Water Ski Boat Safety

by Will Evans

Over the past two summers, a number of very serious injuries have been reported to Markel Insurance Company involving ski boats. Several of these involved incidents where no spotter was used and/or the boat drivers were not certified. The more serious injuries usually involved bodily impact with the prop, indicating that the boat drivers either have poor visibility and/or a lack of awareness of the changing positions of people in the water. One incident involved a banana boat being toed with the use of improper towing equipment which failed resulting in a severe facial injury. Another banana boat injury involved a youth fracturing his leg when he fell off the boat at high speed. Another water ski incident involved a fall resulting in serious injuries when a group of skiers were building a pyramid.

Safety Materials
The first place to start researching water ski/boat safety materials is by examining the minimum state requirements for your state. The National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) has an excellent Web site (www.nasbla.org) including state regulations, educational materials, approved boat driver courses, and other resources. You should also check with your state’s boating law administrators to verify the completeness of the information. Depending on your location (ocean, Great Lakes, inner-coastal waterways), the United States Coast Guard (USCG) may have oversight and regulatory requirements. The USCG Districts enforce their regulations differently from each other; it is important to contact your specific district for specific regulatory requirements. Keep in mind that these regulations and requirements are “minimum requirements,” and they can vary tremendously from state to state. Viewing a few other state requirement examples might offer you some insight on how to further improve your safety efforts.
Another useful Web site is www.boatsafe.com, which offers a free online boat driver safety course and other useful links. This online course should not replace in-service or precamp, hands-on training. The USA Water Ski Association (www.usawaterski.org) offers two well-recognized trainings that are readily accepted by most regulatory agencies and insurance companies. The first is the Train Driver Certification for the boat drivers. The other is a Level 1 Certification for the actual water ski instructor. Both courses are very different. Be sure to understand the specifics of each certification before you send your staff. You can also go to the USA Water Ski Web site and look under “Official Resources” for additional information or call US Water Ski at 863-324-4341. Additional training considerations for the water ski staff include CPR and First Aid (or Wilderness First Aid); deep water injury stabilization; and backboard training.
Keeping Parents Informed
One important aspect that many camps fail to address is “full disclosure to parents” of just what their boating activities include. Do you offer pontoon boats, water skiing, banana boats, ski jumps, trick skiing, slalom, pyramid building, etc.? How are the staff trained and certified? What are the risks? Charles R. Gregg and Catherine Hansen-Stamp have written two excellent articles worth reviewing on the subject of disclosure: “Marketing Your Camp – Finding the Balance” (Spring 2007 The CampLine), and “Legal and Partnering – Really” (January/February 2006 Camping Magazine).
Rules of Thumb for Water Ski Safety
Here are some rules to reinforce with your ski staff and campers:
  • Everyone (including boat driver, spotter, passengers, and skiers) should always wear a properly fitted personal flotation device (PFD) that has a high-impact rating and is USCG-approved for waterskiing. (See the article, “Personal Flotation Devices: Picking the Right One,” in the Winter 2006 issue of The CampLine for additional information on choosing the proper PFD.)
  • lways have another adult other than the driver of the boat act as a spotter. The spotter’s job is to watch the skier, receive hand signals, and alert the boat operator if the skier falls. The driver should watch the lake and other boaters, not the person skiing.
  • Be familiar with the waterskiing area so you can avoid areas of shallow water, submerged obstructions, and other dangerous situations. Also, stay clear of beaches and swim areas. In many states, boat speed is restricted to 5 miles per hour within 100 feet of swimmers and within 200 feet of beaches, docks, or floats.
  • Conduct swim tests for all water skiers prior to participation for basic swimming abilities.
  • Go over the proper hand signals with the skier before he or she enters the water.
  • Use a tow rope that is at least 75 feet long and always check that your tow line is straight before each skier begins. One camper had an arm entangled in the tow line during a fall resulting in an amputation.
  • NEVER allow a water skier to put their arm through the handle of the ski rope (which occasionally happens if the skier’s arms or hand grip get tired). If they should fall, an amputation could occur.
  • Maintain a reasonable, safe speed (usually 18-25 miles per hour) and keep an alert eye open for other boats and watercraft. Give at least 300 feet of clearance to fishermen and slower moving crafts like canoes, kayaks, and sailboats, and at least 100 feet to the side of other skiers.
  • Do not follow other water skiers or banana boaters within 200 feet. If the water skier falls, you may not have time to avoid them.
  • When possible, avoid driving your boat directly into the sun if it is making it difficult for the boat operator to see the water, other boats, or possible people in the water in front of your boat. It may be necessary to zigzag slightly to avoid direct glare.
  • Don’t ski when it is getting dark or is night. It’s hard for the boat operator, skiers, or other boats to see.
  • When a skier falls, return immediately at a slow speed (less than 5 miles per hour), circling the skier from the driver’s side of the boat. If the skier is going to continue skiing, the driver should make the circle with about a 20-foot clearance. If picking up the skier, the driver should shut off the engine before the skier approaches the boat. Do not leave the throttle in neutral because the propeller may still be turning.
  • Do not allow other campers or staff to enter the water without first notifying the boat driver.
  • Follow the state boating laws and certification requirements for boat drivers.
  • There may be times (holidays, weekend, or just a busy day) when the aquatic area is very crowded and skiing and boating is at higher risk and possibly unsafe. Have specific guidelines for your boat operators to determine when to move or close down the skiing operation for the day.
  • Establish and communicate to your staff a policy regarding using the ski boat during their time off.
  • Many states also require the display of a ski flag to notify other boaters. Even if this is not required in your state, it is an inexpensive and good practice.
Water skiing can be a fun and rewarding experience for staff and campers. It can also be dangerous if not approached with consistent safety practices and the proper equipment.

Will Evans is the director of safety education for Markel Insurance Company. Over the past sixteen years, he has provided numerous presentations to the American Camp Association and to a wide variety of camping organizations. Evans has served in an advisory capacity to the American Safety and Health Institute and the National American Red Cross for Lifeguard programs. Contact Evans at 800-431-1270, ext. 7563, or wevans@markelcorp.com.

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