Staying Safe on the Water

Pulling towables behind your boat or PWC.

By John Tiger getting-ready-to-ski Having guests at your lakeside retreat is a lot of fun. Water sports are a natural part of that fun, and given most folks’ appetite for excitement, it’s likely your weekends will include all the fun things to do on the water behind your boat – waterskiing, tubing, kneeboarding, wakeboarding, wakesurfing, barefooting … have we missed any? It’s easy to get caught up in the fun without giving safety its due. While no one wants to be a “safety cop” and bore your guests with a pre-outing safety lecture, it’s best just to simply incorporate safety in everything you do. Here’s our look at water sports and a towables safety checklist:


General safety tips Before you go out on the water:


Be sure you have enough life vests, also known as personal floatation devices (PFD), for everyone. Today’s vests are light weight and permit full range of movement without being bulky or uncool. Make sure yours are up to date – not moldy, ripped, worn out or damaged, and be certain you have different sizes for all your guests. No mismatches, either – each guest should wear the right-sized PFD. It must fit a body properly. Investing in extra life vests is a sound move. pulling-multiple-tubers

Tow Ropes

Tow ropes should be inspected for rot, knots and frayed areas and broken or damaged handles. Discard and buy new if yours are compromised. In general, replace tow ropes every few years – especially if they’re used often and then put away for the cold season. Try to dry them out before storage, and store them in a cool, dry place.

Inspect the toys

Once or twice per season, check the toys themselves for problems: ripped, loose or degraded/rotted bindings on skis; tubes with filler valves protruding or improper inflation; loose fins and general condition. Chances are high you’ll be entertaining not just experienced, seasoned watersports enthusiasts but also guests who have no idea what they’re doing. It’s these guests that will need reliable, safe equipment to avoid injury and enjoy the experience without incident.

safe-towbar-for-watersportsTow point

Similarly, check your tow boat or PWC to ensure that the towing apparatus (eye, loop or ski bar/pole) is securely anchored to the boat and can’t pull out and cause injury.

High flyers

Watch out for tubes and toys designed to “fly high” – many of these have been taken off the market due to the extreme heights they can reach above the water, even when towed at relatively slow speeds. Those heights usually mean extreme danger and devastating injuries should the rider fall from up there. Don’t go there.

Old-school tubes

pecial note for tube lovers: never use “inner tubes” from vehicles. Only use tubes designed and sold for recreational tubing behind a boat.

On the water

The boat is underway. Okay, captain, make sure that:

Everyone wears a life vest

No exceptions, and the proper size is on each rider and passenger. The kids and, of course, wakesurfers and boarders will balk (it’s not cool!), but there’s no excuse for not wearing a PFD. As noted, a little investment in the latest, lightweight PFDs can help this situation.

The driver is on top of his/her game

A competent, mature driver is an absolute must, someone with a clear head (no alcohol or drugs!) and the maturity to make good decisions on the water. One slip is all it takes for potential injury or worse.

The spotter is also competent

A spotter is also necessary, one who has a track record of paying proper attention (not on his/her phone or talking to others). beginner-waterskier-short-tow-rope

Someone is watching the pylon

If your towboat has a ski pylon mounted inboard (like a tournament ski rig), it’s important that someone watches the towrope while towing and especially when circling back and picking up/restarting a fallen rider. This is because the rope can easily catch a passenger unaware and cause injury if that person is caught in the rope as it pulls taut. Rope injuries can be very serious and painful, so this is paramount.

Housekeeping is enforced

It’s difficult, but important, to keep the interior of the boat orderly; loose jackets, towels, skis and equipment lying around is a perfect recipe for an accident.

Those in the water keep away

It may seem obvious, but anyone in the water must stay away from the boat, and the driver must be very aware of anyone and everyone in the water and their whereabouts at all times. Propeller-driven boats can be extremely dangerous, especially to those swimming around the drive unit.

Driver & spotter concerns

It’s easy to be cavalier about towing watersports riders; after all, everyone’s out having fun, and the atmosphere is laid back and chill. While the driver and spotter are certainly part of the fun, at all times they must be ultra-aware and vigilant. tube-crash

Respect your roles

The driver’s not there to watch the riders; that’s the spotter’s job, along with quickly advising the driver of the situation behind the boat. The spotter must know at least the basic rider signals (go slower, go faster, go back to the dock, and the “I’m okay” (hands clasped above head) after a fall.

The captain is the captain

The driver must pay strict attention to the water in front and to the sides of the boat, the tow-rope and rider. The driver is in complete control; if there’s rough water or traffic ahead, he/she must compensate boat speed and direction, so passengers remain safe and inside the boat. Turns must be made with care. The boat’s pathway must be kept a safe distance from shore, docks, moorings and other boats. On many waterways, the driver can be held responsible for any damage the boat’s wake causes.


While it’s all fun and games, a rider’s idea of fun can differ from the driver’s. Recognize when the fun has stopped and when someone says “enough.” This usually happens when tubing with a driver who likes to crack the whip. It’s no fun when someone’s been thrown off the tube at high speed over passing wakes too many times and comes up crying. Know when enough is enough.

Job #1 is fun

There’s usually someone who’s learning. The key is patience, understanding and knowing when to stop the lesson, especially if there are others waiting to ski or ride. A few tries are fine, but if it’s not working, it might be best to reserve the lessons for a time when the water’s calmer and there’s less pressure and not so many waiting to ride. Keep it fun!

Ride’s over, time for dinner

When it’s time to go back to the dock and tie up the boat, everyone should be involved in tidying up the boat, putting the toys away, coiling up the tow ropes and hanging up the life vests, so they can dry out for tomorrow’s fun. Giving everyone a small part of the job makes it go quicker and seem less like a chore; plus, it instills some responsibility and gratitude for the time spent on the water – much better than everyone running off to do their own thing leaving Mom or Dad to a messy, wet boat. Frequent contributor John Tiger is a lifetime boating enthusiast who’s owned over 60 boats since age 8. You can read more of his articles at