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Wake Boats: Endless Waves

The science behind how wake boats create surfable waves.

Overhead view of a blue 2018 Super Air Nautique G23 wakeboard boat with a wakesurfer behind the boat on a bright yellow surfboard.

The Super Air Nautique can shift the wave from one side of the boat to the other — on the fly. (Photo: Nautique)

Never underestimate a boater's desire for fun on the water — and boat designers' ingenuity to deliver waves of fun. Wakeboats are only growing in popularity, but watching some hotshot surfing a flat calm lake behind a boat moving 10 to 11 mph seems to defy physics — and logic. How do they make those giant waves?

There are actually four factors working together to create a wake, even if you can't see them above the waterline. Here's how it works.


Ballast systems can harbor invasive species. Particularly if you use a wakeboat in freshwater, practice “Clean, Drain, Dry” every time you pull your boat. Read “Coping With Aquatic Invasives” or visit to learn more.


The wake behind the boat is mostly attributed from water the boat has displaced. The heavier the boat, the more water displaced, the bigger the wake. A wakeboat fills its ballast tanks to increase the boat's displacement. Depending on the size of its tank, an extra 1,000 to 3,000 (a few models boast 5,000) pounds of water ballast is taken into the boat to increase the wake. Some boats have hard ballast tanks for the water (the most common), some use soft bags, others have built-in floodable cavities in the stringer system. These boats are designed to fill up or empty ballast in less than three minutes, using designated pumps for each tank — one to take in, one to pump out.

The Flow Of Water

There are now more than a dozen manufacturers building wakeboats, each with their own proprietary systems to shape wakes. Some are similar to large trim tabs that deflect water downward, but at an extreme angle to optimize downward pressure on the water. Others are a blade, wedge, or contoured plate that is designed to redirect the flow of water on one side of the boat in order to create a clean and perfectly shaped wave on the opposite side. Before these systems came about, surfers were listing their boats to one side by putting additional weight or people to the preferred surf side. Now, surfboats can be evenly weighted without the need to shift weight to change the surf side. Malibu's Surf Gate and Nautique's Surf System can both change the wave on the fly, depending on what the surfer desires. A lot of manufacturers have systems that control the size of the wave, and some even put control right into the surfer's hands with remotes or other devices that can make adjustments while they're surfing.

Retractable integrated wave plates

The Nautique Surf System's retractable integrated Wave Plates deploy on the opposite side of the boat where you want the wave. It creates turbulence that actually cleans up the wave on the opposite side. (Photo: Nautique)

Hull Design

The boat's hull shape also plays a role in the wake shape, and each manufacturer has its own proprietary design. As a general rule, the hulls are deep-V designs with a hard keel forward that narrows at the aft corners. The angled running surface helps shape long, powerful waves. These hulls are flatter than those of typical runabouts. While a traditional flat bottom delivers rough riding at speed, naval architects and engineers find a balance to provide a smooth ride while not towing a rider. The ultimate goal is for hull designers to create bigger and crisper waves.

Propulsion System

Moving all that displaced water takes a lot of power. Wakeboats incorporate three options for propulsion: V-drive, Volvo Penta's relatively new forward drive, and jet drive, all designed to keep a propeller away from the rider. V-drive has been around the longest and is most common, but all have their pros and cons when it comes to maneuverability at slow speeds, the quality of wake, and fuel efficiency. Regardless, to carry that extra water ballast, horsepower on a 20-foot surfboat is generally substantially higher than a typical runabout. Start at 250-hp and go up from there.

Aftermarket Products

Surf systems are a recent development for wakeboats, so the owners of early wakeboat designs or traditional runabouts can boost their wakes with aftermarket products installed on their hulls. These retrofitted products work on nearly every inboard boat, and most emulate wake systems on designated wakeboats., a marine parts distributor, is a good starting point for learning what's available for modifying your runabout, including wake creators, ballast containers, and other accessories. Mussel Mast'R from Wake-Worx is an aftermarket passive inline filtration system that helps prevent invasives from entering the tanks. For less than $200, the system can be retrofitted to any boat.

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Rich Armstrong

Senior Editor, BoatUS Magazine

A journalist by training, BoatUS Magazine Senior Editor Rich Armstrong has worked in TV news, and at several newspapers, then spent 18 years as a top editor at other boating publications. He’s built a stellar reputation in the marine industry as one of the most thorough reporters in our business. At BoatUS Magazine, Rich handles everything from boat and product innovation and late-breaking news, to compelling feature stories, boat reviews, and features on people and places. The New Jersey shore and lakes of lower New York defined Rich's childhood. But when he bought a 21-foot Four Winns deck boat and introduced his young family to the Connecticut River, his love for the world of boats flourished from there.