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  • Towing Hand Signals for Water Skiers & Water skiing Safety Tips

    September 01, 2022 9 min read 1 Comment

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    Towing Hand Signals for Water Skiers & Water skiing Safety Tips

    If you’re heading out on the water to go waterskiing or wakeboarding, it is essential that you are familiar with the correct hand signals to stay safe and have fun. The spotter or observer and the boat driver must be able to communicate with the skier at all times.

    During your boating trip, you can effectively communicate by using hand signals.

    Below are some of the most important hand gestures for water skiing and wakeboarding plus safety tips to make your boating experience enjoyable every time.

    Water ski hand signals

    Water Ski Hand Signals Skiers Should Use

    There are no laws that state you must use hand signals, but it is the only way to communicate between the driver, observer, and the skier. The skier and driver cannot speak when skiing, and you must utilize hand signals, allowing the spotter and driver to know what the skier needs.

    Before entering the water, make sure the spotter and the skier are using the same signals, the skier or observer should discuss these first. It's crucial to have a knowledgeable and capable observer and boat driver.

    Hand Signals for Water Skiers

    • Thumb up or palm up = Speed Up
    • Thumb down or palm down = Slow down
    • Vertical flat hand facing the boat = Stop
    • Create a circle with pointer finger and thumb (ok signal) = Speed OK or I’m OK
    • Hand pointed left = Turn left
    • Hand pointed right = Turn right

    These signals will assist the skier in effectively communicating with people on the boat.

    Towing Water Ski hand signals

    image: transportsafety.vic.gov.au

    Hand signals for waterski and towing watersports

    A Fallen Skier Hand Signal

    After a fall, the fallen skier should raise either one hand or both hands above their head to notify the boat that they are OK. Make sure that the observer has seen your signal.

    If the skier doesn't signal in any way after falling, they could be hurt. The observer needs to notify the driver that the skier is possibly injured and has not raised their hand above their head. Ensure the boat returns quickly but don’t panic and create more problems. Ensure that the turn area is clear, check that the rope is clear of the boat and skier. Return at a manageable speed so the boat can drift in safety alongside the skier, or an observer can provide assistance.  

    More injuries happen from people standing up in the boat and falling over or overboard while it turns fast to get back to the skier, everyone must remain seated and firmly in place. If someone stands up the boat must slowly come to a stop until they are seated.

    Ready to Start Hand Signal

    The only way to clearly signal to the boat that the skier is ready to start is to use a strong voice to communicate. Calling out “ready” will signal for the boat to move forward and tighten the rope ready to start. The boat driver and observer will watch to ensure the rope is clear and tight between the skier and the boat, that the tip or tips of the skis are straight and above the water, and slowly take off building the power to lift the skier. The skier needs to keep both hands on the handle and concentrate on their balance.

    Back to Dock hand signal

    The spotter and driver will know you are ready to return to the dock when you tap your palm on your head.

    I'm Done or Finished hand signal

    Move your hand across your neck in the manner of slicing your throat if you are getting tired and are ready to stop. This tells the boat that you are finished skiing and are prepared to stop straight away. This can also be used if the skier would like the driver to turn the boat off while they are sitting in the water.

    The slicing signal is to stop now, it is more urgent, tapping the head is to return to the dock or shoreline where you started or simply finish if you are skiing from the boat.

    hand signals observers spotters should use waterski

    Hand Signals Spotters Should Use

    As a spotter or observer in the boat, you are responsible for the communication between the skier and the boat driver and even other boats. A driver by law should never remove their hands from the controls, hand signals are the job of the observer. You also don’t need passengers in the boat holding up their arms signaling to the surrounding boats, it is dangerous, and passengers should sit quietly in their seats and hold on at all times.

    Waiting to take off hand signal

    Do boat drivers bend the laws a little when notifying other boats of their intentions, well, yes. The skipper can give notice to incoming vessels dropping off skiers that they won't be moving until it is safe to do so by holding up one arm in the air to signal that they are waiting and will give way to the incoming boat and skier. Technically the motor should be off, but this can be very tricky in the wind or in rough conditions.

    The observer should be holding their arm up, not the driver, their signal is what drivers of other boats should be looking for.

    Skier down-observers hand signal

    To signal to other boats that a skier has fallen and is in the water, the observer can hold one arm straight up in the air. Boats that observe this signal should keep a close eye out for the water skier in the water and the rope trailing behind the boat. Again, please have the passengers remain still, they do not need to signal as they become a problem when they start moving around trying to watch boats and skiers. The driver has enough to take care of.

    Dropping off skier-driver hand signal

    On Australian waterways it has become normal for the driver to signal they are returning to shore by raising their hand or arm. If a driver has the throttle in their right hand and steering wheel in their left they should not signal, it is not safe to remove the hands from the controls. The observer should be the one indicating they are coming in by raising his hand. We do see both, best to be safe and have the observer raise their hand to indicate to the other boats that they are coming in.

    Turning hand signal

    When the boat needs to turn the observer will raise their arm and make circles with an upwards pointing finger indicating to the water skier the boat will be turning around.

    The skier can also use this signal when they would like to turn and head back in the other direction.

    Water Skier to stay behind the boat hand signal

    This is the signal you will use if you need to tell the skier to keep behind the boat. Outstretched arm, hand moving up and down. This is used to signal to small or young skiers that there could be large waves approaching as it is safer or smoother in the middle of the wakes or if there is danger ahead. It is used regularly in rivers and tighter areas.

    Safety Tips for water skiing

    Quick Safety Tips For Safe Water Skiing & Wakeboarding

    • First job on arrival at a new boating location is to check the signs at the boat ramp to see where boating or skiing is allowed.
    • Check the signs for slow zones or dangerous zones, many rivers and lakes have non skiing or boating areas.
    • To determine whether the waterway is suitable for skiing, look at its width and depth (to enable safe turns, as well as any potential hazards nearby.
    • Always drive the river or lake first to ensure the area is clear of obstacles.
    • Unless otherwise specified by site management or local signs, water skiing should always be done counter clockwise.
    • Make sure that all passengers, skiers, observers, and drivers know the safety hand signals and use these signals.
    • Always turn the engine off before the skier(s) board the boat.
    • Skiers should always enter the boat over the stern, rear of the boat.
    • The boat driver is 100% responsible for the skier and all passengers, the driver must always place safety first.
    • The driver must ensure the engine is off when anyone is boarding or getting into the water.
    • The driver must also ensure the skier is unable to get close to the shoreline when returning to the bank or turning the boat, , it is better to finish away from the edge or shallow water. Too many skiers, tubers and wakeboarders finish up on the shoreline and receive serous injuries.
    Water ski hand signals australia

    Boat and Vessel Owners

    Owners and operators have a responsibility for safety ensuring that the boat or personal watercraft (PWC) used for water skiing:

    • is registered, in good condition, and capable of towing skiers.
    • is used correctly.
    • has the proper safety equipment for skiers and passengers on board.

    Boat Licences

    A current marine or PWC state-issued licence is required for the operator of any boat or personal watercraft utilised for water skiing or towing another person. Even if there is a licenced person nearby who can take instant control, an unlicensed individual is not permitted to operate a boat or PWC used for skiing or towables.

    Observers / Spotters

    • Driving a boat that is pulling a skier or towable is prohibited unless there is an observer/spotter on board as well. The observer rules vary between states and do change from time to time. In Victoria currently the observer needs to be at least 12 years of age. In NSW the toughest of the states, the observer needs to be at least 16 or have a current boat licence or PWC licence. They must be capable of keeping an eye on the skier at all times.

    If they notice any of the following, they must notify the driver:

    • the skier is in danger or could be in danger.
    • the skier signals the observer.
    • the skier has fallen.
    • a vessel is approaching.
    Life jackets for waterski

    Life Jackets for Skiers

    When water skiing, wakeboarding, knee boarding or tubing, the skier or person on the water must always wear a life jacket. Most state regulations require a Level 50 or Level 50 special purpose (50S) life jacket, they are a PFD type 2 or 3, or an approved wetsuit with built-in buoyancy is also acceptable.

    When aboard an open boat under 4.8 metres, all children under the age of 12 must be wearing their life jackets.

    Every person above the age of 12 must have access to a life jacket that is available on board in sufficient supply and of the proper size.

    It is important to wear a life vest firmly and be fitted correctly. A poor fitting life jacket is dangerous.


    Rules on the water

    Unless specifically instructed otherwise by local signs or site management, water skiing should always be performed in an anticlockwise direction.

    Water skiing and towing may not permitted:

    • In all 6 knot zones, including harbours and marinas
    • Near
      • people in the water
      • boats that are anchored
      • diver's flags
      • jetties, pontoons, or boat ramps.

    Regulations vary between states, but common sense is even better when judging distances. Keep well clear of everyone while towing a skier or boating. 60 meters is used regularly when describing distance from anything in the water.

    How many people can be towed behind a boat?

    The total number of people allowed to be towed behind a boat is 3. They can be on one tube or three tubes, or 3 skiing or boarding at the same time. The total number of people behind the boat cannot exceed three.

    There are many 4 seater tubes on the market, even larger, we recommend staying with 3 people per tube.

    Basic Rules for Boating and Watersports

    • Skippers, observers, and skiers are subject to blood alcohol content limitations of .05 as well as restrictions on drugs. If you get caught driving a boat over the legal limit you lose your car license as well.
    • Turns must be made counterclockwise and on the starboard side of the when leaving, approaching, or in front of a takeoff area.
    • Boats departing a take-off area must stay clear of those approaching the take-off area. Therefore, boats that are approaching the takeoff area have priority.
    • Before returning to the take-off location, ski ropes, tubes or skis that are trailing from a boat must be taken out of the water.
    • Skis that have been dropped must not be left in the water as they pose a risk to other traffic.
    • A boat cannot pass immediately behind or within 100 metres of someone being towed by another boat.

    Waterskiing and boating are subject to regulations designed to reduce the risk for other water users and your own crew. This entails keeping clear of other boats, both non-powered like canoes and rowboats plus other powered vessels. These rules are all listed in the license test booklet and Waterways brochures.

    Common Sense

    What is important is how your wake or boat wash effects other users of the waterways. Common sense should be used, the driver must make sure their boat wake cannot cause distress to other boats, swimmers, or canoers. Stay away from areas where a fishing boat has moored, there are other areas where you can find to ski or wakeboard and never drive close to a stationary boat or raft.

    Enjoy your boating & see you out on the water! ✌🏻

    1 Response

    Terrance C. Wallace
    Terrance C. Wallace

    May 14, 2023

    Really enjoyed this information. Thank you I appreciate it very much. I was very curious about this stuff.vvery helpful to me I would recommend this article to anyone and probably will. Chow fellow skiers, spotters, observers, passengers, and drivers. Have fun and stay safe!!!!

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