About 20 years ago, the watersports industry was looking a bit stodgy. Ski boat sales had decreased because there was nothing really new in watersports. Water-ski shows, if you remember those, seemed to have lost their magic. Water skiing had entered a period of stasis. Then, along came wakeboarding, which took an industry that sought to make as flat a wake as possible, and turned it into one looking to make waves. Actual waves. Ballast systems debuted. Correct Craft introduced the tower, which gave riders an upward pull rather than a lateral tug of a tow pylon, and for all intents and purposes, the industry was given a new life that has been building momentum ever since. The arms race was on, and we talked about it in detail in this story from 2013.
Currently, the recreational boating market has been adopting new technologies, but it seems watersports boat market has been leading the charge. Using the same technology we find on our favorite smartphones and tablets, tow boat builders are putting far greater control right at our fingertips. Of course, the adoption adaptation of Silicon Valley technology alone wouldn’t be very impressive because we’re all so inundated with it every day. No, what makes boat builders’ use of technology is that those fingertip touch screens control electromechanical devices that greatly alter the character and shape of the wakes the boat leaves behind. Tap that screen and things happen.
Some of this technology is found on all tow boats. Other bits are unique to a builder here and there. What we’ve tried to do with this roundup is highlight some of the more unique technological advances in the industry by brand and by innovation, in the hope of helping you hone in on the tow boat that fits your needs.
Touch of a button
Tigé was the first tow boat builder to offset the touch screen controls off to the right of the dash rather than at dead center. That simple innovation kept the driver from having to reach through the steering wheel to change the settings.
Tigé has upped the game again with Smart Wheel, which has a center-mounted touch pad for changing settings to the speed, surf levels, wake size and stereo settings. It also lets the driver toggle between screens and activate the rearview camera. What’s extra nifty is that the touch pads always remain to the left and right of the center pad. As the driver turns the wheel, the SmartWheel controls stay in one place.
Wedge and Surfgate
Malibu introduced its Wedge decades ago. In its earliest and simplest iterations, the Wedge was a manually activated transom-mounted hydrofoil that lowered and locked into place. The angle of the Wedge created downforce, pulling the rear of the boat deeper into the water, which created the same effect as added weight. The result was larger wakes without having to crowd your boat with legions of people or large aftermarket ballast bags.
Malibu now offers the Power Wedge II, a hydraulically activated wedge that has seven positions. Depending on the position, the Power Wedge II can either help the boat get on plane faster—always helpful, but even more so when the boat is loaded with ballast—but it also can be set to create the equivalent downforce of up to 1,500 pounds of water weight.
Malibu also offers SurfGate, a set of hydraulic, transom-mounted foils that directs water trailing off the sides of the boat. It’s another mechanism that shapes wakes and tailors them to a rider’s preference. The level of adjustability is staggering. Lots of boat builders offer similar technology, but Malibu’s take on the concept was so convincing, Chaparral Boats licensed the technology in 2016.
Low-Speed Maneuvering Assistance
Inboard towboats have some deficiencies in terms of low-speed handling. They always have. Prop torque in reverse means they tend to back up and to the right, or in Nautique’s case, back and to the left. A driver can grow accustomed to that and use it to his or her advantage when docking, but there are systems now that make the process easier.
Nautique’s latest innovation is its Integrated Steering Assist, an optional system on G-series tow boats that features a thruster built into the transom. It’s pretty trick because driver can activate it three different ways. First, in steer-assist mode, the steering wheel activates the thruster when the boat is traveling at less than 4 MPH, in forward or reverse. The more steering input the driver dials in, the more oomph from the transom-mounted thruster.
The system also can be activated via touch screen or with the Helmsman knob on the armrest near the throttle/shifter. Essentially, the system allows you to get the boat to do what you want it to do rather than what the simple physics of a single-propeller inboard dictate.
MasterCraft addressed the issue in a different way. Dockstar uses two additional rudders placed forward of the propeller. These additional rudders deflect prop wash under the boat to direct reverse-gear thrust, something you just couldn’t do otherwise. With Dockstar, it’s possible to steer left and right when backing. Best of all, it has no effect on the wakes produced by the boat, so riders will never know it’s there.
Automated Wake Control Systems
Supra’s Autowake control system is one of the more innovative and tech-dependent advances ever to hit the tow boat market. Now in its second generation, Autowake uses predictive state technology that automatically adjusts ballast. It also measures pitch and roll and adjusts or fills ballast tanks accordingly. Its VisionTouch System with amplitude display relies on Supra’s mega velocity ballast system, which includes six pumps that greatly reduce ballast fill times and make for a more fluid rider experience—no pun intended.
Several, if not most, tow boat manufacturers offer transom-mounted trim plates, but Moomba increased the size of its SmartPlate 2.0 by nearly 50 percent. By controlling the water just a bit longer as it rushes off the bottom center of the transom, Moomba engineers can increase shaping capability when the boat is on plane and provide more planning assistance when the boat is fully loaded with gear, passengers and ballast. The SmartPlate 2.0 is yet another way of tailoring wakes to a rider’s preference.
Articulating Tracking Fin
Tow boats have had tracking fins for decades. They help keep a boat tracking straight as a 200-pound skier zigzags behind the boat. That was then. This is now, and that idea got turned—literally—on its ear when Centurion introduced the Centurion Articulating Tracking System.
The CATS fin acts like a conventional tracking fin when you want it to, but it can be turned to one side or the other to provide another level of adjustability to the wave shape, size and the driver’s control of the boat. The boat ends up going across the water a little catawampus, but it definitely moves water around and changes the dynamics behind the boat.
Let's wrap up
Not all of these innovations are limited to the builders to which I’ve attributed them. Some are, but not all. For instance, most of the big builders now have their own version of what Malibu calls its SurfGate system. I just used that as an example because it’s the only system licensed for use by another boatbuilder.
The same holds true for other technologies. If you’re looking for a new tow boat, you’ll find all are competitive with one another. Much of the differentiation will stem from buyers’ preferences and brand loyalties. Pick the boat that has the systems you feel are built to last, or work in a way you prefer. That’s where you’ll find value.