If you have ever driven a rider, or seen watersports in action, then you know that falls are pretty much inevitable no matter how experienced the rider may be. In fact, for some watersports the goal is to throw the rider off (think of something like tubing). Having a rider down may seem easy to handle but can still be a risk to their safety if you aren’t prepared. To keep everyone involved safe and make sure you know what to do in the event of a fallen rider, we have put together this quick and easy go-to guide for how to safely pick up a rider after a fall.
You will notice we talk a lot about wakeboarding, but these safety tips are applicable to a variety of watersports as well, such as skiing and tubing, or for a normal day out on the water. Let’s get started with some basic, general safety precautions first.
Safety Items to Have on Hand
First, it should be noted that requirements for the following safety items may vary depending on your location, so you should always check local regulations to ensure you are ready for your watersports adventure. This guide is intended to be a general reference guide, but certainly isn’t as comprehensive as what your local authorities can provide, so always check before heading out on the water. With that said, there are a few things that are almost always required, and are always a good idea to have on board for safety:
- U.S. Coast Guard-approved Life Jackets: It is required that you have at least one life jacket available per passenger/rider on your boat. Ideally everyone, regardless of their age, should be wearing one at all times throughout the duration of the boat ride. Remember that children of a certain age are required to always be wearing those, but adults should as well to be prepared in the event that they are needed.
- Type IV Personal Flotation Devices: You should also have at least one personal flotation device (PFD) located somewhere on the boat where it is within easy access. Unlike life jackets, PFDs are not meant to be worn, but they are an emergency measure in the event that someone falls overboard. You might have heard these referred to as life rings or buoyant cushions, two popular types of PFDs. Simply toss them out to someone in the water providing them something to hold onto while you work on getting them back in the boat.
- “Rider Down” Orange Flag: Every boater should know about “rider down” flags. These are required in some areas, and should be used even if they are not required as an extra protective measure for a downed rider. These orange flags work as a universal signal to other nearby boaters that there is a person in the water somewhere in the area. Just like your PFDs, this flag should be in an easily accessible area of your boat. It is also recommended that you have a passenger on board designated as your spotter to throw this flag if the rider goes down, as the driver should be preoccupied preparing to turn around to go retrieve the fallen rider.
- Wakeboard Vests and Helmets: Riders should always be wearing a life jacket, but if they find they’re constricting and inhibit how well they can perform while wakeboarding, then there are special vests designed for the sport. These are definitely a good alternative. Riders, especially inexperienced ones or children, should also wear a wakeboarding helmet. This helmet is designed to help keep them protected in case they go down.
How to Pick Up a Fallen Rider
First, here’s what the driver should NOT do when a rider goes down. The driver should not, under any circumstances, throw the throttle and turn around at full speed to head back to their rider. While this may seem instinctual, it actually makes the situation significantly more dangerous for the rider as the boat driver may come up on them too quickly. Instead, here is what the driver should do to pick up a fallen rider:
- Slow to a near stop as soon as you know the rider is down.
- Slowly turn around.
- Head back to the rider at idle speed.
- Once you are near the rider, approach them from the downwind side (so you are not blown too close to them).
- Let the rider swim up to the boat, do not drive all the way to them.
- Shift into neutral and turn off the engine as the rider gets close enough to board the boat.
Once the rider is back in the boat, make sure they are alright and have not been injured. Sometimes when a more advanced rider wipes out on a complex trick there is risk for injury. In the event of injury, have access to a mobile device or radio to call for help. If nobody is injured, then you are set to continue with the day and try again!
Should you have a spotter?
You might have noticed that we mentioned having a spotter on board a few times. A spotter is another passenger on board the boat who is tasked with the responsibility of keeping eyes on the rider at all times. Of course, the driver should be doing the same as they need to know their rider’s location, but a spotter helps make sure that the driver can pay attention to their surroundings and driving the boat. If there isn’t a spotter on board, then the driver has all of this responsibility falling on their shoulders. Sometimes, this is unavoidable, but in this case the driver should have wakeboard tower mirrors equipped on their boat in order to have better vision of their rider.
The purpose of a spotter is to have a quicker reaction time so they can throw the orange “rider down” flag immediately and keep the rider safe. They let the driver know so they can slow down and prepare to turn around and go retrieve the rider. The spotter is also helpful to have on board as the driver approaches the rider so they can toss out a PFD, if needed, as well. While it is not necessarily required to have a spotter on board to do all this, it is advantageous and is an excellent safety measure to take. Plus, having a spotter on board means having someone who can record all the action the driver might be missing out on.
Remember – Have Fun!
When it comes down to it, wakeboarding or any other watersport is all about having a good time. Taking safety precautions is just a way to ensure that the good time doesn’t end with a preventable accident, so it’s always best to be prepared! Once you’re all set and ready to go, focus on enjoying the water and, hopefully, some good company. And if anything does happen, feel better about knowing what to do.
To learn more about driving recommendations, safety, and more check out our full guide to driving a boat for a wakeboarder.