How to Drive a Boat for Wakeboarding, Water Skiing, or Tubing

Nov 26, 2021

Special skills are required to be a boat driver for pulling someone behind your boat for wakeboarding, waterskiing, or tubing, and it takes practice. Learn techniques so you can drive the boat like a pro, and make it a smooth and enjoyable experience for everyone.

2 man having fun motorsports 1 boat wakeboarding
Boat driving for wakeboarding, water skiing, and tubing requires learned skills. Boat driving with know-how makes it more enjoyable for everyone.

  • Choose a Smooth Spot and Run a Course

To get started, you’ll want to pick a smooth spot where the waves are as small as possible. This is usually the side of the lake where the wind is blowing off shore, and the closer you can safely drive along the shore, the smoother it will be.

Avoid randomly driving in the middle of the lake. This is where it is wavy, there are other boaters, and the most waves created by other boats.

For skiers and wake boarders, the boat driver should have a course in mind where the boat will turn around in a “dumbbell pattern” and return with the boat positioned inside of your previous wake. This gives your skier or wakeboarder the smoothest water, and your successive wakes drive away other boat waves. The turnaround spots should be communicated ahead of time to the wakeboarder or skier, so everyone knows what to expect.

drive a boat in dumbell pattern

Drive the boat in a dumbbell pattern and return inside your own wake to ensure smooth water for wakeboarding and water skiing.

  • Use an Observer

First of all, for safety, make sure anyone getting ready to be towed is wearing a life jacket. Secondly, put your “observer” in place. This is the person who watches the person behind the boat and informs the driver of any hand signals received or if the person has “wiped out”. You can also read our blog safe boating skills for more info.

The observer can also give hand signals to the person being towed, usually when it’s time to turn around, and the signal is to stick your index finger straight up in the air and spin it in a circle. It is also important to have an observer so when your person being towed takes a wipe out, the boat can return immediately to pick them up. A person floating alone in the lake is at risk to other boats driving along and not paying attention. The observer can also direct the driver back to the person floating.

  • Get the Rope Handle to the Boarder or Skier

Let’s start with getting the rope handle to the wake boarder, water skier, or the tube to the tuber. Normally, the person getting ready to be towed will get set up in their gear on the back of the boat and jump into the water and make their way over to the rope.

Once they are surely clear of the propeller put the boat in forward and idle. Slip the boat back in neutral and coast forward. Slip the boat in and out of gear to ensure that the boat is going slowly for the person to easily grab the handle.

The person in the water should let the rope run through their hands and give a little tension on the rope occasionally to pull out any slack and stabilize themselves at the same time. As the handle approaches, the boat should be in neutral, so the handle or tube is approaching slowly.

Once the person in the water has the handle or the tube, it is important for the driver to slip the boat forward and then again back into neutral so there is some tension on the rope, and this keeps the person in the water steady and not flailing around. This technique also makes it easier for someone to climb up on a tube. The driver needs to slip the boat in and out of gear to provide some tension on the rope, and that steadies the tube so it’s easy to climb up on it.

Once the person getting towed has the handle for sure, or the tubers are holding on to the tube and are ready, idle the boat forward giving tension on the rope. At this point there is usually communication between the driver or observer asking,

“Ready?” and the person in the water saying, “GO!” A firm steady acceleration is best. Don’t punch the throttle, nor accelerate too slowly.

Choosing Boat Speed for Wakeboarding, Water Skiing, and Tubing

Once you pull your wakeboard or water skier out of the water, it’s important to know what speed you are aiming for. Earlier, as you approached your ski or wakeboard spot, you can run the boat at the likely desired speed by checking your speedometer, and then note the RPM’s on the tachometer. This will tell you the engine speed that is going to correlate with your speed in MPH.

Because the speedometer lags behind when you are coming up to speed, the RPM’s are going to give you a solid target to reach your desired speed. So what speed do you tow someone? Boat speed for wakeboarding ranges between 15 mph and 25 mph, depending on the skill level of the rider. Kids that are beginners require slow. Advanced riders go faster.

beginner water skiers slow speed

Beginner water skiers require slower speeds. An adult is best towed at about 30 mph.

Boat speed for water skiing ranges between 26 mph for little kids, 28 mph for bigger kids, and 30-34 mph for adults. Large people require more speed for a comfortable ride. For slalom skiing, the speeds range from 28- 30 mph for kids, 32-34 mph for adults, and 36 mph for advanced skiers. Boat speed never exceeds 36 mph for water skiing.

man struggling boat water skiing

Advanced slalom water skiers get towed at 36 mph. For smaller sized skiers 34 mph is perfect.

Boat Drive a Dumbell Course For Wakeboarding and Waterskiing 

For wake boarders and water skiers, drive the boat in a straight line. Do this by picking a landmark on the horizon somewhere on shore, be it a house, a parked boat, or a big tree. If your rider or skier wipes out, immediately slow the boat to idle, then turn around. Head back to pick up the person in the water and return inside your previous wake. 

If you just crank the boat around at speed, you’ll send your own boat waves right

into your course. When you want to return to pick up someone in the water, and bring them the handle, the boat driver should pull up alongside the person in the water with them positioned on the driver’s side so they are in clear view. Pull closely alongside them so the rope naturally comes to them, but of course, not too close where they are in danger of being run over.

Again, slide the boat in and out of gear to bring the handle slowly. Once they clearly have hold of it, idle forward to give tension, and wait for the go signal. Smooth steady acceleration to pull someone out of the water is always best.

When it’s time to turn the boat around at the end of your course, either the driver or the observer gives the turn around signal to the boarder or the skier. Start by turning the boat left, and then crank the boat back to the right, and accelerate a little bit in the turn so the boarder or skier doesn’t drag in the water, and they can relax in the turn.

Line yourself back up inside your previous wake, check your RPM’s, and then your speedometer to be sure you are at the right speed.

For communication, use hand signals, thumb up for faster, thumb down for slower, and ok signal means just right. The signal for turn around the boat is to put your index finger pointed up and spin it in a circle. Also, when the skier, wakeboarder, or tuber is done and wants to stop, a finger gesture like slitting your throat means done or stopped.

Boat Driving For Tubing

Boat driving for tubing takes a different set of skills entirely from the rigid rules for boat driving for wake boarding or water skiing. Boat driving for tubing is more of an art form that creates the perfect thrill-level for the skill of the tuber.

For kids, simple S-turns are good enough to get them moving back and forth over the wake. To ramp up the thrill level, accelerate as you turn the boat and then back off the throttle a bit as they cross the wake.

For a more extreme tubing experience, I must recommend the old-fashioned rubber semi-truck or tractor tube. The reason is that the commercial tubes that are available have a lot of drag. You really have to drive with heavy acceleration in the turns to get a commercial tube to whip. A rubber tube on the other hand simply has less resistance to the water’s surface and you can really get them whipping. They also have a lower center of gravity.

To whip someone that wants a thrilling ride, do some S-turns to get them positioned well outside the wake, then turn the boat toward them and accelerate, and they’ll go across the wake fast and get way outside. Decelerate a bit, and then turn into them again, hit the throttle and they’ll go flying across the wake. Time it with large boat waves, and the thrill-seeker will love it!

4 kids playing in 2 tubes watersports

Two tubes behind the boat creates a thrilling “battle of the tubes” experience for several riders at the same time.

For even more fun, have two tubes behind the boat for a battle of the tubes experience. As a general rule, it’s not the top speed that makes for a thrilling ride, but rather acceleration through the turns and the crossing of the wake that gives the rider the velocity to create a thrilling ride.

driving a boat for tubing

A relaxed tube ride behind the boat.


Driving a boat for wakeboarding, water skiing, or tubing is a rewarding experience when you know how to do it right. If you follow the guidelines set above as the boat driver for wakeboarding, water skiing, or tubing, the person you are pulling will appreciate the smooth operation, it will be safe for everyone, and give the best quality experience on the water.

Checkout Lakeside Marine – Boat Shop and Repair Service


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