Water Ski and Wakeboard Boats: Designed for Watersports

Intended for specific types of watersports, these tow-boat models differ from the garden variety runabout.

23rd May 2013.
By Brett Becker

You know you want a boat and you know that your family enjoys watersports so much that the usual bowrider or runabout is not going to be ideal, which brings you to the question that everyone in this market must ask themselves: what, exactly, do you want to do? Water skiing and wakeboarding are usually top answers to that question, and if your kids are old enough to know better, they’re going to be steering you toward dedicated watersports boats— for good reason.

mastercraft xstar wakeboard boat

Dedicated watersports boats often fill very specific niches, and when wakeboarding took the industry by storm, MasterCraft capitalized in a big way with its X Star line of tow boats.

Watersports boats are a bit different from runabouts, particularly in their powertrains. Whereas a runabout uses an outboard or a stern drive, watersports boats, or “tow boats” as they’re commonly called, use an inboard engine in either a direct-drive or V-drive configuration. We’ll come back to that in a bit.

The origin of all tow boats traces back to water skiing. The need to pull a skier — or skiers — from a deep-water start required significant low-end torque. The V-8 inboard powertrain delivered just that. Once the manufacturers had the powertrain figured out, the escalation of the sport began.

Tow boat builders began experimenting with bottom designs to try to create the flattest wakes possible, so competition skiers could cross them quickly and easily as they scamper around the buoys of a tournament slalom course. The boats were initially sparse by design, because they weren’t intended to accommodate more than three or four people. The engine was mounted amidships, with a one-speed transmission behind it followed by a driveshaft to the propeller, thus the term direct drive.

ski nautique waterski boat

Introduced in 2009, Nautique’s Ski Nautique 200 closed-bow model is the pinnacle of what a dedicated tournament ski boat can be, but it’s still best suited to two or three people.

As skiers became more competitive and discerning, they learned that adding more people added weight, which made the wakes bigger and more difficult to manage. So, they were often closed bow models, with a driver seat and an observer seat large enough for two—but that was about it. Besides, the ski rope connected to the tow pylon in front of the engine “doghouse,” so no one could sit in the rear of the boat while someone was skiing anyway. Ski boats are more plush today, but competition ski boats are still designed primarily to create flat wakes, not to carry a lot of people, which is one reason why tournament inboards never sold in huge numbers, particularly as family boats.

But that changed with the advent of wakeboarding, a sport many credit with reinventing the tow boat industry—and in all candor, it did. When wakeboarding began to take off as a sport, tow boat manufacturers were in the catbird’s seat.

Unlike skiing, wakeboarding was better with a big wake behind the boat. These large wakes created launch ramps for all the tricks wakeboarders are famous for. By moving the engine to the stern and mounting it backward — flywheel facing the bow — they accomplished two goals: they created more room inside the boat, and the rearward weight bias created bigger wakes. The engine delivered power to the transmission, which directed power back underneath the engine to the propeller, which is located in the same place you’d find it on a direct drive. The power path forms the shape of a V, thus the name V drive.

You can probably guess what happened next. Yes, escalation. Huge ballast tanks filled with water to add weight and bigger wakes, and gobs of seating to bring more friends — which adds even more weight. Ski pylons became ski poles that stretched as high as six feet above the deck and were supported with cables to the bow eye. Those ski poles became towers, with racks to hold boards, speakers, and even video cameras.

From wakeboarding, the sport of wake skating evolved. Essentially a wakeboard without bindings, wake skating itself evolved into wakesurfing, which calls for even bigger wakes. Tow boat manufacturers, naturally, have answered the call.

malibu wakesetter wakeboarding boat

Now that wake surfing is the latest trend, builders are striving to create ever-larger wakes, like Malibu has done with its Wakesetter 20 VTX.

Today’s tow boat market offers buyers whatever they want, from a Spartan tournament ski boat, to models geared toward wakeboarding and wake surfing. And for the family who does it all, each manufacturer offers at least one, if not two or three “all rounders” that let you ski, wakeboard or go wake surfing.

So when it comes to shopping for a tow boat, the question “what do I want to do with it?” becomes a bit more complicated. Fortunately, whatever your answer, there’s a watersports boat that’s perfect for the job.

Check out some of our recent reviews of dedicated watersports boats:

Enzo 244: Top of the Line Tow Boat
Moomba Outback: A Grownup Boomerang
Malibu 247 Wakesetter LSV: More is More
Going Big: The Super Air Nautique 230
Tige RZ Series Video Boat Review
Malibu 21 vRide is a Win-Win
Mastercraft X7: An Affordable New Tow Boat


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About the author:

Brett Becker

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Brett Becker is a freelance writer and photographer who has covered the marine industry for 15 years. In addition to covering the ski boat and runabout markets for Boats.com, he regularly writes and shoots for BoatTrader.com. Based in Ventura, Calif., Becker holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s in mass communication from the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

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