Learning to Waterski with Pete O'Neill

September 01, 2015
Learning to Waterski with Pete O'Neill

Owner of Mulwala Water Ski Pro Shop, Pete O’Neill is one of Australia’s most successful competitive water skiers.

Pete has won the National Barefoot Championships 10 times and has placed third in the last two World Championships. He has skied in three National Show Skiing Championships (two of which he won), and he’s led the Aussie team to a second place in the World Championships.

So it’s zero surprise that we went to Pete to get advice on how to, err, dip your toe in the water as a water skiing newbie.

Pete, when is the best time to learn to water ski?

Like most things, it helps to start when you’re young. If parents can have their kids taught when they’re under the age of 10, it’s ideal. That said, no age is too young; as soon as the child is comfortable in the water then it’s time to get skiing!

See also: Our insider's guide to surfing in Bali

What gives youth the learning edge?

They are still open to learning how to balance naturally. Learning as an adult means you’re not only stronger, but you’re more inclined to use that strength against the boat, rather than just going with it. Also, kids have little fear of the unknown – how often do we see kids just dive into the figurative deep end without a second hesitation?

Adults often come to me with a spectacular water skiing fall in their head – something they’ve seen that involved plenty of speed and drama. As a newcomer to the sport, you’re never going to hit such speeds so dramatic spills like that are just not going to happen. But it’s sometimes hard to get that out of people’s heads.

The reality is – people learn when they have the opportunity. Whether that comes as a kid or an adult ultimately doesn’t matter; I think with a good instructor and a decent boat driver at the helm, anyone should be up and skiing within two to three lessons max.

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Can you give us an idea of what an average lesson with you would involve?

Sure. Usually they will go for about half an hour. The first ten minutes are spent just going through the fundamentals, but also positively reinforcing the learner about what will be happening out there on the water.

We remind them why they’re here in the first place, and that’s actually to have fun, and secondly to learn how to waterski.

The initial process is a little bit like surfing in that you go through some of the motions on the land but really, the way you stand on terra firma is so much different to how you stand on the water.

Once you’re in the water we get you to make yourself nice and small. Skis are on your feet and you get them up near your bum. Your knees go to your chest and you’re essentially in a ball position.

You squeeze your skiis together, keeping them nice and close. As the boat starts to pull away and you take with it, you let yourself go naturally forward with the boat; you let it kind of pull you over your feet.

Often beginners will use a bar that comes off to the side of the boat. This doesn’t move and sway like a rope, but instead gives a stability that some learners find really worthwhile at least for the first few goes.

istock learning to water ski

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Aside from the bar, is there anything else different about beginner’s water skiing equipment?

Yes – usually they will wear bigger skis which cover more surface area and are therefore easier to balance on. The rope tends to be shorter and placed at a higher point on the boat, which helps better lift the skier.

We tend to recommend that females wear wetsuit shorts and of course that everyone wears sunscreen. Personal Flotation Devices, or PFDs, are a legal requirement for anyone water skiing anywhere in Australia.

What’s the most common mistake you see learners make?

They don’t let go when they fall. For some reason a lot of learners just want to hang on tight to the rope when in fact they should just let it go the moment they feel like they’re not going to stay upright any longer. The boat will just turn around straight away and come get them, and they’re wearing a PFD.

See also: A basic guide to being safe at sea

What are the key water skiing signals a learner should know?

Thumbs up means go faster.

Thumbs down means slow down.

Patting your head means stop, or it means “I am about to let go of the handle”. All boats pulling water skiers must have a driver and an observer. It’s the observer’s job to communicate between the skier and the driver.

What speed should a learner expect to be water skiing at?

No more than 20km – 30km per hour, depending on how heavy that person is. Lighter means slower.

Do you have any advice for newbie water skiers?

Just a reminder that they’re out to have fun – that’s 100% what it’s all about.

learning to waterski


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