The real reasons more people don’t waterski

An oft-heard topic on ski forums and chat rooms lately is “growing the sport” AKA getting more people on the water. I suppose we also see a bunch of threads on the sport “dying” as well, and one thread tends to feed the other. Whether the sport needs to grow or not is another topic entirely but I’d at least like to talk about some real-world reasons that our sport is not a super-popular one.

The most commonly touted reasons for low participation seem to be:

  1. Cost
  2. Access
  3. Awareness

We hear complaints from our own community about the costs of boats being high and how a move to private lakes ruined the sport for everyone else and how nobody knows how great the sport really is. Folks talk about how great the glory days were. These internal conversations are always an echo chamber scenario. I don’t think those are the real reasons that more people are not waterskiing. The truth is that $500.00 will get you on a decent used ski setup and nearly anybody in this sport would be glad to give you a pull.

Here are a few real reasons why waterskiing remains a niche, specialty sport enjoyed by very few:

  1. It’s hard. Seriously hard. Just getting up on a slalom ski will take most people dozens of tries, and that’s usually after extensive experience on two skis. Never mind skiing a slalom course and all the nuanced skills that go with it. In the same vein this is why you don’t see many adults jumping into gymnastics later in life. Like gymnastics, starting young helps extensively here but for for people starting late in life they may not have the patience for this sport.
  2. It takes a baseline of physical strength and fitness that many people simply don’t have. From what I’ve seen, most adults don’t have the physical strength or stamina to do this right out of the box. Taking pull from a 3/8” rope in your fingertips and anchoring that dynamically to the water with the opposite end of your entire body as a human takes some strength from top to bottom. Even just getting up on 2 skis is physically a “NFW” for many people. Seen it many times. Again, younger kids fare better here but anyone starting later in life is going to struggle with this element unless they are reasonably fit.
  3. Lots of people are afraid of swimming in lakes. No joke. Sometimes it’s dark water they are afraid of, some times people need to “see the bottom” at all times and some are afraid of fish or all three. Though we may not even be able to imagine such a phobia, it’s SUPER common out there. People can also be terrified of seaweed as well, I see that pretty regularly as well.
  4. Some people can’t actually swim. For them, the lake may as well be full of hot lava. Sure, they can wear a vest but that vest is literally saving their life at all times in the water in that case.
  5. People have other stuff to do and truly don’t want this lifestyle. They like golf, they like sleeping in on weekends. They have kid soccer games to coach and they travel for work. The time demands of this sport, particularly early mornings are not at all appealing to them. These are the people that say “man you guys are nuts” when I tell them how I spent my morning skiing before coming to work. They were asleep and very decidedly not jumping into chilly water in a spring suit as the sun rose and that is where they wanted to be. Absolutely no desire to be hooking up a boat in their garage at 5:30AM on a Saturday to catch some smooth water.
  6. The majority of people I’ve met are extremely intimidated by and overwhelmed by boating in general, and especially boat ownership. Trailering, launching, maintaining, driving, mooring, and storing a boat is incredibly foreign and not appealing to many people out there. Boats are seen as unreliable, expensive, and ridiculous items in general to a lot of people. The amount of times I’ve told people I have not one but two boats and gotten some sort of grimaced “boat- break out another thousand right?” response are innumerable. Driving techniques such as pulling through the course, docking, or landing a boat are terrifying to a lot of people. They cannot imagine a boat taking up half of their garage all summer. Again, we take it for granted but it’s not something somebody just readily jumps into happily later in life. It feels like you’re either brought up as a “boat” person or not.
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100% spot on. Couldn’t agree more with those statements.

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@joel, Well I agree with the top three points in your post, cost, access and awareness.
I also agree with points 1. 2. 5. And 6.
Another reason I believe this is a small community sport is the mental aspect of the sport. I have been “boating” since I was 7 years old. As a family we skied, camped all the things. When I bought my first slalom ski, Connelly Shortline ski, the family runabout boat was the tug. 23’ Four Winns I/O 305 HP. I did bring up getting a comp boat periodically, but my dad would always say “you can ski and do what you want to do behind this boat as well as doing behind a boat like that”

Of course we/I knew nothing about course slalom skiing. Fast forward, 1995 the first slalom course I ever saw and tried…I was immediately HOOKED. This is the mental aspect I am talking about. I sat in a MC 205 and watched these guys ski the course. I was thinking, “huh what’s the big deal, I can turn my ski like that, I can go through that course like nothing”. As you all know, THAT WAS NOT THE CASE, and I was infuriated. I was irate. I couldn’t believe it.

But my mental “disease” had me HOOKED. Within the year, I owned my first comp boat, 1995 MC 205. I bought into ownership of two private ski lakes in Dayton Ohio. I was ADDICTED.

I have seen many people join our club over the years. We had a waiting list for people to ski and be members. Within 10 years, no waiting list and actually was looking for folks to join so the cost could be brought down. I know I witnessed at least 12 guys, join our club, $1500/year, buy a comp boat and all the gear, a top end ski, rope, bindings, participate in clinics or coaching we had at the club, and within, 3-5 years…done, COMPLETELY done. GONE.

I am TYPE A. Duh, aren’t we all. Small bit of narcissistic indicators. Again, DUH. My mind set is “that course cannot be that hard and it is not going to beat me”.

I think this aspect is huge. If this personality trait is not in you or part of your psychie, your probably not long for this sport.

I agree with all the thoughts above. I’d add to the awareness that most people don’t see it as a ‘sport’ as such. They see it as fun, a bit of fooling around with boats, perhaps even it’s just people trying to show off biggest spray etc and they don’t realise that it can become a proper competitive sport. Then if they do get a little hooked they often get put off by the costs and the attitudes of you ‘must’ have the latest inboard, you must have regular coaching etc. Sure to get to the top level you do require those things, but to get to completing regular 15 off passes you don’t. An outboard, a ski and occassional coaching or advice from a knowledgible friend will get you there.

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Agree with the line…”get a ‘little’ hooked”, that’s exactly what i was meaning. A little hooked is a rare skier that will endure this sport. Why…well my opinion is the competitive juices on the dock at a ski club. It can be intimidating, somewhat overwhelming and eventually exhausting to the point of “do I really want to waste my time and expose myself to this ‘abuse’?
I remember my first experience at Okaheelee waterski park in West Palm FL. I was down skiing with Chet and a guy at Chet’s invited me over to ski with him at Okaheelee. I was invited, I was above average in buoy count, 2 or 3 at 38 and yet I was still intimidated and weary of the environment. There wasn’t a lot of love being shown until after I skied. Then things opened up a bit.
I believe this sport is too expensive and somewhat overbearing to the skier who is only a little hooked. I think these are the guys i spoke about in my first post up top…within a short time they just disappear.
I often think I wish I could be more like that…making it more fun, etc. Unfortunately I have too much invested.
Hi, I’m Bruce, I’m a skiaholic. But like I explained to my wife, family and close friends early on, I could be sitting in a bar, sitting in a casino, at the horse track or worse yet sitting at the T/A bar.

I’ll add a big one here. There is serious downtime in waterskiing I’m huge into it but probably spent 20 hours per hour of waterskiing I did this last year “supporting” my participation. Some of that was just sitting for 10 hours at a lake for 15 minutes of skiing. Some of that was driving 2 hours for one pull and then driving home. Some of that was driving to the folk’s lake house and then not skiing because the water was crap.

I own and maintain two ski boats - because I either am looking for a third for a spotter or I have 8 people who want to ski. It takes me near an hour to pull 4 people - longer on public water where a skier might literally ski 15 minutes fall and then ski another 15 minutes - not a complaint people love doing that but it means that by the time I get back to the dock for another skier they wander off.

To really meaningfully improve the sport of waterskiing I personally think the first thing you need to fix is consistent rules for how/where/when you can use your slalom course. My neighbor complained and I lost my permit. I can no longer use a ski course at all on my lake. That kills the sport so fast because then I go elsewhere to ski - so when I go to the lake I’m more likely to go fishing that ski 4 times.


@half_past: Agree. Man sorry to hear your story.
This is one of the primary excuses people use for not following thru with their gym membership: “it’s not convenient to go there and when I do it’s crowded”.

Maybe try getting your neighbor involved with your skiing. He may “get it” if involved.
Good luck.

No go on that one - he’s embroiled in a constant fight with the association about his use of outdoor power equipment on Sunday mornings (likes to leaf blow/weed eat/mow before its sunny and that happens to usually be Sunday Morning.

Which has lead to the HOA complaining about his noise. Which has lead him to target absolutely any other “noise” that people make in the morning as the same.

Which 20 passes back and forth and setting out a course before the lake gets rough is a no go.

If the state/USAWS could come together and have a permit you applied for through USA waterski that let you use a portable during the day or submerge - rock and roll but he’d probably start fishing in it to be a putz.

Oh man. I hate to hear those stories. So sorry for you and the other lake owners who have to deal with him.
Good luck.

Ya the problem is our state law. The course permit is not to you or the course or the lake it is specific to where on the lake it is used. You must provide letters of no objection for 2000 feet of shoreline. Not just the length of the course but both sides of it.

Which is great if you can afford 20 lots…