WWater ski­ing’s first ride — and in­evitable wipe­out — first oc­curred in 1922. Tow sports have evolved quite a bit since then. First came jump­ing, then slalom ski­ing and trick ski­ing. Bare­foot­ing fol­lowed in 1947, fol­lowed by the rad­i­cal ex­plo­sion of wake­board­ing in the 1990s. To­day, wakesurf­ing and wakeskat­ing are push­ing new bound­aries, yet all these sports have a com­mon el­e­ment: You need a boat to either tow you or cre­ate a wake to ride.

In ad­di­tion, each tow sport re­quires its own spe­cific wake char­ac­ter­is­tics. In gen­eral, slalom skiers want small wakes, while wake­board rid­ers and wakesurfers want big ones. But it gets more com­pli­cated be­cause each wake sport has its own ideal wake shape and size. This makes cre­at­ing the ideal boat for each sport a chal­leng­ing task for the boat­builders.

Here’s what to look for to get the most out of your cho­sen tow sport.


For the wa­ter-skier, the ideal wake is small and nar­row with min­i­mal pro­pel­ler tur­bu­lence at 75 feet or shorter (for slalom­course skiers) at boat speeds that range from the mid-20s to 36 mph, the max­i­mum boat speed for the slalom event for men. Slalom skiers and jumpers need to slice through the wakes with­out in­ter­rup­tion. To achieve this spe­cific wake shape, the in­board di­rect drive (with the en­gine in­stalled amid­ships) along with low dead­rise keep the hull rid­ing higher on the wa­ter to cre­ate a smaller wake. Boat weight is a big fac­tor in the size of the wake, so com­pe­ti­tion ski boats typ­i­cally weigh around 3,000 pounds.

Ski boats to­day such as the Nau­tique 200,

Mal­ibu Re­sponse TXi and MasterCraft

ProS­tar are much big­ger than the orig­i­nal Ski Nau­tique — about 20 feet in length with an 8-foot beam with en­gine power rang­ing from 350 to 450 hp. Though the beam of the ski boat has in­creased through­out the years, the wakes to­day are smaller, ap­prox­i­mately 3 to 4 inches in height. Builders fea­ture pock­ets in the hull to de­flect spray that would oth­er­wise pelt slalom skiers run­ning the course at very short line lengths — two rea­sons some skiers seek to up­grade oth­er­wise “good” old boats.

But the de­tails go way be­yond that. Builders need to fac­tor in the best an­gle of the pro­pel­ler shaft to min­i­mize tur­bu­lence for the wa­ter-skier while still pro­vid­ing op­ti­mal boat per­for­mance.

Then there’s this: While slalom skiers and jumpers want small wakes, trick skiers want big­ger wakes to do ro­ta­tions and flips by launch­ing from the wake. Trick­ers also ski at line lengths of about 50 feet at speeds that range from 15 to 20 mph. To ac­com­mo­date the trick­ers, the Nau­tique 200 fea­tures a ver­ti­cal plate (Hy­droGate) at the tran­som that moves up or down just slightly be­low the bot­tom of the hull. When the plate is down, the Nau­tique rides higher for small wakes, but when the plate is up, the stern rides deeper to al­ter the flow of the wa­ter to cre­ate a big­ger wake, ap­prox­i­mately 12 to 15 inches in height, for trick skiers. An­other im­pe­tus for up­grad­ing is re­vealed.


Elite wake­board­ers pre­fer a grad­u­ally up­ward-slop­ing and tall wake that has a clean peak at a 75- or 85-foot line length be­hind the boat. This makes a per­fect ramp to get plenty of air time. Boat speeds for wake­board­ing range from about 18 to 24 mph.

Wake­board boats fea­ture a bit more dead­rise than ski boats, but adding more weight to the boat re­ally am­pli­fies the wake. In­stead of straight in­board driv­e­lines, wake­boats fea­ture a V-drive, with the en­gine in­stalled aft, dis­tribut­ing weight where its best suited to en­hance wakes.

Wake­boats are also typ­i­cally longer and beamier than ski boats, rang­ing from 21 to 25 feet in length. Two ideal boats for con­test rid­ing are the Mal­ibu Wake­set­ter 23

LSV and the Supra SA.

Bal­last tanks and blad­ders are also key com­po­nents. Bal­last tanks are po­si­tioned on each side of the en­gine, un­der the mid­ship stor­age locker, and even in the bow sec­tion un­der the seat­ing. These tanks quickly fill or drain lake wa­ter us­ing elec­tric pumps. Since the tanks in each sec­tion are sep­a­rate, the tanks can be filled to var­ied lev­els to cus­tom­ize the wake shape and size for each rider’s skill level.

Boat­builders fur­ther shape the wakes with ad­justable hor­i­zon­tal wake plates mounted to the tran­som. The com­bi­na­tion of ad­justa­bil­ity of the bal­last and the wake plates gives the rider a va­ri­ety of wake shapes and wake heights from 1 to 3 or more feet.

Mal­ibu gets nifty by cre­at­ing a big­ger wake with its Power Wedge II, a foil­like de­vice at­tached to the tran­som that hinges down be­low the wa­ter­line. When in use, the foil pulls down the hull into the wa­ter to act like added bal­last to cre­ate big­ger wakes.


For the bare­foot skier, the ideal wake fea­tures a flat ta­ble from crest to crest with min­i­mal pro­pel­ler tur­bu­lence. Com­pet­i­tive foot­ing is done on a 75-foot line with the boat mov­ing any­where from 35 to 45 mph.

Though the footer wants a flat, non tur­bu­lent wake for starts and for cross­ing the boat’s wake, the curl of the wake ( just out­side the base of the wake) is a per­fect spot to do tricks. A more de­fined curl pro­vides about a 3-foot-wide ideal area for tricks such as tum­ble turns and one-foots. A de­fined curl also makes for a smoother spot to bare­foot when the wa­ters are bumpy from wind. To get these wake char­ac­ter­is­tics, top bare­foot­ers like a boat about 20 feet in length that fea­tures added dead­rise at the tran­som. With more V-shape in the hull, the boat rides deeper in the wa­ter to cre­ate a taller wake. With a taller wake, the pro­pel­ler tur­bu­lence is kept down so the wake is flat yet with a more de­fined dished-out area for the curl.

Through­out the years, in­board-, out­board- and even stern drive pow­ered boats have been used for se­ri­ous bare­foot­ing. All three types of power are ideal for bare­foot­ing if the hull has more dead­rise at the tran­som than typ­i­cal ski boats.

The Sanger DX II, with a di­rect-drive en­gine in­stalled amid­ships, is an ideal setup for com­pe­ti­tion. The 20-foot-long Sanger DX II fea­tures a 16-de­gree dead­rise at the tran­som. That’s a hull with plenty of V-shape to cre­ate a wake for bare­foot­ers that is ap­prox­i­mately 5 inches in height. To make the ta­ble of the wake pro­duced by the Sanger even calmer, the DX II fea­tures an ad­justable hor­i­zon­tal wake plate at the tran­som to knock down the prop tur­bu­lence.


Wakesurfers want that big wake too. But the wake for surf­ing needs its own shape. The ideal wake for wakesurf­ing is long and tall with a clean peak that re­sem­bles an ocean wave. For the wakesurfer, the ac­tion is done about 5 to 30 feet aft of the swim plat­form at about a 10 mph boat speed.

Like wake­board boats, surf­boats fea­ture bal­last through­out the hull to cre­ate and ad­just wake height and shape. But to fur­ther shape the wake for surf­ing, boat man­u­fac­tur­ers are adding fea­tures to the tran­som to di­rect the flow of wa­ter to shape the wake into a wave.

For com­pet­i­tive surf­ing, a boat about 23 feet in length such as the MasterCraft

X23 has been the choice for se­ri­ous surfers.

At the World Wakesurf­ing Cham­pi­onship in Fort Laud­erdale, Flor­ida, in Septem­ber 2016, com­peti­tors rode be­hind the Cen­tu­rion Ri237 fea­tur­ing a 23-foot-7-inch length and an 8-foot-6-inch beam. With an 11-de­gree dead­rise at the tran­som, the Cen­tu­rion Ri237 fea­tures a bit more V-shape than other boats used for surf­ing. In ad­di­tion to more V-shape in the hull, the Cen­tu­rion Ri237 has a 5,450-pound boat weight and a 5,100-pound bal­last ca­pac­ity that all works to­gether to cre­ate a for­mi­da­ble surf­ing wave.

To fur­ther trans­form a big wake into a rid­able wave, boat man­u­fac­tur­ers add fea­tures to the tran­som. Boat­builders such as Cen­tu­rion, Mal­ibu, Supra, Tigé and Moomba cre­ate the per­fect wave by adding ad­justable plates to the tran­som. Ac­ti­vate the plate down­ward on one side of the boat and the op­po­site side of the wake turns into a taller wave. Un­like tra­di­tional trim tabs, these ad­justable plates push the wa­ter down and to the side of the boat, which is what changes the wake on the op­po­site side into a supremely sur­fa­ble wave.

Mal­ibu and Nau­tique each cre­ate the wave in a dif­fer­ent way. Mal­ibu fea­tures pad­dle­like de­vices in its Surf Gate Sys­tem that are placed on both sides

of the tran­som near each gun­wale. The de­vice, when ad­justed out­ward, ex­tends out­ward past the width of the boat. When the Surf Gate is ad­justed out­ward on one side, the wa­ter flow is pushed out past the hull to cre­ate the wave on the op­po­site side of the boat. Nau­tique’s de­sign, on the other hand, pushes wa­ter to the side and down­ward to cre­ate its surf wave.

These sys­tems can all be ad­justed to cus­tom­ize the wave’s height, length and shape, from a shortin-length wave that is tall (about 3 or more feet) to a longer wave that is not so tall (ap­prox­i­mately 1 foot in height), and to also ad­just the wave from one side to the other, al­low­ing the surfer to trans­fer to either side with­out stop­ping the boat.


So, is there a boat for some­one who doesn’t just want a hard­core craft for one spe­cific sport? Yes, there is: the crossover boat. These are an­other big rea­son that some en­thu­si­asts trade in their old but good tow boats for a new, or newer, one.

A few builders make crossover boats that let you ride, surf and ski, such as the Mal­ibu 20 VTX, Nau­tique G20, Supra SR and the Tigé RZR. These boats typ­i­cally use a V-drive en­gine, but the shorter and lighter size along with empty bal­last tanks keep the wake smaller for recre­ational slalom ski­ing. Want to surf too? Fill­ing the bal­last or ac­ti­vat­ing the surf fea­tures on the tran­som lets you switch quickly to wake­board­ing and surf­ing. If you don’t want to surf, you can even go out­board. Check out the MasterCraft Global, a 20-foot out­board­pow­ered boat that fea­tures smaller wakes ideal for recre­ational slalom ski­ing and bare­foot­ing.

A wake­board boat em­ploys a deeper dead­rise at the tran­som than other types of tow boats in or­der to cre­ate a big­ger, cleaner wake.

Bare­foot skiers pre­fer a flat wake with min­i­mal pro­pel­ler tur­bu­lance, though they de­sire a de­fined curl of the wake in which to per­form var­i­ous tricks.

Builders work with tabs and other ad­justable add-ons to help craft the size and shape of the wake so that it is sur­fa­ble to the rider’s pref­er­ences.

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