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Water Ski Ropes And Handles - Choosing Which To Buy - Written By Kerry Lloyd

     Choosing the right rope and handle for slalom skiing starts with a couple of basic questions. First, will it be used in competition on a ski course or will it be used recreationally on open water? Second, does your towboat have a center-mounted pylon?

     If you are a recreational skier or don’t have a boat with a pylon then your choices are a little easier (and less expensive). Less expensive because of less labor in constructing the ropes and less costly materials required for handle material.

     A typical recreational ski rope is 75’ long from the handle to the opposite end of the rope. Sometimes the handles are permanently attached to the ropes and other times they are detachable. For open water skiing, this type of rope and handle are cheaper to buy than competition ropes and perfectly acceptable for the application.

     On the other hand, a competition rope must meet the American Water Ski Association standards if it’s used in AWSA sanctioned tournaments. The total length for tournament ropes and handles is also 75’ but the handles are detachable from the lines. The handle and pigtail is 5’ long and the rope is 70’ long for a total length of 75’.

Frayed Water Ski Handle Line

The photo above shows the wear from just one season.

     Competition handles are typically much stronger than recreational handles and rarely float due to the way they are constructed. Also, competition ropes are sectional with ‘shortening’ loops constructed into the lines at precise distances. Difficulty in a slalom ski course is a function of boat speed relative to line length. The loops allow the rope to be shortened to increase the level of difficulty as the skier level progresses.

     The chart below shows the color code and associated rope lengths for the AWSA specifications up to a 10-section rope. 

Section Color Feet off Total length (Meters)
1 Neutral 0 23
2 Red 15 18.25
3 Orange 22 16
4 Yellow 28 14.25
5 Green 32 13
6 Blue 35 12
7 Violet 38 11.25
8 Neutral 39 1/2 10.75
9 Pink 41 10.25
10 Black 43 9.75

     For example: If someone tells you they want 15’ off, you would connect to the red loop and they would have a total rope length of 60’ or 18.25 meters.

Sectional Water Ski Ropes and Handles

Photo above showing ropes from prior seasons.

     Your average tournament skier will never need more than a 5-section rope but for whatever reasons, most manufacturers opt to produce the majority of their competition ropes as either 8 or 10 sections although you will occasionally find some 5 section ropes on the market. Just be careful that if you are using a rope for competitive skiing, that the sections meet the AWSA specifications listed above.

     For many competition ropes, the 15’ section (typically white) is permanently removable since many competitive skiers rarely use the full line length (known as long line). I’ve owned some really nice ropes but didn’t like the fact that the 15’ section was not removable. Ends up taking up space unnecessarily and makes it easier for the rope to become tangled.

     You will find other considerations along the way in deciding which rope to buy. Some ropes are less likely to twist up than others, and some have higher tensile strength than others. But whatever one you decide to choose, make sure it meets AWSA specifications.

     If you choose to buy your handle separate from your rope, there are also some questions you might ask yourself. First, how much do you want to spend? Second, what physical type of handle you prefer. Often, it’s cheaper to buy a rope/handle combo than to purchase them separately. But sometimes you may like one manufactures handles and another one’s ropes and purchasing them as a combo may not be an option.

     The first thing to decide when purchasing a handle is whether you like straight handles or elliptical handles? Then do you prefer handles with covered sides or handles with the ropes exposed at the ends? Other considerations are the length of the handle and the diameter of the handle.

     These are personal preferences and why the manufactures offer those different options. When I ski, I let my fingers rest on the sides of the ropes. For this reason, I prefer to have tubing placed over the rope where it comes off the handle. I also prefer a medium diameter handle with lots of cushioning. Smaller diameter handles are easier to grip if you have short fingers. Larger diameter handles may be more comfortable to grip but harder to hold if you don’t have long fingers.

     Ultimately, choosing a rope and handle may come down to how much bang for the buck. You can usually get a little more for your money with the combos but if you are particular about what kind of ropes and handles you use (most competitive skiers are) then your choice may be based on brand or quality.

Worn Water Ski Handle

Photo above shows wear on handle after one season.

     Whichever you decide to purchase, make sure you inspect your ropes and handles often to prevent any accidental injury. One of the worst falls you can have is from a broken rope or handle. Take care of your equipment and it will take care of you.

Kerry Lloyd


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