Understanding the Score Numbers in Competitive Slalom Waterskiing

Water Skiing
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In competitive slalom waterskiing, a numerical terminology designates the results of a skier's run through the buoys. Designations such as "6 @ 0 Off," "5 @ 16 off," or "4 @ 32 off" are seen as a skier' scores for each run is posted. This designation can be quite confusing if you're unfamiliar with competitive skiing, but it is actually fairly easy to understand. 

How a Slalom Skiing Competition Works

In a sanctioned slalom waterskiing competition, the skier must make a pass through a course of buoys that features three turn buoys to each side, for a total of six turns. The skier zigzags back and forth between these six turn buoys, and the number of successfully cleared buoys for the run makes up part of the skier's score.

But competitive skiers also increase the difficulty of their skiing runs by shortening the length of the tow rope. The amount of shortening is also part of the score designation. According to USA Water Ski:

"An athlete receives one point for each buoy that he successfully rounds. The athlete who skis around the most buoys and scores the most points, wins the event. Each athlete begins with a 23-meter (75-foot) slalom rope at the minimum boat speed for his age/gender division. Once an athlete has run enough passes to reach maximum boat speed for his division, the rope is shortened in pre-measured lengths until he misses a buoy or falls."

Let's look at a sample score designation—"5 @ 32 off" and interpret the meaning of the numbers. 

The First Number

In our sample slalom score, the number "5" in "5 @ 32 off" indicates that the skier successfully cleared 5  out of 6 buoys (the best possible number would be 6).

The Second Number

The second number indicates how much of the towrope has been deducted for the skiing run. A standard full rope is 75 feet long, commonly known as long-line. Shortening the rope makes skiing around the buoys more difficult, and hence leads to a higher score. When the rope is shortened, the amount by which is shortened is referred to as "off." So in our sample designation, "32 off" indicates that the 75-foot rope has been shorted by 32 feet, leaving a rope of 43 feet in length.

More experienced competitive skiers often begin their first run with the rope already shortened. The turn buoys on an official slalom course are 37.5 feet from the center of the course. Very good skiers may shorten the rope so far that they do not even reach this distance, requiring the skier to stretch his body out in order to complete the turn. A rope that is "38 off" is actually only 37 feet long—not even long enough to reach the turn buoys. 

At the highest levels, skiers may use very short ropes. According to the USA Waterski and Wakeboard organization, the world record run is 2 1/2 @ 43 off, set by Nate Smith on Sept. 7, 2013, at Covington, LA. 

How the Tow Rope is Shortened

Tournament ropes have incremented loops to attach the rope to the boat at fixed settings. Each loop is a different color.

The first loop is 15 feet from the rope's original full-length connection point to the boat. This is considered "15 off," which gives a rope length of 60 feet (75 - 15 = 60). The next increments are 22, 28, 32, 35, 38, 39.5, and 41 off. In our example of 5 @ 32 off, the rope was shortened 32 feet for an overall length of 43 feet. 

Loop Color


Feet Feet Off
Neutral 23 75 0
Red 18.25 60 15
Orange 16 53 22
Yellow 14.25 47 28
Green 13 43 32
Blue 12 40 35
Violet 11.25 37 38
Neutral 10.75 35.5 39.5
Red 10.25 34 41

How a Competition Is Won

In an official competition, after a skier completes a pass (all six buoys), the boat speed is raised 2 miles per hour for each subsequent pass until the speed reaches 36 miles per hour (mph) for men and 34 mph for women. At maximum speed is reached, the rope's length is shortened one increment per completed pass. The winner is the skier who can ski around the most buoys at the shortest rope length.