Why Spotters are Needed for Water Tubing (Explained)

At first glance, water tubing appears to be relatively simple. Basically, tubers have to hold onto the handles for dear life to avoid taking an involuntary plunge into the water. Yet, simplicity does not always equate to safety, which is why you may be wondering whether the act of tubing even demands a spotter.

Several states legally mandate water tubers to have a spotter, but it’s recommended that you always have a spotter regardless. Spotters keep a close lookout for any water tubing accidents to see if anyone has fallen off the tube. They also allow the boat driver to concentrate on oncoming obstacles.

Below, we will go to great lengths to explore why you need a spotter to water tube safely and whether or not all states legally require spotters for tubing. Read until the end to see if your child may count as a competent spotter.

Why You Need a Spotter to Safely Tow a Water Tuber

Water tubing has become quite a popular water sport with thousands of enthusiasts across the world. However, despite this increased popularity, one fact remains: water tubing can at times be a dangerous activity.

Tubers are at risk for several serious injuries if they do fail to observe proper safety protocol. Water tubing accidents can include, but are not limited to:

  • collisions with other tubers
  • drowning
  • taking a painful tumble into the water

Unfortunately, water tubing injuries have only increased in recent years. In a study conducted at the Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, researchers found that:

Water tubing injuries have skyrocketed by a staggering 250% in the last 19 years.


These water tubing-related injuries are mainly concentrated during the summer when the weather conditions are favorable for this type of sport. Researchers noted that—on average—65 people were suffering water tubing-related injuries every day during the summer.

Ultimately, water tubers must take conscious and deliberate steps to preserve their safety and ward off this kind of injury. The foremost of these steps being the designation of a spotter.

As a quick reminder, the spotter is typically onboard the boat and is responsible for keeping an eye on active water tubers to minimize the likelihood of injury. The spotter is an indispensable part of any planned water tubing trip for many reasons, which we will now discuss.

Spotters Can Immediately Tell When a Tuber Has Fallen Off

A prevalent danger associated with water tubing is falling off the tube at high speeds. Boats move at speeds of approximately 20 to 25 miles per hour with active water tubers in tow (source). If you think these speeds feel fast on a boat, imagine what it feels like holding onto an inflatable with the winds and waves smacking against your face!

The water will not feel so forgiving for unlucky tubers that get thrown off at these kinds of speeds. This may cause an injury in and of itself.

However, the bigger danger when a tuber falls off into the water is the danger of oncoming boats. A tuber in the water is a mere speck among a vast blue. Plus, boat drivers are primarily focusing on steering clear of other boaters, so it can be rather problematic to make out the finer details of small objects directly in front of them.

For this reason, it’s important to know exactly when a tuber has fallen off so that the boat driver can react quickly. This is not so much of a problem with an active spotter because they can raise the alarm immediately as a tuber takes a tumble.

Not only that, but the spotter always keeps close tabs on where a water tube is located in the water. They’re tasked with holding up the safety flag and communicating to other boaters where that tuber is down in the water. This is obviously extremely important, as it greatly reduces the chances of other boats entering the vicinity of the fallen tuber.

Spotters Allow the Boat Operator to Concentrate on Driving

It’s worth bearing in mind that the safety of water tubers is primarily held in the hands of the boat driver, otherwise known as the boat operator. They must demonstrate a 360-degree awareness whenever they’re behind the wheel. They’re not only charged with keeping their own water tubers safe, but they must also be cautious about other surrounding boaters.

Other responsibilities of the boat operator include:

  • Maintaining a responsible speed.
  • Keeping an eye out for any obstacles lurking in the water which may injure the tuber—such as rocks, boulders, and debris.
  • Paying attention to wakes—that is, the waves behind a boat—so they can have time to slow down before approaching them.
  • Circling back to the tuber should they fall off.
  • Turning off the propeller when approaching a downed tuber.

With so many responsibilities, the spotter is a key position to have on any water tube outing because they help keep the boat driver focused on what matters. In addition, the spotter helps ease the burden of having to watch the tubers and do away with any of the stress that comes with such a mighty task.

They can also help in other areas, such as communicating any issues that the tuber may be experiencing. For example, tubers can communicate to the spotter with hand signals to tell the boat driver to speed up, maintain the same speed, or slow down. Such simple interactions can give greater confidence to tubers that they have absolute control over their experience on the water.

Plus, the spotter can also alert the driver if there’s any slack in the tube line so that they can immediately slow down. This way, the tubers won’t experience whiplash, saving their ligaments, joints, and muscles from the pressure of being thrown about.

While boat drivers may have rearview mirrors to monitor the tubers occasionally, it’s still recommended to have a spotter on board for all the reasons listed above. Boat operators cannot do it all, no matter how confident they may be.

Do All States Legally Require Spotters for Tubing?

Pleading is never an excuse with the law. The laws regarding water tubing safety are no exception to this rule.

The regulations concerning whether or not water tubing requires a spotter vary from state to state. Some states have similar rules, while other states have rules that lie on the complete opposite ends of the spectrum.

In short, not all states will legally require you to have a spotter on board when water tubing.

For this reason, you should save yourself the trouble and familiarize yourself with your state’s laws about this topic. It may not be the most exciting thing to do in preparation for a water tubing trip, but it has the potential to save you some headaches in the future.

Some states—such as Wisconsin, Louisiana, and Nebraska—do not legally require a spotter to be present when water tubing. In most of these states, having a rearview mirror will satisfy state requirements. These mirrors are, however, required to be wide-angle rearview mirrors.

In other states—such as Michigan and Indiana—it is legally required to have a spotter present when water tubing. Only having a rearview mirror will not suffice under these circumstances. Boaters must have a third party involved that’s been assigned the role of the spotter.

Certain state laws specify the criteria that a spotter must meet to be qualified as a “competent” spotter. Generally, a person should qualify so long as they meet the following criteria:

  • Have regard for prevailing conditions such as the speed and acceleration of the boat, nature, and several other boats and tubers operating in the vicinity, as well as the weather and water conditions.
  • Have sufficient maturity, concentration, and boating safety awareness.
  • Not be under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
  • Not suffer from a disability or impairment to an extent that it could affect their ability to supervise.

Despite what your specific state laws may say, it’s much safer to have a spotter on board when possible. So even if your state doesn’t legally require you to have a spotter, it’s a good idea to have one onboard!

Does a Child Count as a “Competent” Spotter?

Earlier, we discussed the criteria of the “competent” spotter. Since tubing is so common among the youth, boat operators often wonder whether or not a child fits the criteria of what the state defines as a “competent” spotter.

This legal requirement can be rather tricky to understand because it’s problematic to define what “competent” actually means in the eyes of the state. You obviously don’t want to get caught up on the wrong side of this interpretation, as pleading to ignorance is not a defense.

A spotter must be at least 12 years old for them to be classified as a competent spotter. Therefore, any child younger than 12 years old cannot be considered a suitable spotter for water tubing.

That being said, children above the age of 12 still must meet the other stipulations of being a “competent” spotter. They cannot be under the influence of alcohol or drugs or have a sight or hearing disability.

Put simply, the spotter is a critical part of every water tubing experience. It would help if you were selective about who you choose to act as a spotter, as this role holds great responsibility in preserving the safety of others.

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Austin Carmody

I am the owner of HydroPursuit. I enjoy kicking back and getting out on the water as much as I can in my free time.

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