Living on the Lake: It takes three to ski
The wind in your face, the waves beneath your feet…nothing quite compares to the thrills of waterskiing on a bright summer day. While the iconic Northwoods activity has been enjoyed by generations, it holds dangers that should be respected.
Busy lakes are common in our area, and pose risks to skiers, according to Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Recreation Safety Warden Jeff Dauterman.
“The big thing to remember is that it takes three to ski,” says Dauterman. “The boat operator needs to pay close attention to everything and everyone in the surrounding area. That means a competent observer is vital to the safety of the skier.”
Communication with the skier is one of the important jobs of the observer, who then relays information to the boat operator. A good observer will take the job very seriously, sit facing the rear of the boat, and not take their eyes off the skier even for a moment.
The real danger comes when a skier falls, according to Dauterman. “A skier that wipes out is hard to see in the water. If they are just bobbing there, they will be at risk from other boats. It’s important that the driver get back to them quickly, but in the meantime, a fallen skier should hold a ski up out of the water to be more visible.”
The job of the operator is to safely drive the boat, avoiding things like stumps, logs, docks, rafts, swimmers and other boats. “Operators need to stay at least 100 feet from these obstacles,” Dauterman explains. “They need to remember that the skier is also part of the boat and it is their responsibility to keep them well away from danger.
“The 100-foot distance is just a minimum,” he continues. “As a courtesy to others, boats pulling skiers-and making a big wake-should stay as far as possible from people fishing, paddling kayaks and canoes or swimming.”
Another common practice, according to Dauterman, is not only unsafe, it is illegal. “We see a lot of boats pulling skiers off of docks or rafts. This means that the boat is too close to those areas and is in violation of the law.
“Boats that bring skiers into shore to drop off are also too close. This is an extremely dangerous practice. You have a skier going 30 miles per hour or faster headed right into shore. It’s tough to judge the distance and control their path. We’ve seen a few bad accidents from this.”
Skiers need to keep an eye on the clock, Dauterman adds. “Skiing ends when the sun goes down. You can’t always tell by the light, though, so people need to check the table in the boating regulation handbook put out by the DNR.”
Skiing after hours is the most common violation, according to Oneida County Sheriff’s Department Recreational Safety Officer Deputy Jim Adams. “We get complaints about that and people not having a spotter in the boat,” he says. “People noticing problems like this can call the sheriff’s office in their county or the DNR tip line.”
The department patrols area lakes on a regular basis, according to Adams. “We have boats, and so does the DNR,” he explains. “The fire department is also ready to head out on the water when needed.”
For emergency help, boaters can call 911, which will dispatch the proper authorities. Any boating accident which results in an injury needing medical treatment or damage to property exceeding a cost of $2,000 must be reported, Adams says. “The boat operator is responsible for making a report as soon as is practical.”
Pulling inflatable tubes behind a power boat is another popular activity and the same waterskiing rules apply. But there are additional dangers to keep in mind, according to Dauterman. “Often, you’ll see three or four people in these tubes,” he says. “When they go flying through the air, they can hit or land on each other. It’s best that if you are going for the wild stuff-a fast and exciting ride-you have just one person on the tube at a time.”
Tubing has other inherent risks according to Dan Jahnke, a salesman at Mel’s Trading Post in Rhinelander, whose years of experience include being a certified instructor. Often, he says, the driver will be turning sharply, making a big wake and then pulling the tube back through the wake.
“Concentrating on this maneuver can mean the operator isn’t paying enough attention to what else is going on in the water,” he explains. “Also, when pulling a tube, the boat is going at a lower speed and may not be level in the water. This planing, with the bow of the boat high up, can obstruct the driver’s view.”
One of the most important things to teach skiers, especially younger kids, according to Jahnke, is to let go of the rope if they fall. “They need to get clear of the rope immediately to avoid getting wrapped up in it.
“We always taught that when the observer says ‘skier down,’ the driver shifts to neutral right away and stays there until it’s certain that the skier is clear of the rope. You don’t want to take off with the rope wrapped around a hand or leg.”
Life jackets for skiers have improved, according to Jahnke. “They are less bulky and cumbersome than they used to be, making them more comfortable for the younger kids,” he says. “Another item that helps with skiing safety is an orange flag that is carried in the boat and held up when a skier falls. That flag warns nearby boaters to stay back, there’s a skier down.”
Sue Schneider is a freelance writer who lives in Rhinelander.