If you're new to waterskiing, or are getting back into the sport, choosing water skis can be challenging due to the wide selection and new technologies on the market. Twenty years ago, skis were mostly varnished ash or other hard wood, bindings were simple molded straps, and concave skis were thought to be exotic.
Today's skis are frequently made out of carbon fiber wrapped over a high-density foam core, with a variety of precise shapes, sizes, and binding choices. Here are some of the features to look for.
Slalom Skis are sold as a single ski with two bindings, one behind the other. The shape is widest under the forward binding, while the rear part of the ski (the "tail") is narrow. The narrow tail allows stronger skiers to decelerate rapidly when coming into a turn, which makes it ideal for skiers wanting a quick-turning ski for recreation or slalom courses.
Shaped Skis (a.k.a. mid-skis) are similar to slalom skis in that they are sold as a single ski with two bindings. The difference is in the width: shaped skis are much wider than a slalom ski for easier starts and a more stable ride. Sidecuts, or a narrowing of the ski near the bindings, allows easier turns on wide skis. This makes them suitable for less experienced riders or those just learning single ski techniques (and they are a lot less tiring)! These shaped skis can be used at a slower speed and are an excellent tool for teaching deep water starts as well as slalom course techniques.
Combo Skis are sold as a pair with one ski set up with two bindings and the other having a single binding. Combos are great for families and all-around use where beginners can use both skis for easier starts and more stability, and more advanced skiers can either start with only one ski, or drop one after getting up on both. They generally have adjustable bindings to fit a variety of skiers. Available in narrow shapes similar to traditional slalom skis or wider, shaped ski-type widths.
Youth or Junior Skis are shorter for smaller, lightweight skiers. Entry-level skis have a removable retainer-either a rope or bar-between the skis, with the towrope connected to this retainer. This set-up assures that the child is not dragged underwater during starts or in case of a fall, with an adult onboard the boat holding the free end of the rope, ready for instant release. The retainer assures that the skis remain the correct distance apart. This system makes it easier and safer for kids learning to ski, and helps build confidence toward mastering traditional skiing techniques.
Bindings hold your foot to the top of the ski. They're generally made from soft neoprene, shaped to wrap snugly around the foot, connecting you and ski into a single unit. By twisting your foot, or moving your weight from one side of the foot to the other, you control the direction of your skis.
Fins are the other major addition to a waterski. Shaped like the dorsal fin of a shark (hence the name), the fin extends downward under the back end, or tail, of a waterski. The purpose of the fin is to keep the ski from sliding sideways during turns and to keep it tracking straight when straight is where you want to go.
There are two common methods of manufacturing waterskis. Construction methods for skis consist of injecting high-density polyurethane foam into a heated mold to form the ski core. The core is then wrapped with either fiberglass, carbon/graphite or a combination of these, and the surfaces are saturated with an epoxy resin. Layers of either carbon/graphite or thick, high-density fiberglass mat are added to provide stiffness in different areas of the ski. Top and bottom layers are added, made of either PBT or Acrylam, and the ski is then put into a mold in a heated press to bond the layers together and provide the desired shape.
Material options in this process determine the performance and price of a particular model. Carbon/graphite is stronger, lighter, and more expensive than fiberglass mat, and is found in the high-end products. PBT tops (also called ABS by some manufacturers) produce brighter, more colorful graphics, and resist scratches and dents better than other materials.
Rim molding is a more economical process that results in a ski with more liberal tolerances for flex and durability, often used to manufacture combo skis.
Compression molding makes it possible to have specific flex characteristics for different areas of the ski, offers better durability and is the standard method of construction for performance-oriented skis.
Ski length is determined by three things: the weight of the skier, the speed at which the skier prefers to ski, and whether the skis are slalom style or shaped skis. Shaped skis, due to their increased width, are shorter by 4" or so compared to slalom skis. Recreational skiers will find that ski length is far less critical than slalom skiers. Finally, a quick rule of thumb: 160lb. skiers generally use a 66" ski. For every 20lb. difference, add or subtract 2" of length.
Narrow tunnel bottom shapes are designed for directional stability. They handle rough water well and are easier on wake crossings. The flat spots on the edges give the ski a forgiving ride.
Performance slalom skis usually feature an edge-to-edge concave bottom shape. These skis are designed to perform well when on an edge. The harder you turn the better they feel.
The beveled edges on the sides of skis control stability. If the edge is square and sharp it makes the ski stable and predictable. If the edge is round or soft it allows the ski to sit deeper in the water during turns for more control.
Rocker is the amount of curvature from tip to tail.
There are a few key choices that you'll need to make when selecting bindings separately from a ski blank, or when selecting a ski with bindings installed:
Is this a personal ski where the bindings can be set to a single foot size, or will several people use the ski?
Adjustable bindings are much more versatile, since they can be used by people with different foot sizes. Generally, skis that are part of the boat's gear are adjustable (and frequently of different lengths) so they can be used by anyone on the boat. Serious skiers will want a near-custom fit, and this generally involves a tight boot-style binding which will only accommodate a narrow range of foot sizes.
How hard do you want the ski to be to put on (and how hard should it be to come off during a fall)?
Expert skiers generally want very tight bindings so that their weight and pressure differences are transferred as directly as possible to the ski. While this might necessitate a struggle to put the ski on (and may require that deep water starts be made with both feet in the bindings), the extra control will allow more precise turns.