Since the day Minnesotan Ralph Samuelson first strapped a pair of barrel staves to his feet and created waterskiing, people have been crazy about boat-towed sports. And why not? If you live in an area like St. Louis, where lakes and rivers make up our major bodies of water, there’s no better way to spend quality time with family and friends than by teaching, learning and sharing in the joy of hot-dogging behind a boat. So, whether you’re new to boating or just looking for a fresh way to enjoy your wake, here’s a brief introduction to the most popular “watersports” and how they came into being.
Tubing. Likely the oldest and still one of the most popular of all watersports, tubing involves tethering an inner tube or other inflatable water toy to a boat and then hitting the throttle. While no one is sure exactly when this sport hit the scene, it’s probably safe to say that people have been riding behind boats on “towables” almost forever. Today’s “tubes” come in all shapes and sizes (www.boatinggearcenter.com has a huge selection), and each one is designed with a single goal in mind: wet and wild thrills. Tubing is the perfect entry-level watersport because it’s non-intimidating, inexpensive, appropriate for all ages — and falling off is half the fun!
Waterskiing. This is the first “official” boat-towed sport and still the gateway activity for many young water athletes. The warm-weather equivalent of snow skiing started in 1922 when 19-year-old Samuelson figured that if he could ski on frozen water, he could ski on unfrozen water. It took him a few months to get it right, but once he did, he took his “stunt show” on the road from Detroit to Orlando. Today, we use fiberglass skis and rubber bindings rather than wood barrel staves and leather straps. Still, waterskiing remains as popular as ever because it’s low impact, relatively easy to learn and can be done at hair-straightening speeds for the initiated, who typically “drop” one ski and ride with both feet on a single, or slalom, ski.
Barefooting. Quite simply, it’s waterskiing without the skis, and it can be traced back to Dick Pope Jr., who was filmed “footin” in Cypress Gardens in 1947. The sport has grown over the years to include backward barefooting and barefoot jumping, and today has a fervent following with its own national competition series. You don’t need much in the way of gear to break into barefooting — just a boat, a tow rope and a life vest. And a heavily padded wetsuit doesn’t hurt! Because it can require speeds in excess of 35 miles per hour, it’s a good idea to start with an experienced barefooter or take lessons before stepping in. If you have the opportunity to learn from a boom (a pole that extends from the side of the boat), all the better.
Hydrofoiling. These strange ski-chair contraptions have their origins in the hydrofoil boats of the early 1900s, in which underwater wings were used to lessen drag and increase speed. The first hydrofoil waterski was developed in the mid-1960s and went through a number of stand-up and sit-down versions until the Air Chair finally hit the scene in 1989. Veteran riders can “fly” their foils out of the water and perform soaring flips and rolls. Once newbie riders learn the basics, they can enjoy a nice, smooth, relaxed ride that can last, literally, for hours on end. In addition to the Air Chair, one other company, Sky Ski, makes these “sit-n-skis.”
Kneeboarding. Surfers in Southern California first crafted these boards to carve the ocean swells, but it was only a matter of time until the far-out dudes tried towing them behind their boats. By 1965, “inland kneeboards” we being sold across the country at stores like Abercrombie & Fitch. (Bet you didn’t know the original A&F was an elite outfitter of sporting and excursion goods.)A kneeboard is a good piece of gear for watersports beginners because the low center of gravity makes it easier to get up and harder to fall off. Modern models have straps and resilient pads to protect the rider’s knees from injury. Kneeboarding is believed to have directly led to…
Wakeboarding. This high-flying sport was also created by SoCal surfers who just weren’t satisfied with ruling the ocean waves. Wakeboarding backside-flipped into the public eye in 1985, when Tony Finn and his buddies decided to add foot straps to his “skurfer” — a waterski/surfboard hybrid that could be pulled behind a boat. These days, wakeboarding involves skimming on the water’s surface with your feet anchored to a board with bindings. You hold the handle of a tow rope (often attached to a tower “pull point” for added lift) and crisscross the wake at around 18 to 24 miles per hour. Professional riders can launch themselves off the wake lip to perform mind-boggling tricks. Specialized wakeboard boats often have ballast bags and/or pumps that store water below deck to increase the weight of the boat and create a larger wake.
Wakeskating. This is a natural evolution, or de-evolution, of wakeboarding that employs a similar design of board manufactured from wood or fiberglass. But unlike wakeboarding, the rider is not bound to the board in any way, which gives the sport its own unique challenges. The top surface of the board is typically covered with either grip tape (like a skateboard) or soft, high-traction foam that is kinder to riders in the inevitable wipeouts. Riders use a tow rope and wear special shoes while “skating” behind the boat at 16 to 20 miles per hour depending on water conditions, the weight of the rider and their proficiency in the sport. Pro wakeskating involves complex jumps and tricks similar to both wakeboarding and street skating.
Wakesurfing. Perhaps the “purest” of ocean-influenced watersports, wakesurfing is when a rider cruises atop a surfboard behind an inboard-powered boat, surfing the wake without being directly attached to the boat or the board. The wake from the boat (sometimes enhanced by water ballast) mimics the look and feel of an actual ocean wave. After getting up on the wave using a tow rope, wakesurfers drop the rope and ride the steep face below the wave’s peak. It can take first-timers several tries to catch the wave, but once they do, it’s “Endless Summer” all over again. Inboard and V-drive boats are the only safe choice for this sport; other types of boats such as sterndrives and outboards are dangerous because the propeller is exposed.
Additional reporting by Steve Rosenberg of Avid Custom Media (www.avidcustom.com).