How to Choose Water Skis

By: Patrick J. Kiger
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Maybe you've always secretly wanted to be part of a festively clad human pyramid of water skiers. Or maybe you just like the idea of gliding gracefully along the water behind a friend's powerboat, with the sun on your shoulders and the wind and the spray in your face. Either way, before you can learn to enjoy the popular pastime of water skiing, you need the right equipment.

Back in 1922, Minnesotan Ralph Samuelson, the father of water skiing, simply took two 8-foot-long (2.4-meter) pine boards from a lumberyard, boiled the tips in a kettle to make the wood curve, and attached some pieces of scrap leather to keep his feet on the skis [source: AWSEF]. Since then, some improvements have been made in water skiing technology. For one thing, modern skis are made out of composite materials like carbon fiber.


And of course there are different styles of skis for slalom skiers, who use a single ski to navigate a course of buoys at high speeds, for trick skiers who perform fancy gyrations and for skiers who perform jumps off ramps [source: Britannica]. But unless you're an aquatic prodigy, start with a pair of combination or combo skis. As five-time world water skiing champion Camille Duvall explains in her popular guide to the sport, combo skis are best for beginners, because they're wide in the front with a large surface area that makes them more stable [source: Duvall]. Some beginner models come with trainer bars to connect the skis. You also can buy a platform trainer, which basically is a single U-shaped ski that enables even the least athletically gifted novice to develop confidence in the water [source:].

Online retailers sell combo skis for roughly between $100 and $300, but Duvall advises you to buy the best pair you can afford, so they'll last. Even if you quickly advance to single-ski slalom skiing, the basic combo skis will come in handy for teaching friends and family members. Look for a compression-molded set of skis rather than the cheaper, less durable injection-molded type, and get the kind with the slight tunnel on the bottom, which are more stable than flat-bottomed skis. [source: Duvall].

On the pages that follow, you'll find additional advice on water ski bindings, ski length and fins.


Water Ski Bindings

water ski
A skier prepares to be pulled up and onto the water.
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Water ski bindings are those bootlike thingies you put your feet in, plus the gizmos that hold them to the skis. They're a pretty important part of your equipment -- so important, in fact, that you could wind up paying upward of $300 for a top-of-the-line pair. They could cost as much or more than the skis themselves. The bindings' basic function is to hold your feet on the ski, but they also provide lateral support, so that your feet don't move around too much, which prevents injury. When you fall -- and you inevitably will, plenty of times -- they're designed to disengage, which frees your feet from the ski [source: Kadison]. Most bindings are made of rubber or neoprene with straps and a reinforcing piece across the heel that makes them fit almost like a shoe [source: Sports Authority].

When you're choosing bindings, you're trying to find the best balance of several trade-offs. You want a pair that you can get in and out of easily, for example, but you still want them to fit your feet snugly. Since you're a beginner who's likely to be sharing your skis and bindings with friends and family, you may want to get a pair of adjustable bindings with a rear toe plate and a single front high-wrap. However, If you're going to be the only one using your skis and you're concerned about having optimum control in the water, you may want to consider buying some double-wrap bindings, the sort that the pros wear with single slalom skis. Those go all the way around the foot and come up higher on your ankle than the usual bindings [source: Kadison]. Be forewarned, though -- they'll be a lot tougher to get on and off than the single-wrap variety.


Water Ski Length

You can find combo water skis in sizes ranging from 59 inches to 68 inches (159 to 172 centimeters) in length. Theoretically, you should pick the size of ski that matches both your bodyweight and athletic ability. But if you're buying a pair of combos that you may be sharing with other people, buy long. Anybody 110 pounds (49.8 kilograms) or more can handle a 67-inch ski, and the longer a ski is, the slower and more stable it tends to be, which is what you want if you're learning [source:].

Ski length is a much more crucial issue once you've advanced enough to start using a single slalom ski. For slalom skiing, the right size ski largely is a factor of your physical proportions, and to a lesser extent, how adept a skier you are. (Highly skilled skiers can control a shorter ski, which will enable them to go faster.) Terry Jones, an official with Water Ski and Wakeboard Canada, offers a handy chart that shows you how to choose a ski based on both your body weight and the speed that you intend to ski. A 160-pound (72.5-kilogram) skier, for example, should go for a 67- or 68-inch (170- to 172.7-centimeter) ski if he or she will be skiing at a slow 26 miles per hour (41.8 kph). A skier of the same size but with the skill to ski 10 miles per hour (16 kph) faster, in comparison, should opt for a 65 or 66-inch (165- or 167.64-centimeter) ski [source: Terry Jones].


Pay attention to the shape, too. Slalom skis for weekend and vacation skiers have wider tails and flatter bottoms, and the high-performance models that the pros use have narrower, tapered tails, concave bottoms and highly beveled edges [source: Smith].

Trick water skiing and jumping also require different types of skis. Trick skis are shorter, more maneuverable versions of combo skis, while jump skis are longer and wider, to make it easier for a jumper to land on his or her feet [source: Smith]. But if you're a beginner, it'll be a while before you have to worry about shopping for either of those types of skis.


Water Ski Fins

With the exception of trick water skis, water skis generally have fins on the bottoms to make turning and maneuvering easier [source: Sports Authority]. If you're a beginner buying combo water skis, the fins aren't really a big issue to be concerned about. When they eventually wear out, you can buy a plastic replacement fin from an Internet retailer for less than $15 [source:].

When it comes to slalom skis, though, tinkering with the fin -- along with the bindings -- can make a big difference in performance. Moving the fin forward, for example, will make the ski feel smaller and turn faster, while moving it back will make the ski seem bigger and more stable. Adjusting the depth of the front of the fin in relation to the rear will also control the amount of pressure on the tip of the ski at the finish of a turn, which means the difference between overturning forward and doing the equivalent of popping a wheelie on a motorcycle. If your ski tends to slide out at the finish of a turn, adjust it to sit deeper in the water. Remember, we're talking tiny adjustments here -- try one-tenth of an inch at a time [source: Adjusting Your Slalom Ski].


For more information on water sports, visit the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

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  • "Adjusting Your Slalom Ski." Undated. (Dec. 23, 2009)
  • "AWSEF Museum--What is There to See?' Water Ski Hall of Fame. Undated. (Jan. 5, 2010)
  • "Combo Water Skis." Undated. (Dec. 23, 2009)
  • "How to Buy Waterskiing Equipment." Undated. (Dec. 23, 2009)
  • Duvall, Camille and Crowell, Nancy. "Camille Duval's Instructional Guide to Water Skiing." Simon and Schuster. 1992. (Dec. 23, 2009)
  • Jones, Terry. "Slalom Ski Size." Terry Jones' Personal Water Ski Page. Undated. (Jan. 5, 2010.)
  • Kadison, Michele. "Smart Shopping for Water Ski Bindings." July 16 2009. (Dec. 23, 2009)
  • Lloyd, Kerry. "Water Ski Ropes and Handles-Which Ones to Choose." Aquaskier. Undated. (Dec. 23, 2009)
  • "O'Brien Celebrity Ski Combo Replacement Fin - Plastic." Undated. (Dec. 23, 2009)
  • "Ralph W. Samuelson: 1982 Hall of Fame Inductee." American Water Ski Educational Foundation. Undated. (Dec. 23, 2009)
  • Skillman, Don. "Make Your Own Water Skis." Popular Mechanics. July 1954. (Dec. 23, 2009)
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  • "Wakeboards and Water Skis Buying Guide." Undated. (Dec. 23, 2009)
  • "What Size Slalom Ski Do I Need?" Undated. (Dec. 23, 2009)
  • "Water Ski Bindings." Undated. (Dec. 23, 2009)
  • "Waterskiing." Encyclopedia Britannica. Undated. (Dec. 23, 2009)
  • "What to Know Before Buying Waterskiing Equipment." Dec. 1, 2009. (Dec. 23, 2009)