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Teaching Kids How to Waterski

Six steps to success, and key teaching points
By Mark R. Johnson
Published: June 1, 2002
Teach kids to waterski 2
Photo by Steve Umland

"Hit it!"

Those two words form one of the most exhilarating and memorable phrases uttered at a lake cabin. For a child, they signal the end of being relegated to building castles in the sand, fishing from the dock with the petite Donald Duck fishing rod, and sitting quietly in the boat while everyone else waterskis. For an adult, the phrase also signals the dawn of a new day on the waterfront. Once you know how to ski, you're no longer a dock ornament or on-board towel caddy.

Learning to waterski at the cabin is a rite of passage, whether you're young or old. It follows that just about the nicest thing you can do for the uninitiated is teach them to waterski.

And that's what we did one day last summer with an 8-year-old, the youngest in an extended waterskiing family. He decided it was time to step up and take off.

Teach kids to waterski 1
Before the student ever gets wet, you can teach him everything from proper start position to correct skiing posture.
Photo by Steve Umland
It's very early on this summer morning. The sun is warm, there are only a few slow-moving fishing boats on the lake, and the water is glass – perfect conditions for skiing.

On the rear deck of the sleek ski boat, 8-year-old Cole is a nervous ball of energy bouncing from foot to foot in front of his teacher, Uncle Mike.

Uncle Mike Portugue – a lake rat since his early days at his parents' lake cabin – learned how to waterski when he was 6 years old and began barefooting when he was 16, the year his dad upgraded from an underpowered 50 horsepower motor to a 115 HP. By 2002, he was a 42-year-old competitive barefoot waterskier ranked eighth nationally in his division.

When he's not on the water during spring, summer and fall (or on the snowboarding slopes and half-pipes during the winter), Portugue works as an adaptive physical education teacher. Obviously well-credentialed for the task, Portugue estimates he has taught approximately 235 kids and adults – ranging in age from 6 to 50 – how to waterski or barefoot. With the skyrocketing popularity of wakeboarding, he also has recently taught about 25 people how to wakeboard.

Wakeboarding or barefooting may be in young Cole's future, but Portugue recommends that anyone new to water surface sports learn to waterski first because it's the easiest to pick up. "Success is a big factor in learning. The more success students have, the more enthusiastic they are about going to the next level," he says. "Besides, there is a big carryover of fundamentals from one sport to the next."

Teach kids to waterski 4
Break down water-skiing into short, bite-size, teachable lessons. Then you can build on a series of victories to make learning fun. Above, the student is learning the proper start position.
Photo by Steve Umland

Step 1: The start position
The first step in teaching someone to ski is dry-land training. All that's needed is the student and the tow handle. The classroom can be the boat deck (for young students) or the shore (for adult pupils who need more elbow room).

Portugue has Cole on the deck of the boat. After briefly explaining what they're going to do, Portugue simulates ski bindings by laying one of his size XL hands over the top of Cole's feet and pinning them to the boat deck. His other hand grasps a short length of towrope. He tells his nephew to hold onto the tow handle and sit down while keeping his knees together. "Go ahead, lean back, I won't let you fall." Cole shoots a suspicious look at his uncle – he of many tickle tortures – but complies and leans back until he's sitting on his rump with his knees pressed against his chest.

For shore training, tie off one end of the rope, perhaps to a tree, and have the student hold the handle of the taut ski rope while carrying out the drills.

Step 2: Standing up
Now that the student understands the proper start position, the next step involves moving to the skiing stance. The teacher tells the student to keep his knees bent and position his arms extended outside his knees, reaching forward. Emphasis is placed on keeping the arms straight.

Cole has received these exact instructions – "... and keep your arms straight" – but when Portugue pulls the rope Cole doesn't keep his arms straight. He loosely holds the tow handle in one hand while he twists and contorts his legs, torso and one free arm as he tries to stand up, squeaking all the while in a small, knees-scrunched-to-his-chest voice, "This is too hard!"

"Okay, let's do it again," Portugue says calmly and patiently. "This time, you let me pull you up. This is how you're going to start when the boat pulls you up on skis." After a few more twisting, failed attempts, Cole succeeds.

Teach kids to waterski 3
Cole trained from the deck of a ski boat, but you can also start the lesson on the shore. With dry-land training, the student won't get tired struggling against the water and will pay more attention to what you're trying to teach.
Photo by Steve Umland

Step 3: Add skis
At this point, the teacher introduces a new and exciting variable: the skis. Just skis, though, still no water.

Portugue helps Cole force his less-than-pliable feet into the stiff rubbery ski bindings (thank goodness for binding tube!). For children, try to use shorter skis because kids can more easily control smaller, lighter skis. Conversely, adults find it easier to get up on larger skis, even when the boat motor lacks optimum horsepower.

Portugue tells Cole to hold onto his forearm and sit on the back of the skis. After Portugue lowers his nephew, he tells him, "This is the position you're going to be in when you start skiing."

He gives Cole the tow handle again, and repeats the lesson from earlier, pulling the short rope so Cole gets the feeling of being pulled from a squatting position to upright while standing on skis. No twisting and contorting, the student aces the lesson.

Step 4: Into the water
Up until now, the student is a skier out of water - on purpose. Even an adult student can become uncomfortable - if not downright agitated - trying to float in the water with an obnoxiously buoyant life jacket strapped to the upper torso and long, clumsy boards attached to feet and ankles. But, dry-land training is over. Time to get wet and get used to feeling like an overturned turtle.

"What I'm going to do next," the teacher tells his pupil, "is put you in the water. I'm going to help you into the lake and let you float awhile." Portugue cradles Cole in hi massive arms and lowers him into the lake on the port side of the boat.

While Cole floats on his back, his 12-year-old brother Loren warns from the bow of the boat, "I hear there are really big muskies in this lake." Fortunately, Cole is unfazed by his brother's teasing. Sure, Cole i shivering and fidgety; but the cause is the task ahead, not fear of large fish below.

Portugue pulls the long black boom out of its storage space inside the bow of the boat and sets it up. The boom is Portugue's preferred method for teaching skiing as well as barefooting. "The boom lifts you out of the water and supports your body so all your weight isn't on the skis. The learning curve is better because you have more success as you go through the progression. By limiting falls, you build greater confidence and lower the risk of injury.' Cole splashes around, ignoring the whole set-up process. He's ridden shotgun in the boat for years while his relatives have skied and barefooted so he knows all about the boom.

Teach kids to waterski 7
If your student does the limbo, seize the opportunity to remind him to straighten his arms and bend his knees. Your words will carry extra weight when your student complies and instantly feels more comfortable on the water.
Photo by Steve Umland
Teach kids to waterski 6
The boom lightens the student's load. When the student moves to a short line, as shown, skiing gets a little tougher. Continue to stress the fundamentals, though, and your student will get the hang of it.
Photo by Steve Umland
Step 5: Getting up on skis
Finally, it's show time. Time to bring together all the points the student has been practicing, and time to put the boat into play.

Because effective driving is so crucial for beginning waterskiers, the teacher should drive the boat unless a second driver is available who is experienced in pulling novice skiers. If that second driver is available, the teacher can double as spotter.

Boom start

On this day, Portugue is both teacher and driver while Cole's mother is in the boat as a spotter.

Cole is in the water, hands holding the boom in an overhand grip. One last time, Portugue repeats the key points: "Keep your knees bent, and put your arms outside your knees, arms straight. Hold onto the boom. When the boat goes, just let it pull you up. ... Slight bend. ... Arms straight. Go for the ride, smile and wave."

Over the low, guttural rumbling of the inboard motor, Portugue exclaims, "Here we go. Let the boat pull you up." The teacher eases the throttle open, moving the boat forward gently.

The student passes his exam; he's on top of the water, albeit at a modest speed of 10-15 mph. The proud teacher hollers, "Good job, Cole! Hey, don't catch flies in your teeth." The rides lasts about a quarter mile before Portugue decides to end the run on a positive note, easing back on the throttle and easing Cole back into the water. Portugue then helps his charge back into the boat for a brief rest.

Deepwater start

For those without a boom, follow dry-land teaching with a long line, deep-water start. While some skiers swear by dock or inner tube starts, Portugue prefers the deepwater start because "the student will eventually end up in the water anyway after falling, so they might as well get used to it."

To teach the deepwater start, it's helpful for a knowledgeable person to be in the water beside the student to help as needed – keep the skis pointed forward, lend a steadying hand to prevent the skier from tipping sideways and help talk the student through the process.

Encourage the skier to stay crouched up in a tuck position with legs close together, Portugue says.

As soon as the student is close to holding the right skiing position, the driver should put the boat in gear, providing slight tension in the towline and gently pulling the skier. This provides stability to the skier whereas a slack line allows the skier to wobble. When the skier shouts, "Hit it," the driver should firmly but not quickly open the throttle, just enough to pull the skier out of the water. Then, come up to speed as the skis level off and the skier appears comfortable.

Once your student successfully gets up on skis from a deepwater start, your mission is accomplished: Your student has officially graduated to waterskier. From this time forward, there's more practice on two skis until the student is ready to slalom or take on a completely different sport like wakeboarding.

For the boom student, however, continue the teaching progression until the skier masters the deepwater start.

Teach kids to waterski 8
Once students learn the basics of waterskiing, they'll have a solid foundation that will take them as far as they want to go. These fundamentals will be critical to your students whether they eventually strap on a slalom ski, ride a wakeboard or barefoot.
Photo by Steve Umland
Step 6: Skiing on short rope – boom student only
In the water again, floating on his back, Cole awaits instruction. His uncle attaches a short, 5-foot rope to the end of the boom then tells his student, "I'm going to bring the handle to you." The anxious pupil over-reaches for the rope, just enough to turn himself sideways in the water.

"Get the rope in front of you," Portugue instructs as he starts the ski boat. Try as he might, Cole can't get the rope in front. Just as he seems to be making progress with the rope, he somehow crosses his skis.

Cole finally gets things straightened out. Portugue seizes the opportunity and slips the boat into gear while shouting, "Here we go, Cole." The rope pulls straight and – pop! – the slight tension yanks the tow handle out of Cole's hands.

Sensing Cole's frustration and fatigue, Portugue suggests he take a break and let his brother take a turn at waterskiing. The respite includes a cozy beach towel, a juice box and a welcomed opportunity to harass his brother with muskie warnings and other taunts.

On his next try, it looks like Cole's going to kiss the water again. Off to a rough start, his skis begin to submarine before mercifully leveling off. But just as he gets on top of the water, Cole reflexively straightens his legs and pulls the tow handle toward his chest. He begins wobbling as if he'll fall backwards, but then saves the ride by bending his knees and straightening his arms. The student has learned well. Grinning from ear to ear, Cole takes a long ride as his uncle cruises the perimeter of a large, otherwise quiet, bay.

Roughly 45 minutes have passed since Step 1, and the student has gone from beach dweller to waterskier. The next step for Cole will be to go with a longer line behind the boat. But not today. Portugue ends today's lesson on a positive, victorious note. As Cole watches Loren ski long-line later in the morning, brotherly competitiveness spurs Cole to beg Uncle Mike for one more run. But the wise teacher says, "Save it for another day, buddy," knowing it's better to leave the student wanting more.

If your student is a teenager or adult, he may have the stamina for additional runs, perhaps the long line, and might even be able to try dropping a ski to attempt a slalom ride. It's up to you as the teacher, though, to help the student monitor his or her level of fatigue.

Learning to ski burns a lot of energy, and a tired student may have difficulty recalling all the newly learned fundamentals. If your skier falters and struggles, this may be a sign to call it a day, so encourage him to towel off and bask in the afterglow of accomplishment.

As the student progresses in water surface sports, these are the fundamentals he will, ideally, carry with him from his first lesson:

  • Relax, get comfortable.
  • Bend your knees slightly, and keep your back straight.
  • Let the boat pull you.
  • Keep your head up, don't look down (Remember: look down = fall down).
  • Keep your arms straight, but relaxed.
  • Breath naturally (some people hold their breath, which produces tension and fatigue).

Once students learn the basics they'll have a solid foundation that will take them as far as they want to go, says Portugue. These fundamentals will be critical to your students whether they eventually strap on a slalom ski, ride a wakeboard or barefoot.

Friends and family who learn to waterski at your cabin will carry the memory with them much more. If you are lucky, you may some day overhear them say, "Yeah, I learned to waterski at Bill's cabin." Rest assured, the words will be repeated often, and they'll resonate with nostalgia, pride and gratitude. You see, learning to waterski at the cabin is more than fun. It's a rite of passage.

Mark R. Johnson has slalomed behind boats old and new, small and large, ant he has barefooted from a boom. But he prefers to leave wakeboarding to his nephews, nieces and sons.

Teach kids to waterski 5
Photo by Steve Umland

Pulling well, pulling safely

Remember: A good driver is as crucial to a student's success as a good teacher

1. Carry an observer on board so you, the driver, can focus attention on the water ahead.*
2. Equip your boat with rearview and driver-side mirrors.*
3. Check steering and throttle controls for proper operation before pulling a skier.
4. Leave everyone except the driver and observer on the dock when pulling a large person without a large-horsepower motor.
5. Require skiers to wear an approved personal flotation device (PFD).
6. Carry enough PFDs on board for all passengers. Encourage adults to wear a PFD; require children to strap one on.*
7. Be sure you and the skier are in sync with the same hand signals.
8. Wait for a definite signal from skier before accelerating.
9. Remember, pulling waterskiers requires finesse. Don't overaccelerate, especially when pulling children. Apply only enough power to get the skier out of the water in a timely fashion that minimizes the skier's struggle (medium throttle is often enough), then come up to speed as the skis/ski level off and the skier looks comfortable.
10. Keep a firm grip on the wheel at the 10 o'clock position.
11. Pick a point on the shore and drive toward it in a straight line, keeping your eyes on the horizon or trees. To maintain an unobstructed view, don't follow other boats.
12. Be aware of skiers, swimmers, debris and other watercraft.
13. Drive counterclockwise around the lake, especially on crowded days. (Required on some lakes. If your lake has a public landing, check there for a posting.)
14. Look before turning. Avoid shallow water.
15. Display a red 12-by-12-inch flag on the boat whenever a skier is down in the water.*
16. Return to fallen skier immediately. Slow to idle as you approach skier, moving in on the driver's side.
17. Shut off engine while skier climbs into or out of the boat.
18. When pulling a skier toward shore to finish a run, reduce speed and parallel the landing area at a safe
distance.

*Requirements vary by state. Check your state's water surface regulations.

Teach kids to waterski 9
Photo by Steve Umland

Summary of key teaching points

1. Keep the student safe and injury-free. For example, Mike Portugue suggests you can reduce the incidence of pulled muscles by working through a progression.

2. Keep sessions short and conduct more of them. By doing so, you:

  • Reduce fatigue.
  • Focus on specific tasks.
  • Create muscle memory through repetition.
  • Give the student a chance to think about the fundamentals and watch other skiers.

3. Teach without water when possible. By conducting dry-land training, you:

  • Give the student a preview of what he'll be doing so he'll have less to think about in the water.
  • Keep the student warm because he's not in cold water.
  • Hold the student's attention more easily than when he's thrashing in the water battling the awkward buoyancy of the PFD and skis.

4. Explain to your student what you're going to teach before you teach it.

5. Conserve the student's energy. When a student is learning he burns more energy than when he has achieved mastery.

6. Remain positive. A negative attitude or remarks will block learning.

7. Build on success to make learning fun. You may want to start with the boom, Portugue suggests, even if you think the student can handle the short line. Or, start with the short line even if you think the student can handle the long line.

8. Keep the student comfortable. For example, most people who've been around water have worn a life jacket, but may not have worn one in the water in the middle of a lake. The first time can be frightening for a child or adult. So Portugue suggests putting your student in the lake without skis so he can experience lying on his back like a wobbly turtle and finding his equilibrium.

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