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The season is about to start and I’d like to write about boat driving tips, drivers’ safety and boating etiquette. Some of this may seem rudimentary, a refresher course perhaps, but each year our lake grows more crowded and people who have never been behind the wheel of a boat are pulling kids skiing, tubing and boarding. Having grown up on the lake and been involved with people in 3 – event skiing at an early age, we were taught to drive. Making a mistake behind the wheel was unacceptable; a slalom skier in a course or towing a jumper over a ramp requires precision for both driver and skier.

Most recreational towing is a lot less demanding, but there are lots of tips the recreational driver should know, starting with the hand signal communication between the rider and driver. It’s always best to have a spotter on board to watch the rider. It’s impossible to drive and watch the rider 100 percent of the time. A spotter can watch the rider’s hand signals and relay that information to the driver. That being said, we are busy people and that is not always possible when you’re scurrying from work to meet up and get a session in.

Water sports hand signals

  • Thumb’s up means “Increase speed”
  • Thumb’s down means “Decrease speed”
  • A slashing motion across the throat means “I’m through” or “Cut the engine.”
  • A fist bump to the top of the head means “I’m want to get in the boat” or “Get in the boat.”
  • A pat on the head means “Return to the start dock.”
  • A circling motion above the head means “The boat is turning” or “Turn the boat.” The direction of the circling motion indicates what direction the boat will turn.
  • THE MOST IMPORTANT & A MUST USE – An OK signal between forefinger and thumb means “I’m OK,” or a simple wave
  • No signal after a rider falls – means “I’m injured, come immediately.”

When a rider falls
Driver, if you have an injured rider never cut the engine upon returning to pick them up. The boat may not start again and the driver needs to be able to manipulate the boat as needed for the injured rider be it wind or drift the boat is not going to sit completely still. You will need to be able to quickly get skis or boards out of the water and keep the rope out of the prop.
Returning to a rider at high speed or making a “power turn” should only be done when there is an injured rider. Instead, when a rider falls, the throttle should be immediately pulled to idle, which allows the follow-up swell will come under the transom of the boat. Then turn the boat and put the boat in gear and idle back to the rider.
Power turns send large rollers all over the surface of the lake, causing problems for riders as well as lake residents.

Riding in sloughs
Sloughs – pronounced “slews” – are narrow areas of water, usually where a creek flows into the lake. Sloughs are usually the last spots to get open water rollers or effect of wind. There is an unwritten code of etiquette that applies to boating.
Onlookers should never enter a slough at speed where there are riders either active or down in the water. Any boat’s wake can cause serious falls and possible injury to riders (your ruining the water for the rider).

Two boats towing riders in one slough is not safe, and should not happen unless it is a very large slough. When I say large, I mean a rider should have enough room to be able to loose control over the front of his skis or board and release outward and not enter the path of another rider or boat, or worse, the shoreline.

If you come into a slough and there is a person riding or a rider in the water, do not enter at speed. Pull to idle immediately, then idle along shoreline and wait. The boat and rider that was already in the slough should take a session – a good rule of thumb is six passes. That boat should then idle to the side and allow the waiting boat to ride.
Also, the time should respectfully be monitored; the same time period of 6 passes is applicable to beginners who fall often should allow others to use the slough after a reasonable period of waiting.

Turning in sloughs
When driving a skier or boarder you should keep the boat straight at all times, a simple easy turn of the wheel is detrimental to a rider’s pull against the boat. This usually happens the second a driver’s head turns to watch the rider. If the boat is slightly turned to the right and a rider pulls from right to left, he receives a “slingshot” from the boat’s angle that can throw a rider over the front of the skies or catch a toeside edge on a board.

It’s always best to drive in a straight line and make sharp angled turns. When turning a boat around in a slough, you should make a tear drop-shaped turn.

If you are going to make a turn to the left, from your straight line, turn hard to the right, then quickly and smoothly turn to the left, circling almost 360 degrees until you are about to cross your own wake, turning back to the right just before hitting the waves and driving back down your bubble line made by the prop as you were driving into the slough.

Wake Etiquette
For many of today’s riders the big wake boat is desired for aerials and inverted tricks, as well as by wake surfers. Of the 752 miles of shoreline on Lake Martin, a high percentage is residential and has docks. Big wakes and docks do not coincide very well, especially when there are people lying on their docks catching some rays. Most of us riders get early morning and late evening sessions in when nobody is out and the water is calm.
This is not always the case, so briefly some thoughts on riding in populated sloughs.
Wakeboarders/skaters and surfers the mega wake we love should be done in the middle of larger, less inhabited sloughs, or preferably uninhabited sloughs. Nobody wants their boat and docks slammed to death. Do your best to stay away from these areas with docks.

Also, due to the wonderful architecture around the shores, Lake Martin is full of pleasure boaters touring around. Remember your boats (non pontoon) should be planed off or running in idle. A half-planed boat throws a huge wake and causes big problems, especially the mini yachters! If you are caught doing this your license should be revoked and you should never be able to captain more than a pontoon boat with a trolling motor.

Pulling a Tuber
When pulling a tube, people tend to drive like they are being chased by a swarm of bees. Tubing is a favorite past time for many boaters and kids. Since you can tube anywhere, large open water areas are the location where this should be done.
However, in the busy parts of the day this puts a driver at a large safety disadvantage due to the more crowded nature of these waters. A close eye has to be kept on surroundings and rider(s).
Towing children in big open waters on a busy day behind a pontoon boat is very dangerous. One big bump can send a rider off the tube, and a pontoon boat has the slowest ability to return to a down rider. The rider has nothing to hold up for oncoming boats to see like a ski or board, and is basically a sitting duck.
I would have to suggest tubing or skiing behind pontoon boats be done in uncrowded areas away from the main boat channels and children should not be towed from location to location.
Lake Martin does not require the use of flags for drivers and down riders due to the uncrowded and open nature of our lake. Pontoon towing honestly makes a case for this practice on Lake Martin.

Personal Water Craft.
This is my personal favorite towing device and I’m sure many of yours. Your riding time doubles as the PWC can pick you up and have you up, trying your trick again twice as fast as a boat. This also applies to a return response for safety/injury. The same rules apply on entering a slough on a PWC. Just because it’s small doesn’t make it wakeless. PWC drivers should not enter a slough when people are riding weather you are going to tow someone or are just riding for fun. I know everyone like to see a good boarder doing aerials and the wake behind these big wake boats are enticing but a PWC should never follow a boat with a rider EVER! This is dangerous and causes a lot of undue stress on a rider, boat driver and occupants. Boats should also never follow another boat that has a rider, nor follow in the fall path. This happens more often than you think and is a big NO NO!

Safe riding and see you on the water – sdbehindtheboat(at)gmail(dotted)com