake Jumps
Slalom skiing is more conducive to jumps than two-ski water skiing, so this wake jump will allow for more agility and height. Begin outside the wake and edge up to it sharply. Progressively increase the pressure on the edge of your ski and bend your knees into a 90 degrees position as you get close to the wake.

Once you hit the wake, straighten your legs to get a sharp pop off the wake and go into your jump. Bend your knees after you’ve lifted off, and brace for the impact of landing as you complete your slalom wake jump.

Slalom Courses
To test and challenge your agility and the control you have over your ski, you can create a slalom course by placing buoys in the water. A typical course used in competitive skiing usually has 22 or 25 buoys that are placed in an arrangement for the rider to maneuver by riding straight, turning, and zigzagging.

Back Flips
To do a back flip on your ski, you’ll need to move at a fast pace, and be confident about your progressive edging technique and jumps.
Begin outside the wake and progressively edge harder as your approach it. Simultaneously, bend your knees lower, and shift your weight almost entirely onto your front foot. As you’re about jump, turn the front of your ski backwards, away from the boat, and bring your hip in close to the handle of the rope. Your ski turning backwards and the boat pulling it forwards as you hit the wake will give you the pop you need to flip backwards. Prepare for landing even as you flip by spotting your location and bending you knees.

Quick tip: Practicing flips on a trampoline before attempting them in the water can help your technique and also boost your confidence. This is especially helpful if flips are entirely new to you.

Front Flips
This is a more advanced flip and usually takes some time to master, but it is a great challenge to set for yourself and can be an exciting and visually attractive trick to perform.

As you would for a back flip, approach the wake by progressively edging harder as you get closer. Once again, shift your weight on your front foot, and keep your knees bent. This time, drop your hip in towards your back foot, and keep edging hard. Straighten up completely as you hit the wake, and let your ski lift off into a high jump, staying upright. Only as the rope pulls your forward once you’re in the air should you go into the flip, tucking your head down and rolling forwards to complete the trick.

Check out the video below to see what a smooth front flip should look like.

There is a wide variety of tricks you can learn on water skis, but spend some time focusing on the a few fundamental tricks, as this will allow you to pick up others at a much faster rate and with much more ease. Mastering the fundamentals of edging, turning, jumping, and flipping can also help you experiment and create your own moves and tricks on the water!

Barefoot Skiing

Barefoot water skiing does not actually involve any skis at all. Instead, as the name suggests, you ride behind the boat on your bare feet.

In order to do this, you’ll need the boat to go significantly faster than usual, at a speed of at least 35-40 miles per hour. Though you don’t need any additional gear for barefoot skiing, it’s best to be wearing a wetsuit, as it can involve gliding on the water not just upright on your feet, but in a reclining or sitting position as well.

To learn barefoot skiing, begin by practicing with a boom, or a pole that protrudes from the back of a boat, which you can hold on to rather than a tow rope. This allows you to focus on your balance as it makes you a lot less mobile and therefore less likely to fall.
For your start on the water, hold on to the boom or tow rope and sit back with your knees bent and feet pointing upwards so you’re riding on your rear end. Stay in this position as the boat begins pulling you forward, and gradually, use your core strength to roll forwards and shift your weight onto your feet. Simultaneously, straighten up to avoid leaning forwards, and continue to keep your knees bent, leaning away from the boat as you begin barefoot skiing!

If you prefer the rush of riding without skis, spend some time building your basics and learning different tricks as barefoot skiing itself can be a whole sport of its own!

Off-Water Training and Fitness

There’s plenty you can do outside of your time spent in the water to become a better skier. Fitness and water skiing have a circular relationship, so while water skiing, being an intense workout, can greatly boost your overall fitness, being strong, flexible and having good stamina can in turn help your skiing abilities immensely.

If you’re serious about water skiing, it’ll be well worth your while to invest in your own fitness, and there are several ways to go about this.

  1. Cardio Workouts: Half an hour of strenuous cardiovascular exercise like running, swimming and even using a rowing machine, can be a great full-body workout and will give a huge boost to your stamina and fitness level.
  2. Core Fitness: Your core muscle are constantly engaged as you water ski, from the time you get up from your deep water start, to holding your position on your skis and performing advanced jumps and tricks. Working on your abs will give you a lot of strength and balance, and improve your abilities on the water. There are several exercises you can do for this purpose, including crunches, pilates, and holding yourself in a plank position.
  3. Balance: Good balance plays a huge part in water skiing, so working on it even outside the water can help immensely. Practicing yoga is a great way to improve your balance, and it can also provide a full body workout as well as breath training. Exercising on a Bosu ball is another effective way to work on your balance, which can also provide the added benefit of mimicking the feel of being on the water.
  4. Leg Strength: Your knees, calves and ankles are an important focus area as you water ski, and having weak muscles can increase the risk of sprains, tears and other injuries. Squats and lunges can help prevent this, as can weight training for your knees and ankles.
  5. Upper Body Strength: Weight training can also help hugely for working on your arms, back and chest, that also stay engaged as you water ski. Additionally, doing pull-ups is a great way to build your upper body strength.
  6. Flexibility: Improving your flexibility can help prevent injuries to your muscles and can also improve your agility on the water. Yoga and other forms of stretching are good ways to work on this. Stretching is also important just before you get on the water as it loosens up your muscles and makes you less susceptible to injuries.

Doing a combination of these exercises for an hour a day at least five times a week can be hugely beneficial to your water skiing practice as well your lifestyle in general. Remember that while cardio and core exercises can be done every day, your other muscle groups should be given a day’s time to recover in between work outs.

In the off-season particularly, make sure you keep working out and keeping yourself in shape for when it’s time to get back on the water!

Precautions to Take While Water Skiing

Water skiing can be a hugely intense and exhilarating sport, but this also gives it the potential to be dangerous. There are several tips you can follow to maximize the fun of the experience and minimize the chances of harming yourself or others.

  1. Make sure you’re comfortable in the water and are a confident swimmer before you water ski, and never forget to wear your safety gear!
  2. If you have any health conditions, check with your doctor beforehand whether water skiing is safe for you.
  3. Check all your gear to see that it’s in good condition before getting in the water. Your skis should be undamaged, the rope should be knot-free and without any fraying, and the boat should be running smoothly.
  4. Don’t water ski if you’re tired. It can be a strenuous activity requiring both mental and physical effort, so make sure you’re feeling fresh and energetic before you begin.
  5. Make sure your location is suitably large and crowd-free, and the water is calm. You should have at least a mile length-wise and 600 feet width-wise of clear water without any other people or vessels, and a depth of at least 10 feet. Large, calm lakes are usually ideal for water skiing.
  6. Make sure you ski well away – at least 70 to 80 feet – from the shore or dock to prevent collisions, as a fast paced sport like water skiing can see the rider careening to one direction in case of a sudden or miscalculated turn.
  7. Avoid water skiing completely if there is a thunder or lightning storm.
  8. Ensure that there is an additional person on the boat – a spotter – who always has their eyes on you as you ride and signal to the boat. This is essential, as it’s likely that the driver will not be able to see your hand signals or notice if you need assistance. Make sure that everyone on the boat is aware of what the hand signals indicate, and that they always turn the engine off when approaching you in the water.
  9. Always let go of the rope if you fall while water skiing to avoid being dragged in the water or getting injured by the rope itself. Additionally, always try falling backwards rather than forwards.
  10. Avoid skiing after dark.

Once you have the foundations of water skiing mastered, and a few tricks that you can perform well, there’s plenty you can do to keep expanding your water skiing horizons! For an idea on just how much you can do on the water, look up some trick lists or water skiing video channels. With the growing popularity of water sports, it’s likely you will be able to find an organization near you and get into the competitive arena if you’re interested.
If, however, extreme tricks and competitive sports are not for you, there’s more than enough exhilaration with just skiing recreationally and gliding across the water. The most important thing besides skiing safely is having a good time while you do it – so go at your own pace and enjoy the ride!