Portable Slalom Course

by Ed Obermeier

The purpose of this article is simply to address some of the common questions and misconceptions the uninitiated may have on the subject of the portable slalom course. This information is based on the authors experience as well as the experience of numerous other portable slalom course owners and users with whom the author has had contact. Also addressed here are some of the common misconceptions concerning the time and effort involved in setting up and taking down a portable slalom course. If you have questions about anything on the subject that has not been covered here the author will be happy to answer any and all questions personally. Contact information is provided at the end of this article.

Slalom Course Installed

It seems that when a water-skier begins to get really serious about the sport of slalom skiing it’s a natural progression to begin the testing of their abilities on the slalom course. For many of us the challenge of successfully running the course at ever higher speeds and ever shorter line lengths as an ongoing test of those skills is an addiction that must be continuously fed and refined.

Unfortunately, for many of us a readily available public slalom course that can be accessed whenever you want to go skiing just does not exist, and if it does happen to exist it may not be readily available for any number of reasons (weather damage, missing buoys, wind, traffic etc). Or you may just wish to get away from the crowd and ski the course in that secluded, private spot where you’ve always wished there WERE a course. For whatever reason then, for many of us who want to ski the course regularly the only real option is the purchase and use of a portable slalom course. One that can be installed WHERE you want to ski WHEN you want to ski.

Among the first questions usually asked in regard to the use of a portable slalom course are “How much time does it REALLY take to set up a portable slalom course?”, “How hard are they to set up?”, ” How much labor is involved?”, “How do you get them to go/stay straight?”. These and other questions related to portable slalom course ownership have been asked by skiers since the first commercially available portable courses were marketed beginning in 1985. For some time now these same questions have also been regular points of discussion for the various water-skiing related discussion groups and message boards on the Internet .

While there seems to be quite a bit of misinformation and misconception out there regarding the difficulty of transporting, installing, and removing a portable slalom course as well as the amount of time and effort involved, the fact is that it’s really not that difficult nor time consuming. Despite what you may have heard or been told on the subject the installation, removal, and amount of effort required with the use of a properly designed portable slalom course is not labor-intensive or time-consuming. Like anything else there is a short learning curve to go through while figuring out how it all goes together. And there is a certain (low) amount of labor involved in getting it into and out of the lake. Small tradeoffs to make for a session of private, quality skiing time on the course in this writers opinion.

Standard 6 piece buoy arm layout

Once you get the overall picture of how a portable slalom course’s parts fit together and how it all works, especially when looking at it from a mechanical perspective, you’ll soon realize what a mechanically simple system a portable slalom course really is. Understanding how a portable course works and how all of its parts go together should help to clarify the process.

Portable Slalom Course Basics

First let’s start with the basic design of a slalom course. I’m certain that most readers will already be familiar with how a slalom course is laid out but to be certain that all points are covered we’ll assume that not everyone is. There are also a couple of features that are unique to the portable version of a slalom course that should be pointed out.

A slalom course is pretty much like a baseball diamond in that there is only one shape a slalom course (or a baseball diamond) can take. From one to the next the shape and layout are exactly the same. How to achieve that layout is an interesting engineering exercise, both for permanent and portable courses. There are several different ways to do it. With a portable slalom course, speed and ease of set up and take down are very important considerations and are largely dependent on the design of the course you’re using. The more simple it is mechanically the easier and faster it can be set up and taken down. The following descriptions should be applicable to all of the portable courses currently available on the market.

A slalom course consists of an Entry Gate through which both boat and skier must enter the course, a Boat Lane (the defined path at the center of the course within which the boat must remain), the skiers Turn Buoys around which the skier must travel, and an Exit Gate through which both the boat and the skier must exit the course. See the course diagram below.

Portable Water Ski Course - Standard Layout

How to achieve the accurate placement of buoys covering a sizeable area of water and at the same time keep the thing transportable is the challenging part of portable course design. The courses structural components have to achieve correct positioning of the buoys, be tough enough to stand up to potentially hundreds of set-ups and take-downs, maintain dimensional accuracy, and at the same time be compactable enough to be easily transportable in a boat or tow vehicle. Once installed the only thing you’ll see are the buoys floating on the water. How then do you spread 22 buoys over an area roughly 850 feet long by 76 feet wide, get them to maintain proper positioning, and be able to quickly repeat the process each time you want to go ski the course?

Every portable slalom course (and also many permanent courses for that matter) consists of a mainline which positions and separates the buoy arms (or booms) from which the buoys are suspended and positioned (see the diagram above). The course itself from end gate to end gate is 259 meters or almost 850 feet long by nearly 76 feet (23 meters) wide. It is 37′ 7 3/4″ (11.5 meters) from the centerline of the Boat Lane to the skiers turn buoy. Obviously then the buoy arms must be designed to be light-weight enough, collapsible enough, and compact enough to get into your boat or tow vehicle, as also must the mainline (850′ long plus sufficient anchor line on each end).

The course structure (the mainline in combination with the buoy arms) must be held in place solidly enough to maintain accurate positioning of the buoys despite the forces of a boat and skier passing over this structure repeatedly. The buoys provide an upward force on the courses structure (mainline and buoy arms) due to their flotation. An anchor is employed at each end of the mainline to maintain tension (the downward force) on the mainline and to hold the courses structural components in place. The course structure is thus suspended several feet below the water’s surface, held in place between the upward force of the buoys and the downward force of a tensioned mainline, which is held in place by the anchors.