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Wakeboard and Water Ski Boat Buying Guide

By The Ahoy! Crew
Published February 15, 2022

What to consider when you’re in the market for a watersports boat

Imagine being the first person to strap a couple of pine boards to his feet and tie himself to the back of a boat for a bit of fun. That’s exactly what Ralph Samuelson of Minnesota did as a teenager in 1922, though he tried barrel staves and snow skis before he hit upon the idea for attaching lumber to his feet. Samuelson’s newly invented sport was an instant sensation. In the years after he launched the wake sport craze, watersports fans and hobbyists have continued to introduce new flips, twists, and tricks for greater excitement.

Water skiing hit peak popularity in the 1960s, and during that Golden Age, water skiers performed aquatic ballet in the wake of ski boats. They added kites to their ski sessions, inventing yet another new watersport – kitesurfing. Then, another wake sport pioneer Tony Finn created the “Skurfer” in 1985 and launched ski boarding, which evolved into wakeboarding as we know it today.

Based on its short history, it seems that wake sports are made for creative thinkers who thrive on challenge and adventure, so it’s no surprise that you’re here. You must be in the market for a little speed, the slap of water, and a dash of adrenaline. You’re on the hunt for the perfect wake boat, and as adventurous innovators ourselves, we’re here to help you.

In this guide, we’ll consider the most important questions you should be asking yourself before your boat purchase, including:

  • Do you need a tow boat, or will a general runabout boat do?
  • What wake sports are you most interested in pursuing?
  • Are you a professional or an amateur enthusiast?
  • How many passengers will you be taking with you on your tow boat?
  • What equipment or boat accessories are must-haves for water skiers and wakeboarders?
  • Will you pay cash or finance the purchase of your boat?
  • What kind of insurance will you need for your new boat?

Do you need a tow boat, or will a general runabout boat do?

Runabout Boats

Runabout boats come in a variety of models – from bowriders to jet boats. They’re all power boats, usually equipped with one or two outboard motors, and they’re mostly under 20 feet without cabins or amenities. They’re great for a laid back day out on the water with a couple of friends because they’re easily towable, low-maintenance, and very versatile. However, that outboard motor can be a problem if you’re into wake sports like water skiing and wakeboarding. Because the propeller is behind the boat and not under it, there’s more risk of wake riders breathing in exhaust or even coming in contact with the propeller blades.

Tow Boats

Ski boats and wakeboarding boats, also known as tow boats since they tow the wake riders, are manufactured with inboard engines. Inbound towboats come in two configurations: direct drive and V-drive.

Direct drive powertrain for ski boats

Ski boat manufacturers equip ski boats with a direct drive system. This configuration positions the engine at the center of the boat, which keeps the wake flatter and provides the higher speeds water skiing demands.

V-drive powertrain for wakeboard and crossover boats

V-drive powertrains are used on beefier wakeboard boats. This configuration positions the engine further aft on the boat than a direct drive transmission. As a result, the stern of the wakeboarding boat rides lower, creating monster wakes.

What wake sports are you most interested in pursuing?

Prior the 1920s, most people didn’t have access to motorboats, so wake sports weren’t even a thing. A century later, the adventurous enthusiast has a veritable boatload of options for wet, wild fun. However, different wake sports require different wakes, so boat buyers should consider how boat design and engine performance will lead to large or small wakes.

I want to water ski.

If you’re into water skiing, you’ll want soft, small wakes with minimal propeller turbulence in order to slice across the wake smoothly. You achieve the best water skiing wake with a lightweight ski boat going at speeds between 25 and 36 mph, the maximum boat speed for men’s slalom tournaments. To keep ski boats riding high on the water, ski boats are usually on the small side – between 16 and 22 feet.

Watersports that require small wakes, include:

  • Slalom water skiing
  • Team skiing
  • Show skiing
  • Water ski jumping

I want to wakeboard.

While wakeboarding also requires a clean wake with minimal turbulence, wakeboarders are looking for taller, upward-sloping wakes to help them catch air. That requires a heavier, larger boat to generate bigger wakes. The average boats speeds for wakeboarding range from around 18 mph for beginners to 24 mph for more experienced speed demons.

Watersports that require large wakes, include:

  • Trick skiing
  • Wake surfing
  • Wakeboarding
  • Knee boarding
  • Wake surfing
  • Skurfing
  • Tubing

Fun Fact: When Tony Finn first started wakeboarding, wake boats didn’t exist. To create more wake, ye olde boat owners would haul aboard ballast bags capable of holding hundreds of gallons of water to give the boat more weight. Today, most wakeboard boats still have ballast tanks and bladders on either side of the engine and elsewhere throughout the boat, to allow boat owners to customize their wake.

Are you a professional or an amateur watersports enthusiast?

Watersports can be a fun way to spend a summer but suppose you’re a little bit better than the average hobbyist. Organizations like USA Water Ski & Wake Sports, the International Waterski & Wakeboard Federation, and the American Water Ski Association provide ample opportunities for the very daring and skilled to try their hand at competitive water skiing and wakeboarding.

If you’re thinking of signing up for local, national, or international competitions, you may want to invest in a boat purchase that will offer you competitive advantages. For example, premium ski boats have pockets in the hull to deflect spray that would otherwise douse slalom skiers as they cut across the wakes closer to the stern. Similarly, wakeboard boats with highly customizable ballast capacity allow wakeboarders to create the perfect wave. That feature can give you an edge in competitions, but it’ll cost you financially.

How many passengers will you be taking with you on your tow boat?

If your interest is more casual and social, you might decide to sacrifice some performance features for greater comfort and more room. Ski boats perform best when they’re light, and a large crew is going to slow the boat down and generate more wake. Most ski boats have a closed bow, which limits seating options anyway, so big wake watersports are probably a better option if you’re extremely popular.

Wakeboard boats are often longer and beamier than ski boats, so they can accommodate more friends and family. Many are open bow boats, creating even more seating for passengers beyond the cockpit. They’re also great boats for tubing and other towed watersports, all fun social watersports.

Another option that provides still more versatility is a crossover boat. Like wakeboarding boats, crossover boats typically use V-drive inboards, but they’re lighter and shorter and, therefore, generate smaller wakes. In other words, even Captain Popular can get in some recreational slalom skiing aboard a crossover. When you’re ready to get rowdy with the big wake watersports, use ballast tanks to add weight to your crossover.

What boat accessories are must-haves for water skiers and wakeboarders?

Once you’ve narrowed down your boat choices, it’s time to look at boat accessories. Accessories can enhance your boat’s capabilities for wakeboarding and water skiing. Plus, they have the potential to make your boat trips even more enjoyable.

Locker storage and water ski and board racks

When watersports boat manufacturers make the most out of space in a boat’s belly and bow, you get extra storage space for water skis, wakeboards, and anything else you might want to carry out on the water.

GPS-based speed control

Finding and maintaining your perfect speed was difficult in the past, but many modern watersports boats can be customized with GPS-based cruise control that lets you focus on enjoying the drive.

Stereo System

The stereo system on a watersports boat has to take a lot of abuse, so a high quality marine audio system is your best option.

Tracking fins

Well-designed tracking fins make a big difference when water skiers are attempting to keep a ski boat holding the line.

Ski tow pylon

Many ski tow pylons are detachable poles that ensure a straight, steady tow. They also keep ski rope clear of deck obstructions as well as the propeller. A ski pylon can make a big difference in how comfortable a skier feels while being towed.  

Command Center

The most innovative new wakeboarding boats come equipped with a hi-tech command center where you can control and customize your experience with the touch of your screen.

Customizable ballast tanks

Being able to customize your boat’s weight gives you considerable versatility, allowing you to compensate for more or fewer boat passengers while also refining your wake capabilities.

Swim Step

At the end of a long day of wakeboarding, it’s nice to have a swim platform for getting in and out of the boat. A swim step also makes a tow boat more multifunctional.

Docking and transom camera

Premium wakeboard boats often come with transom cameras to assist with docking and to allow you to keep an eye on wakeboards without taking your eyes off the horizon.

Surf Gate

The surf gate, pioneered by Malibu boats, allows wakeboard enthusiasts to create larger wakes on one or the other side of the boat to truly customize the wakeboarding experience.

Will you pay cash or finance the purchase of your boat?

If you’re purchasing a new ski boat or wakeboarding boat from a local dealer, you may be able to arrange financing with your dealer at very respectable rates. You could also take out a loan from your bank or from a lender who specializes in marine financing. Many boat dealer finance organizations also provide insurance or can connect you to an insurance provider.

Tip: When you’re budgeting for your new boat, remember to include the hidden costs of boat ownership, such as gas prices, boat maintenance, boat insurance, registration fees and taxes, and mooring or dry stack storage.

What kind of insurance will you need for your new watersports boat?

Once you’ve decided on your ski boat, wakeboarding boat, or crossover, you’ll want to invest in insurance to protect it. While many states do not require boat insurance, you’ll need it to store your new boat in most marina dry stacks and if you intend to finance the boat. And since wake sports can be dangerous, it’s wise to cover yourself against the risks associated with collisions, injuries, and other mishaps that can happen on the water. A comprehensive boat insurance policy protects your investment, your equipment, and the people you care about. In the event of a total loss, a boat insurance policy will ensure you can get back on water skis sooner.Ahoy! Insurance is brought to you by boaters just like you, and we understand the thrill you feel when you’re riding in the wake of a brand new boat. We know it’s a lot more than just another asset; it’s an adventure, a challenge. Whether you’re using your watersports boat to win a water ski competition or just to hang out with friends, boat policies are tailored for you and come complete with innovative technological tools that take your watersports experience to the next level of safety.

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