It’s hard to beat the fun provided by a personal watercraft. Nimble, agile craft that offer a unique, close-to-the-water perspective often missing in traditional motorboats, PWC are a thrill ride for all ages. That off-the-chart fun factor comes with responsibility, however, just like operating any other boat. Here are 10 key safety tips, some unique to personal watercraft, to help you and your passengers enjoy a great time on the water.
A boating safety course should always be the first step in any boating journey. Boating courses, including those specific to personal watercraft, are offered both in person in most states and online.
Personal watercraft utilize a jet pump with an enclosed impeller to suck in water, then expel it through a reduction nozzle to increase its force. Applying throttle increases the force of that thrust and thus the craft’s speed. Turning the handlebar redirects the thrust left or right to provide directional control. As the force of the water is the sole means of directional control, throttle application is always required to turn. Without throttle input — whether the result of a driver releasing the throttle, pulling the safety lanyard or stopping the engine — the driver can lose all directional control.
Always wear a Coast Guard-approved lifejacket. Type III, vest-style jackets are most common. Jackets should be sized to individual riders; check for sizing guidelines printed on the interior. Other suggestions include eyewear, gloves, footwear and neoprene shorts or a wetsuit. The latter are vital to protecting riders from serious internal injuries should they fall into the force of the water exiting the jet pump. Likewise, always wear your safety lanyard/engine cutoff switch. The lanyard, attached to the operator via wrist strap or clipped to a life jacket, will immediately stop the engine if disengaged.
The urge to get out there and start having fun immediately is strong, but first take a few minutes to experience how the throttle and handlebar respond and how long the craft takes to come to a stop when the throttle is released. Pull the safety lanyard/engine cutoff switch when underway to feel how directional control is lost without accompanying thrust. If equipped, feel how the braking or deceleration systems slow the craft and shorten stopping distance.
Avoid starting the engine or operating your craft in less than 3 feet of water to avoid sucking rocks or debris into your jet pump. In environmentally sensitive areas the force of water exiting the jet pump can also damage plants, wildlife or the bottom surface.
Pay attention to what’s ahead of you on the water, as well as checking the side and rearview mirrors. This is especially important before initiating a turn. Glance over your shoulder in the direction you intend to go to make sure there’s not another craft alongside or overtaking from behind.
Always maintain a safe distance between your craft, other boats and the shoreline. We’d suggest keeping a minimum 50 feet from other boaters and 200 feet from shore. Avoid the temptation to jump boat wakes. It’s not only against the law, your sight lines may be obstructed, hiding everything from a skier behind the boat to another vessel. Likewise, never follow directly behind another craft or attempt to spray other boaters or swimmers.
Falls are part of the learning process. Should you find yourself waging a losing battle, get clear of the craft quickly rather than fighting to stay aboard. When reboarding, make sure the engine is off (safety lanyard pulled) and board from the stern, driver first followed by passengers. Should the craft flip over, check for warning labels at the stern. They’ll indicate which direction the craft should be righted.
Pulling a towable places additional responsibility on the driver. Focus on maintaining a path clear of hazards, as well as a safe speed. Consider the added length of a towrope and keep your rider well clear of obstacles, including docks and pilings. Assign responsibility for watching the rider to a spotter, who can quickly relay if the rider falls or requests a change in speed.
Alcohol and drugs impair reaction time and judgment. Save alcohol until after your ride, not before or during.
Like most things in life, riding a PWC is easier, less stressful and more enjoyable when you’re prepared and know what to expect. Relax, ride smart and ride safe, and your PWC will be just what it’s intended to be — a fun-filled escape for you, friends and family.