On Boat Speed in Slalom Skiing

In slalom waterskiing our power source is a boat, and we harness this power via a 3/8” poly rope and handle. Because we use a complex machine to provide power on a flat surface, we have nearly limitless ways to alter the primary energy source of the sport. This is both a blessing and a curse. In general I feel like a lot of folks don’t take boat speed alterations/choices as seriously as they should and as such don’t put enough strategy behind their choices of boat speed within a given ski set. Let’s talk about that a bit and see if we can arm you with some boat speed strategies and insights for your next set.

Speed alters most aspects of our environment

When we choose one boat speed over another, we’re altering a ton of environmental variables in a pass through the slalom course. The water will interact with the ski differently in all ways in all planes. I suppose an exception to this would be if you’ve built an equivalent amount of kinetic energy and were totally free from the boat at one speed vs. another, but even that would take dramatically different forces to achieve consistently. You’re on a surface that is a fluid. At a speed of 0 mph you can’t even stay atop that surface. From 0 to whatever speed you choose you’re on a variable spectrum of lift provided by the ski interacting with this fluid. Every move that ski makes will feel different from one speed to the next.

Speed affects the feel of the boat

The boat itself is also running at different areas of its torque curve at different speeds, and the relationship between the propeller’s revolutions and the water are running at different levels of efficiency. As such the boat’s pull can “feel” stronger at a higher speed, giving a feeling of palpable forgiveness at lower speeds. This discrepancy can also vary boat to boat. A boat going 34.2 or 36mph is absolutely screaming through the course like a freight train of power because that’s what the boat is ultimately born to do. It’s a riot to drive at these speeds vs. slower speeds. You know that feeling when you’ve been pulling skiers at slow speeds and then pull somebody at 34 or 36– the boat gets locked in and loaded, hull tracking tightly, everything humming along exactly as designed.

Why aspire to ski “max” speeds by age group, anyway?

We define “max” speeds in this sport by age group. E.g. for men, those of us 35 and older ski 34.2mph. Younger than 35 and the max speed is 36mph. For the ladies, 34.2mph is the max speed for most of your adult life. These are, I suppose, totally arbitrary numbers. If you seldom or never ski in tournaments, you might wonder why max speed even matters anyway. For me, skiing max speed is important because in this totally artificial ski environment I love and need tangible parameters. If some rule book somewhere says 34.2 is it, that’s what I’m ultimately wanting to ski at and if I’m not skiing that speed, that’s what I aspire to ski. Each speed is truly earned in the course and the feeling of overcoming a higher boat speed is incredibly gratifying.

Structure your sets with purpose

If you’re including lower-speed passes in your slalom sets, be sure to put a very specific purpose and strategy behind each one of those passes. Don’t just ski them thoughtlessly “as a warm-up” or because you simply can’t complete a pass at the next higher speed. Both of these strategies aren’t going to deliver improvement. You’ll bump up the speed and fail at the higher speed, or ski that higher speed pass inconsistently, over and over. Even worse, you might be stuck at that lower speed for multiple seasons.

You need to ski those low-speed passes with exaggerated width. Don’t ski them just to get through the course– ski them to absolutely SMOKE the course. Wide and early for each ball. Nice and stacked and efficient into the wakes. High on the boat and way up on the front foot in the glide. Work on specific things and NAIL them. Then, when you increase boat speed you’ll be ready for it.

Be specific with your strategy

Note this is not the “ski it until it’s perfect, then raise the speed” mindset which I’ve heard countless times. “Perfect” is too general/broad and isn’t actionable, and meanwhile you’re getting too used to that slower speed and all the different environmental differences that come with it and getting further away from achieving your next speed. More width & higher gate are actionable and will prepare you for the next higher speed. I use the same strategy for cutting line. Ski -22 like -28. Ski -28 like -32.

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