What started with a man strapping a pair of pine boards to his feet and then getting himself yanked across a pond has evolved into an almost bewildering number of aquatic activities that offer fun, thrills, and innovative toys for boaters of all ages and experience levels. Grab a rope and hang on; it’s time to introduce you to the world of watersports.
Of course, the hottest trend in watersports right now is undoubtedly wakesurfing, which is so popular that it’s shifted the way some boat manufacturers construct their products, making sure they produce the largest wakes possible (learn more in Water Ski and Wakeboard Boats). While wakesurfing might be the latest fad, it’s not the only fad. There’s a full lineup of watersports for boaters to explore, from some of the classics like water skiing and tubing, to the newest trends in wake sports and unique towables you might not even be familiar with yet. You don't want to miss out on all the excitement that watersports has to offer. Because the truth is, half the fun of boating actually happens off the boat. One of the best places to be is in its wake, getting towed across the water. Hold tight to that towrope, and let’s ride.
Waterskiing, slalom skiing, barefoot skiing and hydrofoiling
Waterskiing: This is the granddaddy of the watersports family. Its invention proved to boaters that their boats could serve as more than just transportation or a fishing platform. From two skis, to one ski, to no skis at all, it’s a sport that can be challenging, fun and sometimes painful. But for those new to watersports, it’s a great place to start.
Basic waterskiing involves two separate skis, one attached to each foot. Start in the water, lined up behind the boat as you hold onto the rope. Keep your knees bent and your feet relatively close together. Once you give your driver the signal, they’ll take off at full speed, which is your cue to hang on and let the boat do most of the work. For more tips, read our beginner's guide on How to Water Ski.
Slalom Skiing: Slalom skiing is similar to regular skiing, minus one ski. The simplest way to get into it is to start the way you normally would with two skis, then eventually drop one along the way (side note: don’t forget to go back to retrieve that other ski). Once you’ve built up your confidence, it’s possible to do a full start on just one ski. If you want to see a full list of steps, USA Water Ski has another great guide on Learning to Slalom.
Barefoot Skiing: For a real challenge, you can lose the skis all together. Barefoot skiing is the most difficult form of skiing and it often requires some form of prior training before testing out your skills (Don’t believe us? Take it from the pros in boats.com's A Water Skiing Pro Looks Back—and Ahead). There are multiple ways to ease into barefoot skiing, including starting directly in the water, standing up off of a kneeboard or wakeboard, or dismounting from a slalom ski. Once again, USA Water Ski can help; their Learning to Barefoot Water Ski will walk you right through the learning process.
Hydrofoiling: Last, but certainly not least in the skiing family, comes hydrofoiling. Hydrofoiling is an odd sport, and onlookers might view it as seated skiing. The hydrofoil is made up of three parts including the seat tower, board and foil assembly (which basically acts as a rudder to help with direction). To start off, riders strap into the seat and lean back, holding onto the rope while keeping the front tip of the board out of the water. Once the boat takes off, the foil assembly will lift the board off the surface of the water and elevate the rider up into the air. USA Water Ski can give you an in-depth explanation of this crazy sport in their Learn to Hydrofoil guide.
Wakeboarding, wakeskating and wakesurfing
The longstanding sibling rivalry between snow skiers and snowboards has unsurprisingly carried over into the water: between skiers and wakeboarders, and, in this case, wakeskaters and wakesurfers. Over the past decade, wakeboarding, wakeskating and wakesurfing have taken the boating industry by storm, bringing with them a whole new layer of style, tricks, and gear.
Wakeboarding: Ready to grab a board and catch a wake? The easiest place to start is with wakeboarding. Riders start in the water, directly behind the boat, with their feet strapped into the bindings attached to the board. Similar to skiing, you need to keep your knees bent with your elbows tucked close to your side as you hold onto the rope. Once your driver gets going, you’ll apply a little pressure with your feet to the board, letting the boat do most of the work to pull you up into a sideways standing position. When it comes to wake sports, riders are either “regular,” which means they ride with their left foot forward, or “goofy,” leading with their right foot. Regardless of whether you are regular or goofy, you should always keep most of your body weight balanced on your back leg while you’re riding. To get you going, check out boats.com’s in-depth guide on How to Wakeboard and our 20 Tips for Instant Wakeboard Success.
Wakeskating: Throw on a pair of old sneakers and lose the bindings—there you go, you’re ready for wakeskating. Wakeskating is basically aquatic skateboarding. Since there are no bindings, your feet are free to move around, which helps when performing tricks. Instead of bindings, the board is covered in griptape or soft, traction foam. The board size is smaller than a wakeboard and just a little larger than an actual skateboard. Unlike wakeboarding and wakesurfing, wakeskating is the only wake sport where the ideal towing vehicle would actually be a PWC (personal watercraft), and not a boat.
Wakesurfing: The third and final sport in the wake sports trio is a monster all its own. Wakesurfing allows riders to actually surf the wake behind the boat—without being strapped into bindings on the board and without holding onto a rope as they ride. Wakesurfing must always been done on a boat with an inboard motor (although the Volvo Penta Forward Drive maybe changing that), due to the fact that wakesurfers stay close to the back of the boat as they ride. Getting up on a wakesurf board is similar to a wakeboard with riders holding the rope in between their legs as they float in the water behind the boat. You must rest your feet up on top of the board as it floats on top of the water. As your driver speeds up, usually only to about a nine to 13 MPH maximum, you’ll press your heels down onto the board so that it pops up and you can pull yourself into a sideways standing position. To walk you through the whole step-by-step process, head over to our guide on How to Wakesurf.
Kneeboarding and watersports trainers
If you’re not quite ready to dive right into skiing or wake sports just yet, a great way to ease into things is through kneeboarding or watersports trainers—both are also great options for introducing kids to their first watersports experience. Kneeboards are one of the simplest watersports for anyone to do, while watersports trainers can really help your kids learn the basics before moving onto other sports in the lineup.
Kneeboarding: The name really says it all: a board you ride while seated on your knees. Just like many of the other watersports we’ve covered, riders start off in the water behind the boat. Instead of strapping into any binding, you lay your body across the board with your head facing forward, holding onto the front edges of the board with your feet dangling in the water behind you. Usually, most kneeboards have a small hook on the front of the board where you attach the rope; if not, hang onto the rope however if feels most comfortable until you’re able to get up. To get into a riding position, you’ll pull yourself up onto your knees as the driver slowly increases their speed. Once you’re up, place the strap across your knees and the rest comes pretty naturally. Check out boats.com's How to Kneeboard article for additional tips.
Watersports Trainers: Trainers, sometimes referred to as “EZ Skis,” can help kids stabilize their balance as they learn the fundamentals. There are different types of trainers, including those used for ski training and others used for wake sports training. There are also EZ Skis that resemble inflatable tubes and others that are actually made with similar materials as skis or wakeboards. Regardless of what style EZ Ski you decide to test out, watersports trainers are a must-have for parents looking to give their kids a safe, fun entry into the world of watersports.
Okay, so what do hotdogs, decks, cockpits, and wings all have in common? Believe it or not, they all describe different styles of inflatable tubes—which just so happen to be the last category in our watersports lineup. Tubing is one of the best watersports for all ages for a couple of reasons: 1) It requires no coordination or skill, and 2) If you have a good driver, you’re bound to have a great time. There are also so many different styles of tubes to choose from—flat deck tubes that you ride on while laying down on top of the tube, cockpit tubes where you are seated down lower in the tube, steerable tubes that allow you to move the tube around the wake, winged tubes that get so much air it will send riders sailing up off of the surface of the water, hotdog (or banana) tubes where multiple riders climb on to straddle the tube as it cruises, and the list could go on and on…
Of course, every boater has their own personal preference when it comes to tube type and riding style. Bart Watersports has a wide range of tubes and can give you a good idea about some of the options that are out there. For new and seasoned boaters, be sure to check out boats.com's Safe Family Tubing to make sure you’re being careful while out on the water.
Have fun, be safe and don’t be afraid to wipeout
As you can see, when it comes to watersports your options are almost endless. Our Essential Tow-Boat Glossary can help you navigate as you begin to dip your toe into the world of watersports. There’s definitely something for everyone, so don’t get down on yourself if you try one sport and it doesn’t work out. While watersports are a lot of fun, they can also be very frustrating at the beginning. The key is to be patient—even the best of us have had a nasty wipeout every once in awhile. And hey, even the wipeouts can be fun.
So what are you waiting for? Get out there on the water, and don’t forget to share all your watersports pictures and videos with us on Facebook—and be sure to include some of those wipeout videos too.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in June 2016, updated in March 2018 and April 2020.