The best way to pump up the fun quotient of your PWC is to use it as a tow craft. With a boarder or a tube in tow, it's not just the driver enjoying the action anymore. If you want to tow with a PWC, there are number of things to consider or be aware of. Here's a primer for "putting fun on the line" with a PWC.
The Right Machine
In almost every state, by law a PWC used for towing must have a three-passenger capacity. The idea is that in addition to the driver and an observer, there's a seat available for the person holding the line should he or she get tired or injured.
Almost any current three-passenger PWC has enough power to pull a tube or a wakeboard or wakeskate rider. I've successfully towed a wakerskater with a 110-hp PWC. Most of the time you'll want to be going no more than about 20 mph, so what you need from the PWC is good bottom-end and mid-range power, and a broad powerband that gives you good throttle control. Throttle control is critical for holding a steady speed. During a recent comparison test I found that the 125-hp Kawasaki Jet Ski STX-12F, for example, was very difficult to hold at a steady 20 mph with a boarder in tow because the engine was coming into its powerband right at that speed, so we were constantly speeding up and slowing down.
The worst towing performance I've ever seen was turned in by a Honda AquaTrax F-12X, which has a turbocharged engine that first lagged — which bogged the boarder out of the hole - and then hit with a sudden burst of power — which almost tore his arms off and then blew out the pump. No amount of throttle modulation helped. Most of today's premium three-passenger models have a good powerband for towing, though I think the supercharged Sea-Doo boats are especially good in this regard.
Other features to look for in a good tow craft include a ski eye or U-bolt on the transom to attach the tow line. I think a ski eye is much more convenient. A flip-down step helps people get back on board after a session, and is especially handy if you are pulling kids, who may not be able to reach the aft grab handle. Rear-view mirrors help the driver keep an eye on the action behind him, and are required by law in some states. The aft, under-seat stowage compartment on some Yamaha and Kawasaki models is a good place to stash a ski line. And an accessory board rack can make it easier to transport a wake or skate board. If you are buying a PWC primarily for tow sports, take a long look at the Sea-Doo Wake, which has a number of features designed specifically for wake sports.
Know the Law
Before you hit the water, it's important to know the PWC towing regulations in your state, and any special rules that might pertain to your specific body of water, such as restricted skiing hours. Local rules are usually posted at launch ramps. According to my copy of the Reference Guide to State Boating Laws published by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators some states require mirrors or an observer when towing, some require that the observer is facing aft, and some dictate a minimum age for the observer. Other states simply apply their standard powerboat towing rules to PWC, but that might include a mirror, a rear-facing observer, or a boarding ladder. A skier-down flag is required in 13 states, and almost every state permits towing only behind a three-passenger PWC. In Massachusetts, it's against the law to tow anything behind a PWC. BoatingBasicsOnline offers a review of boating safety laws for specific states, as well as some good information on towing in general.
Pro wakeskater Kyle Hyams of Maitland, Fla., has spent a lot of time being towed behind a PWC, and offers a few driving tips.
"Courtesy should be at the top of your list every time you go out," said Hyams. "You want to stay out of busy channels, and away from lot of homes or area where people are fishing. Find a secluded lake or an isolated area of the lake when you can.
"As a rider it's frustrating when another boat ruins the smooth water," said Hyams. "When the rider falls, idle back to pick him up if he's OK instead of turning around at speed and making a big wake. Also make your turn-around in a teardrop shape and it will bring the ski line back to the rider so he has less swimming to do."
As the driver, you are responsible for the safety of the person you are towing, which means that you need to be aware of that person at all times, while also maintaining a 360-degree scan of the water around you. This is a lot to keep track of, which is why it's a good idea to use an observer even if one is not required in your state. Let the observer watch the action behind the boat while you focus on driving. Everyone should know and use the watersports hand signals (see your state boating safety guide).
When towing a boarder, it's important to maintain a steady speed. Changes in boat speed will throw off the rider's balance and make it more difficult to execute tricks. Holding a speed takes some practice. I've found that after some time, my ear gets tuned to the sound of the engine at a certain speed, and I drive almost by holding that tone. But when I get on an unfamiliar PWC, I spend a lot of time watching the speedometer when I'm towing, and it's easy to get so focused on the dash that I forget to keep a watch ahead of the boat. This is why I like the Cruise Assist feature on the Yamaha WaveRunner FX SHO — it holds the speed so the driver can concentrate on other aspects of boat-driving.
If you are towing a tube-type device, follow the manufacturer's recommendations for maximum speed, and avoid the temptation to juice up the fun factor by going just a little faster. Never bring the kids back to shore in tears.
Editor's Note: Charles Plueddeman is the editor at large for Boating, the nation's largest recreational boating magazine.