Handing the controls of a personal watercraft to your child for the first time can be an exciting and memorable, yet daunting experience. Operating any type of boat comes with responsibility, but a personal watercraft’s agility, power and unique operation require additional considerations to ensure both your child and others stay safe on the water. Hopefully you’ve already set a good example when your child has been on board as a passenger.
Take these next steps to make sure they’re ready to handle the controls on their own.
Before letting your child take that first ride, verify that it’s legal for them to do so. The minimum age to operate a personal watercraft varies by state. Often a child can drive at a younger age with an adult on board, but the minimum age for solo operation is typically around 14 to 16 years of age. Whatever the legal requirement, ask yourself as a parent if your child is responsible enough to operate a PWC solo and make split-second decisions that may affect their safety, as well as the safety of others.
Most states require young drivers to take a boating safety course. We’d consider this mandatory regardless of the legal requirement. Boating safety courses cover important basic information about operating any marine vehicle, including the Rules of the Road on the water. These rules are vital to teaching your teen how to safely navigate, especially when encountering other craft, and establish the safe distances to stay from other watercraft and the shoreline.
In addition to ensuring they understand basic boating safety and navigation procedures, never let a children take over the controls until they have a clear understanding of the operation of a personal watercraft. This includes how to properly use the engine cutoff switch (commonly referred to as the “safety lanyard”), operation of steering and throttle controls, and if equipped, the craft’s reverse and deceleration systems.
Make sure all riders understand that a personal watercraft must have throttle applied to steer. Rather than a rudder, PWC use a movable steering nozzle to redirect the jet pump’s thrust and control its direction of travel. As such, input at a PWC’s handlebars is only effective when accompanied by corresponding input at the throttle. Releasing the throttle, pulling the safety lanyard or shutting off the engine removes thrust from the jet pump, resulting in a loss of directional control.
Because a common reaction to a pending collision is to release the throttle and turn the handlebars, modern PWC incorporate electronic collision-avoidance systems that provide limited thrust in this scenario to initiate the turn a rider intended. Most craft’s response, however, is minimal. Young riders and newcomers to personal watercraft must be taught that precise directional control requires input at the throttle and should practice with an experienced adult before being allowed to take the controls on their own.
Personal watercraft accelerate powerfully and some can reach speeds as high as 65 mph. As a parent, consider taming that power through the use of speed-governing systems available on most modern craft. Depending on the manufacturer, this can be done through the use of a special safety lanyard, ”smart” key or remote, or touchscreen code. Once activated, these systems reduce the craft’s top speed by a considerable margin and, in some cases, soften the acceleration curve. Some models also feature “geofencing,” which allow a parent to designate specific GPS boundaries, and alert the driver with an audible tone should he or she venture beyond those limits.
With a thorough understanding of boating rules and how a personal watercraft operates, the final step before your child takes to the water is to make sure they’re geared up properly. A properly fitted Type III lifejacket is a must. Neoprene shorts or a wetsuit are also highly recommended. Although extremely rare, serious internal injuries can happen to riders, typically passengers, who fall off the saddle and into the powerful thrust exiting the jet pump. Protective eyewear should also be worn, as well as gloves and footwear for both protection and added traction on deck surfaces.
Operator inattention is a leading cause of accidents. In addition to overall awareness, remind new drivers to always look over their shoulder for close or overtaking boat traffic before making a turn. Another good suggestion is to insist solo riding without passengers until the child has proven they’re up to the responsibilities of driving. Remind them to have fun and send them off, trusting that you’ve set both a good example — and your expectations — for them to follow.