How Similar Is Waterskiing To Snow Skiing?

by Simon Knott | Published: March 17th, 2023 |  Skiing Articles

On first impressions, waterskiing and snow skiing appear to have a lot of similarities. For example, both sports are carried out on skis, one attached to each foot. So, just how like each other are they?

Snow skiing and waterskiing have some superficial similarities, but the techniques required for both are fundamentally different. Sports enthusiasts who have learned both often say the skills are not transferable and that it’s better to start from scratch rather than adapt existing skills.

Waterskiing and Snow Skiing

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Taking a deeper look at the processes involved in each sport demonstrates that there are more differences than there are similarities.

How Does A Ski Travel Over Snow?

Deep powder

Driving Force

When you climb a mountain by ski lift you store potential energy, which is in the form of vertical or altitude energy. When you start skiing downhill you tap into this vertical energy which drives you down the run accelerating faster and faster.

This energy force can also be interpreted as the pulling energy that gravity exerts as it tries to pull you toward the center of the earth. As you slide down the run gravity pulls you forwards and downwards until you reach the bottom of the hill, where you can no longer descend and so you slow down.

In snow skiing, the pulling force is exerted all over the body.

How Does A Ski Interact With Snow?


As a ski slides over snow, the weight of the skier is transferred down through the ski. The force applied to the snow is considerable and as the pressure increases so the melting temperature of the snow decreases.

This means a small amount of snow melts under the ski, which has much less friction and enables the ski to slide over it, before re-freezing back to ice.

Position Of The Ski On The Snow

The skis are kept parallel for most of the time when traveling over snow. When they are parallel friction is minimized, which makes the best use of the skier’s potential energy.



The skier stands upright but leans slightly forward to make sure there is enough weight distributed across the front of the skis.


When the skier wants to turn to the right, he drops his left shoulder towards the front of the left ski. This is enough to change the balance so that the inside edges of the skis engage in the snow, as the skier turns to the right. The process is vice versa for an opposite turn.

How Does A Waterski Travel Over Water?


Driving Force

In waterskiing, the driving force is completely different from snow skiing. The waterskier is connected to the boat by a handle and a long rope. The motor in the boat pushes the boat through the water and pulls the waterskier along behind it.

How Does The Waterski React With The Water?


Tip: The waterskier doesn’t maintain his position on the surface of the water by buoyancy, meaning he isn’t floating. As the boat pulls the waterskier along, the water underneath the angled skis creates resistance and the skier pushes against this with his legs to get into the standing position.

When the skier starts riding on top of the water’s surface there is less water pushing against the ski, but it still creates enough reactionary force for the skier to stay on the surface.


So, the pulling force exerted through the rope and handle drags the skier along over the surface of the water. Waterskiers must understand how the pulling force of the towrope disrupts their balance, which means they must lean back slightly to compensate.

Waterskiers naturally adopt a curved stance when viewed from the side. This stance is defined by outstretched arms, the curve of the back, and down to the feet on the water skis.

Once waterskiers understand the dynamics of this balance, they can concentrate on using their arms to manipulate the pulling force, which can be applied to the skis to make turns, increase speed, and carry out other maneuvers.


To initiate a turn when cornering on water skis, the skis must be kept parallel. At the same time, the skier changes his balance and applies more pressure on one ski. So, by applying more pressure to the left ski you will automatically start to curve around to the right and vice versa.

How Do Sports Enthusiasts Who Enjoy Both Sports Compare Them?

Val Thorens Skier

In my experience when you chat with people who have learned to snow ski and waterski they often say that the two sports are completely independent. Even though they have superficial similarities, such as gliding over a surface, the mechanisms, and techniques of each are quite different. In transferring from one sport to the other they usually talk about unlearning their existing skills and adopting completely new ones.

For example, when waterskiing, you sense you are supported by the base of the skis on the water’s surface. You keep your feet together and lean back against the tension of the towrope, using your entire body weight to make turns.

By contrast, snow skiing focuses on the edges of the skis for turning rather than the bases. Most maneuvers when skiing involves the transfer of weight from one ski to the other, with the body leaning forward to ensure enough weight is applied to the turning skis.

Overall, in comparing the two sports the skills required are often counterintuitive. If making the transition from one sport to another other it’s best to develop your skills from scratch rather than trying to adapt existing skills from the opposing sport.

What Are The Similarities And Differences Between The Two Sports?

water skis

In waterskiing, the skier has little control over how the driving force is applied. This is totally down to the person controlling the boat, as he speeds up and slows down, while also steering the boat with the wheel.

However, in snow skiing, the skier is the master of his own destiny and has complete control over speed and direction. He can choose the steepness of the run to negotiate but, of course, he does need the ski lift to provide the potential energy to start the process over each time.

Snow in Vail
Photo by Snow Snow under CC BY-ND 2.0

Key Takeaway: The way the skis in waterskiing and snow skiing interact with their medium is quite different. In waterskiing, the water is mostly used to create a reactionary force (Newton’s third law of action) to keep the ski planing over the water’s surface.

The Pressure Of The Ski Against The Snow Melts The Water

In snow skiing, the weight of the skier travels down through the ski and the increased pressure exerted melts a very thin layer of water under the ski and over which the ski glides.

In terms of stance, water skiing and skiing are quite different. In waterskiing, the body shape is curved, caused by the extended arms holding the handle and the feet on the water skis counterbalancing.

On snow, the driving force, gravity, exerts itself over the entire body and doesn’t affect the stance so directly.

When making turns, there are similarities between waterskiing and snow skiing. Both turning techniques involve applying pressure to the ski, which is opposite to the desired direction of travel. To turn to the right, you apply pressure to the left ski in both waterskiing and snow skiing and vice versa.

A Combination Of Similarities And Dissimilarities

Water skiing

In both waterskiing and snow skiing, the skis glide over the surface of the water.

In waterskiing, the skier achieves enough speed from the boat for the skis to rise onto the surface of the water and plane.

However, in snow skiing, it is the pressure of the ski against the snow surface that creates a very thin film of water over which the ski can glide.

Advice: The physics which needs to be applied to explain the differences between waterskiing and snow skiing is quite complex but illustrates well that although the two sports have superficial similarities they are technically quite different.