How Should a Ski Boat Operator Approach a Skier Who Has Fallen?

Though generally safer than its terrestrial counterpart, water skiing is still a risky sport in which falls are common, even among experienced athletes. As a ski boat operator, your job is to ensure that these falls are handled as safely as possible and that the accident is resolved without any major injuries. However, since there are plenty of variables that can affect the process of retrieving a fallen skier, it’s worth asking: “What’s the best way to approach them?”.

A ski boat operator should approach a skier who has fallen slowly. To do so, they should turn off the engine before moving towards the skier, all while looking out for other boats or obstacles in the area. Then, they need to confirm the skier’s condition before deciding on how to retrieve them.

When operating a boat, safety should always be of the utmost priority, which is why you’ll want to make sure you follow a safe protocol when retrieving a fallen skier. If you want to learn more about the process outlined above as well as some safety considerations you’ll want to keep in mind along the way, make sure to read on.

How Ski Boat Operators Should Approach a Skier Who Has Fallen: Step-by-Step

Though most injuries sustained during low-speed water skiing are mild, it’s still important to consider that some of these accidents can have long-term effects on one’s health, even if the skier is a trained athlete.

That’s why it’s essential for the skier to be retrieved as soon as possible after hitting the water, and that’s where boat operators come in. While most of the falls sustained in the water are harmless and the athlete will be able to handle the situation by themselves, if they hold their ski up, wave their arms, or seem incapacitated, it’s time for the boat operator to intervene.

So, what’s the safest way to approach a fallen skier?

Stop the Boat

As soon as you notice the skier falling, you need to stop the boat. The last thing you want is to get further away from a person in distress, not to mention you risk another accident if you keep going while your skier has fallen.

Stopping the boat also gives you an opportunity to better assess the situation and spot any potential obstacles, which can come in handy in the following steps.

We aslo have a great article on: Length of Tow Lines When Towing Two Skiers at the Same Time from a Boat (Tips)

Signal the Skier

Before you even start heading toward the fallen skier, it’s best to signal them and let them know you’re coming their way. That’ll give you a pretty good idea of how responsive they are and how to best proceed next. Signaling also gives the skier enough information for them to know if or where they should move if they want to make the retrieving process easier.

If you’re not too far away from the person, you can simply use hand signals to communicate that you’re coming to get them. Otherwise, you can always rely on your boat’s horns.

Check for Obstacles

It’s easy to get flustered and rush when trying to receive a fallen skier, and while time is precious in these moments, making sure both you and the person you’re trying to help are safe is always of the utmost priority.

What good would it do for you to rush to the skier’s help only to hit an obstacle halfway through? So, before you even approach this person, take a deep breath and quickly scan the area around you for any vessels or any other obstacles that might be in your way. Then, quickly map the quickest and safest route in your mind and make a point to stick to that.

I want to reiterate that acting quickly is still important and that all the steps outlined above should only take about a minute. You’ll want to strike that fine balance between going into the retrieving process well-prepared and moving in a timely manner.

Approach the Skier Slowly

It’s finally time to begin the retrieving process by approaching the fallen skier. However, make sure that you move slowly so as to be able to avoid any hidden obstacles and place your vessel in a convenient position from which the skier can easily climb up.

A slow and steady approach also avoids sudden movements that can potentially create waves that’ll only endanger the skier even more. If you’re operating a particularly big boat, you’ll want to be even more careful throughout this process, as any currents you might cause can make it impossible for the person you’re trying to retrieve to climb up into the boat.

As you approach the skier, make sure to always keep them in view and facing the side of the boat you’re standing in. As you come closer, you’ll want to slightly turn the boat sideways so that you reduce its movements and make it easier for the person to find a big enough surface to grab onto.

Assist the Skier

Though most water skiers are highly trained on how to handle this type of scenario, the truth of the matter is you can’t always expect them to be able to get onto the boat by themselves. Whether they’re stressed, injured, or their positioning simply doesn’t do them any favors, you’ll likely have to assist them to some degree. However, before doing so, make sure to ask the skier beforehand (if conscious) to decide on the approach they feel most comfortable with.

To assist, you can extend a ski rope or try to bring the boat even closer to them so that they don’t have to overexert themselves trying to climb up. You can also physically assist them up the boat; however, this can be a tricky process if you don’t have enough knowledge or experience, so proceed with caution.

Examine the Skier’s Condition

Now that everyone’s safe, it’s time to examine the skier’s condition by asking them how they feel (if they’re conscious) or physically inspecting them (if they’re not). Chances are you’ve already asked the skier if they’re hurt before even retrieving them; however, since being in that position can cause a lot of adrenaline to run through their body, their answers at that point can still be incorrect.

So, once they’re calmer, both of you can take a closer inspection of their physical condition and determine whether there’s any need for medical assistance. If you notice any injuries or signs of distress, provide any necessary first aid, such as providing some warmth or applying pressure to a bleeding wound.

Come to an Agreement on How To Proceed

If the skier is unconscious or injured, you won’t have to think too hard about this step – you’ll have to get them to a medical facility immediately. However, if they seem fine, you can ask them what they want to do next.

Some might want to continue skiing, this time being a bit more careful. Others might feel fine but still request to be taken on shore. Either way, make sure to accommodate the skier’s request and also follow local safety laws and regulations to a tee so that you don’t end up in another potentially dangerous situation.

Safety Considerations

Throughout this process, there are several safety considerations to keep in mind.

  • Beware of the skier’s signals. Some operators simply signal to the skier that they’re coming to get them and start approaching them without ever thinking about what they have to communicate in return. The skier might be able to inform you about their condition or obstacles in the area, so always keep an eye out for their signals.
  • Always keep the skier at a safe distance. Above, I mentioned slowly approaching the skier and only coming closer to them if deemed necessary. You never know how tides and waves can affect your boat’s movement pattern, so err on the side of safety and stay away from the skier while also being close enough for them to reach the tow rope.
  • Always shut off the engine before helping the skier climb on board. Otherwise, the whole situation is a propeller injury waiting to happen. In the same vein, always retrieve the tow rope after the skier has been taken back to safety so that it doesn’t become a safety hazard.
  • Be on the lookout for any obstructions and always signal your turns. Even if your first inspection of the area didn’t give you pause on any possible obstructions, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. So, as you slowly approach the skier, beware of rocks, debris, or other vessels that you need to avoid. Moreover, always signal your turns – that’ll help other boats, as well as the skier, make better-informed decisions.


As a boat operator, approaching a skier who has fallen is a delicate process that requires a lot of skill and knowledge. You never know if the person you’re trying to retrieve is injured or otherwise incapacitated, and you need to be aware of your surroundings at all times – all while keeping your calm and following the right safety protocol.

Though the process can be tricky, the step-by-step guide outlined above can give you a better idea of the right way to approach a fallen skier, and the tips included in the “Safety Considerations” section further increase your confidence.

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