Wakesurfing 101: A Guide to the Physics, History, Dangers & More

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  08.02.2023
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Have you seen them? Riding behind a boat and performing tricks like it’s nothing? How does THAT work exactly?

Wakesurfing is a water sport in which a surfer trails behind a boat, surfing its wake without being directly attached to the boat (like with wakeboarding). Wakesurfers get up on a wave using a tow rope, then drop it to ride the wave’s peak like ocean surfing.

In this article, I’ll explain everything you need to know about wakesurfing, including the equipment, technique, and safety. Oh, and a little bit of history as well!

What is wakesurfing

The Science Behind Wakesurfing

Creating the Perfect Wave

Motorboats create waves that are just like the ones you’d find in the ocean, but on a smaller scale. A four-foot wave is more than enough for a wakesurfer to get a few minutes of ride time. And just like ocean waves, there’s a break and a curl that surfers can use to do tricks like dips, sharp turns, and spins.

The Physics of Staying Afloat

The boat is constantly churning out waves, creating a curling effect that lets wakesurfers carve through the wake for a while. Plus, the forward inertia from the towrope helps keep ’em afloat, along with the water’s surface tension and the buoyancy of the board. The board is less dense than the water, so it distributes the surfer’s weight evenly, allowing them to skim along the surface.

Surfing the Wake

Surfers can ride the wake on either side, with the left foot forward for regular footers and the right foot forward for goofy footers. They can do tricks like 360-degree spins, and move closer to and farther from the boat. But if they go too far outside the wake, don’t perform a stunt correctly, or step too far forward on the board, they’ll fall. Or if the boat stops suddenly, they might lose their balance.

The Perfect Boat for Wakesurfing

The type of boat you use to create the wake makes a huge difference in the surfing conditions. So if you want to get the most out of your wakesurfing experience, you need to find the right boat.

The Origins of Wakesurfing

The Early Days

Ah, the good old days. Back when the only way to get a good surf was to get a boat, strap a surfboard to the back, and hope for the best.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the first boat-surfing or wake-surfing took place, but some say it dates back to the 1920s. Unfortunately, there’s no real evidence to back this up.

Fast forward to the 1950s and 60s, and we start to see some real progress. Surfers were actively riding surfboards behind motor boats, and a bunch of surfboard manufacturers started making wake-specific boards.

The 70s and 80s

The 70s and 80s saw the boards getting shorter and shorter, as the shortboard revolution in surfing took off. To make sure they didn’t slip off their boards, surfers started strapping their feet in place with devices mounted to the board.

This, combined with a tow rope, led to the emergence of sports like skurfing, skiboarding, and eventually wakeboarding.

The Modern Age

Wakeboarding’s popularity meant that watercraft manufacturers had to step up their game and make bigger and better wakes. This opened the door for wakesurfing, and a bunch of pioneers like Tim Lopes, Jerry Price, Jeff Page, and Rick Lee were at the forefront of the sport.

In 1997, the first US design patent for a wakesurf was granted to Alfonso Corona. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The Risks of Wakesurfing

Inadequate Boats

Wakesurfing has become increasingly popular, but unfortunately, not everyone is aware of the dangers associated with it. If you’re using a boat with an outboard motor or sterndrive propulsion, you’re in for a world of trouble! These boats are not designed for wakesurfing and can lead to serious injuries, or even death. The only types of boats that are safe to use are direct drive or V-drive boats, since their propellers are located far beneath the boat.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Another risk of wakesurfing is carbon monoxide poisoning. Boats designed for wakesurfing direct the exhaust downward into the propeller stream, keeping it far away from the rider. But if you’re using an inadequate boat, you’re putting yourself at risk of inhaling this toxic gas.

Stay Safe Out There

So if you’re planning on wakesurfing, make sure you’re using a boat that’s designed for it. That way, you can enjoy your time on the water without having to worry about any of the risks associated with it. Have fun and stay safe!

Everything You Need to Know About Wakesurfing Safety

The Right Boat

When it comes to wakesurfing, you need the right boat. You’ll want an inboard motor, not an outboard motor with an exposed propeller. This is to keep you safe from any unexpected injuries. Plus, you’ll want to make sure your boat is weighted correctly. Don’t go overboard with the weight, just follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

Safety Gear

Safety first! Wakesurfers should always wear a personal flotation device. Depending on where you live, this may even be required by law. You’ll also need a thick rope, which is sometimes knotted to give you a better grip. If your rope has a handle, make sure it’s smaller than the handle on a wakeboarding rope. This will help prevent it from getting caught on the board.

Alerting Other Boaters

When you’re out wakesurfing, it’s important to alert other boaters that someone is in the water. The best way to do this is to put up a flag. This will let other boaters know to keep their distance and to look out for anyone in the water.

Carbon Monoxide

Since wakesurfing boats travel at low speeds, carbon monoxide can start to pool in the air around the swim deck. If you start to get a headache or feel dizzy, tell the other boaters and get out of there.

Do You Need a Helmet?

Do you need a helmet when wakesurfing? It’s not essential, since wakesurfing is done at lower speeds than most other water sports. But if you want to be extra safe, go ahead and wear one.

Setting Up Your Boat for Wakesurfing

Inboard Boats

Inboard boats are the way to go if you want to get into wakesurfing. The propeller is tucked away safely beneath the boat, so you don’t have to worry about it taking a bite out of your board. Plus, you can customize your boat’s wake by adding ballast – like water, lead weights, concrete, or other heavy objects – in different sections of the boat.

Weight Configuration

When it comes to weight configuration, the key is to put most of the weight near the back corner of the side you’re surfing on. This will create a bigger wake and ramp it up on the side you’re riding. It’s also important to keep the boat deep in the water for the best results.

Rope Length

For the perfect wakesurfing experience, you’ll want to use a rope that’s 8 to 10 feet long. Wakesurf-intended ropes are usually 20 feet long, so they’re great for boats with a tower set-up. But if you’re using a longer ski or wakeboard rope, make sure you don’t wind it up or tie any knots – it could be dangerous!

Meet The World’s Best Wake Surfers

Ashley Kidd

Ashley Kidd is a force to be reckoned with in the wake surfing world. She’s the reigning champion of the 2014 and 2015 World Wake Surf Championships (pro women’s division). She’s the queen of the waves and she’s not afraid to show it!

Jake Caster

Jake Caster is a wake surfing champion who’s been making waves in the wake surfing world. He’s the winner of the 2017 World Wake Surf Championships (pro men’s skim division), runner-up of the 2018 World Wake Surf Championships (pro men’s skim division) and placed 3rd in the 2019 World Wake Surf Championships (pro men’s surf division). He’s a true champion and a force to be reckoned with!

Connor Burns

Connor Burns is a wake surfing champion who’s been making waves in the wake surfing world. He’s the 2019 and 2018 World Champion Pro Men’s wake surfer and the 2017 World Champion Amateur Men’s wake surfer. He’s a true champion and a force to be reckoned with!

Drew Danielo

Drew Danielo is a wake surfing champion who’s been making waves in the wake surfing world. He’s a 7X World Champion and the recipient of the Legend Award at the 2019 World Championships. He’s a true champion and a force to be reckoned with!

Gunnar Dudlar

Gunnar Dudlar is a local legend in the wake surfing world. He’s often known to be “better with a board than with a sail” and he’s not afraid to show it! He’s a true champion and a force to be reckoned with!

Getting Started with Wakesurfing

Choosing the Right Board

If you’re ready to take on the waves, you’ll need to pick the perfect board for your wakesurfing adventure. You can choose between skim-style and surf-style boards. Skim-style boards have smaller fins, so you can perform tricks adapted from skateboarding and snowboarding. Surf-style boards have bigger fins, so you can do aerial tricks similar to traditional surfing. Whichever board you choose, make sure it’s designed specifically for wakesurfing.

Weighting the Boat

For a successful wakesurfing session, you’ll need to weight your boat. This will create a larger wake that will break to one side, simulating a small ocean wave. How much extra ballast you’ll need depends on your boat’s capacity. If you’re a regular surfer, you can install fat sacs and connect them to the ballast system.

Standing Up on the Board

Once you’re in the water, it’s time to stand up on the board. Experienced wakesurfers recommend lying in the water with your heels on the board. As the boat picks up speed, use the rope to pull yourself onto the board. Bend your knees for balance and position your feet shoulder-width apart. Stand toward the back of the board so the front won’t catch the water.

Moving Around the Wake

Once you’re comfortable on the board, you can adjust your stance to move closer to and farther from the boat. Put more pressure on your back foot to slow down and move away from the boat. Lean on your front foot to speed up and move closer to the boat. But be careful – too much pressure in one direction and you’ll be taking a dive! Experiment with your footing to find the best spot in the wake.

What to Do if You Wipe Out

If your surfer wipes out, don’t immediately turn the boat back into the wake. You may accidentally enter the waves you created and flood the boat. Instead, slow down or put the boat in neutral and circle back widely, away from the wake.

Wakesurfing Tricks You Should Know

The Basics

If you’re looking to get into wakesurfing, you’ll need to know the basics. Here are some of the most common tricks you should know:

  • Pumping: Turning up and down the face of the wake to gain speed.
  • Stalling: Applying pressure to the back foot to slow down or “stall”.
  • Floater: When a rider and board “floats” on top of the wake.
  • Spray: Gouging into the face of the wake to create a water explosion.
  • Fire hydrant: Placing one hand on the board and taking the front foot off.
  • Posing: Doing hand and body positions while riding for style points.

Intermediate Tricks

Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can move on to some intermediate tricks. Here are some of the most popular ones:

  • Hang 5: Extending the front foot (toes) over the front of the board.
  • Rail grabs: Grabbing the board’s rail while the board is on the wake – one or both hands.
  • Cutbacks: Bashing off the lip of the wake with the board – the more extreme the better.
  • Paddle back in: Going to the extreme rear of the wake, throwing down on the board and paddling back into the power zone.
  • Tubing it: Throwing down on the board and sliding back into the tube until covered up – the deeper the better, and then popping out and standing back up on the board.
  • Switch stance: Riding with the opposite foot forward.

Advanced Tricks

Ready to take your wakesurfing to the next level? Here are some advanced tricks you can try:

  • Airs: Launching off the lip with board into the air and landing back on the wake (toeside or heelside).
  • One-hand grab air: Grabbing one rail of the board while the board is airborne above the wake.
  • Double Grab Air: Grabbing both rails of the board while the board is airborne above the wake.
  • Hang 10: Extending both feet (toes) over end of board.
  • 180 spin: Spinning 180 on the wake – Board and rider spin.
  • 360 spin: Spinning 360 on the face of the wake – Board and rider spin.
  • 540 spin: Rider spins continuously 1 1/2 times until they are riding switch stance forward.
  • 900 spin: Rider spins continuously 2 1/2 times until they are riding switch stance forward.
  • Air 180: Doing an air while spinning 180 the blind direction.
  • 180 air: Doing and air and spinning a 180 in the air and landing in with a switch stance.
  • Body varial: Rider does an air and rotates 180º before landing back on the board. The board doesn’t spin at all during this trick.
  • 180 shove it: Spinning just the board 180 under the rider’s feet and landing with the board “backwards”.
  • 360 shove it: Same as a 180 but you spin the board a full 360 under your feet. Note: rider does not spin only the board spins.
  • 540 shove it: Rider does and air and uses his/her feet to spin the board a full 540º before landing back on the board.
  • Big Spin: Same as a 360 shove-it, only the rider spins a 180 at the same time the board does a 360.

Comparing Wakesurfing and Surfing: What’s the Difference?

The Board

Sure, a seasoned surfer can hop on a boat wake and have a good time with a regular ocean shortboard, like a 5’10” to 6’2″ one. But ocean surfboards are made for bigger waves than boat waves, and they’re built for more efficient paddling, with more volume than a dedicated wakesurf board. So, it’s harder to stay on a boat wave with a regular surfboard.

But if you get a custom wakesurf board, usually in the 4’7″ to 5’4″ range, you’ll get more speed and responsiveness. And if you’re a wakesurfer who takes up surfing, you’ll have to switch from a 4’+ board to an 8 to 10′ log, which is more suitable for small ocean waves.

Types of Wakesurfing

There are two types of wakesurfing: surf-style and skim-style. Surf-style boards are closer to ocean surfboards, so you can do more ocean-like maneuvers. Skim-style boards are for doing acrobatic tricks at slower boat speeds, around 10mph.

Gear You Need

If you’re wakesurfing, you’ll need more gear than if you’re surfing. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • A boat
  • A 10-20 foot rope

The rope lets you stay close enough to the boat to get into the wake.


Wakesurfing Vs Skimboarding

Wakesurfing and skimboarding are two different sports, but they share some similarities. Wakesurf boards are typically thicker and have a wider or shaped tail, plus larger fins. This makes them more buoyant, allowing them to float higher on the water. Skim boards, on the other hand, have a thinner profile, sharp rails, and a smaller fin setup. This makes them better suited for surface tricks, like 360s and pop-shuvits.

If you’re looking for a board that’ll let you cruise the wave with the fins locked in the water, go for a surf style board. But if you’re wanting to learn some fancy tricks, a skim style board is the way to go. Whichever you choose, you’ll be sure to have a blast!

Wakesurfing Vs Surfing

Wakesurfing and ocean surfing have some similarities, but they’re quite different when it comes to the gear and conditions. Wakesurfers use custom boards that are shorter and more responsive than ocean surfboards, which are designed for larger waves. Plus, the wave behind a boat is a standing wave, so it’s easier to stay on than an ocean wave. On the other hand, ocean surfers need to have skills like wave reading and timing, and they need to be able to paddle and duck dive. So if you’re looking to try wakesurfing, you won’t need to worry about those things – but you will need a different board!

Wakesurfing Vs Wakeboarding

Wakesurfing is the new kid on the block when it comes to watersports. It’s a great way to get out on the water and have some fun without having to worry about the rope. All you need is a boat with a decent wake and you’re good to go. With wake surfing, you can ride the wave created by the boat like an ocean wave, carving and pumping for speed on the surfboard. On the other hand, wakeboarding requires you to be towed by a boat with a rope and you have to jump off the wake to get air. It’s a bit more intense and requires more skill, but it can be a lot of fun too. So if you’re looking for a more relaxed ride, wakesurfing is the way to go. But if you’re up for a challenge, wakeboarding might be the perfect fit.


Wakesurfing is an awesome way to get a unique and thrilling experience on the water and get some waves in, even if there are no ocean waves (or perhaps you aren’t even ON the ocean but a lake!)

You can have a blast riding the waves created by a motorboat. Just remember to keep your balance, use the tow rope for forward inertia, and have a whale of a time!

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Kauai Surf Report is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new sports with everything surfing at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2019 to help loyal readers with surfing and water sporting tips.