Taking their children on a first boat ride is a rite of passage for many parents. Modern personal watercraft especially can give a child a unique perspective on boating and introduce them to a life-long love of the water. Without a cockpit to obscure the view, a personal watercraft allows children see and experience their surroundings from a very personal point of view. Like any aspect of parenting (or boating for that matter), introducing your kids to PWC just takes a little preparation, planning, and best practices. Here are some pointers on how — and when — to make it a reality.
The lack of a cockpit in a PWC offers a great view, but it also affects the security of the driver and passengers. Rather than riding on Mom or Dad’s lap in a seat, PWC occupants share a single saddle. The trademark handling and response of a PWC also greatly affect the experience for children. Modern PWC provide exceptional stability and sculpted saddles that cradle riders and keep them in place, but parents accustomed to carving spray-flinging turns and speeding across the water should explore the tamer cruising side of their craft’s personality with a child on board.
While many parents are eager to share their passion for personal watercraft with their children, be realistic about any type of boating with small ones. The U.S. Coast Guard recommends kids stay on shore until they weigh at least 18 pounds (roughly one year of age), however common sense suggests that guideline is more applicable to cockpit boats. A personal watercraft’s open design makes it even more difficult to small children secure and increases the chances of a squirmy passenger going overboard. For very small children, consider delaying the first ride until you feel that both your child — and you as parents — are ready.
No matter their size or age, all passengers must wear a properly fitted personal flotation device (PFD). Unlike adult styles, children’s PFDs are sized by weight. Look for the information printed clearly on the inside of the life jacket. Child size jackets range from 30-50 pounds; Youth PFDs range from 50-90 pounds.
For children under 50 pounds, a Type II PFD with a floatation pillow behind the head is best. This will help float the child on their back, face-up in the water, and offer support for head and neck. Most feature a handle sewn into the top of that pillow to easily pull a child out of the water. A crotch strap ensures the vest can’t slip over the child’s head.
Before use, always test the fit. Secure all buckles, snug up the straps and have the child raise their arms over their heads, then attempt to lift the jacket upwards at the shoulders. A properly sized vest will rise no more than a few inches and stay secure. If the jacket rises higher, or slips over the child’s head, it’s too large and could easily slip off in the water.
Don’t wait until the first ride to get your child accustomed to a PFD. Let them wear it on shore or in shallow water with an adult to get used to the feel. When the child is ready to ride, make it a practice to always put on their PFD before they venture down the dock or to the beach.
Your first ride will set the tone for those to follow. Though it’s tempting to let a child “enjoy the view,” avoid placing them at the front of the saddle. Slowing abruptly or bouncing over a wave could cause their head or torso to impact the handlebars. Instead, position your child between adult passengers. Start slow, staying closer to shore and keeping turns gentle. As your child grows more accustomed to being aboard, gradually increase the thrill of the ride as their comfort level dictates. Never perform any maneuvers that could cause the child to slip off the saddle or be thrown from the craft. Besides the obvious risk of injury, a bad experience can sour them on riding for months or even years to come.
The driver should focus on providing a safe ride by concentrating on the water, potential obstacles and other boat traffic. The passenger should focus on the child, making sure they are secure and enjoying the experience. Make sure every adult on board has prepared for and even practiced their response should a child fall off the craft. Assuming you’re going slow and the child is close, the passenger should alert the driver to immediately stop the craft and stay aboard, watching for boat traffic. The passenger should make certain it’s safe to enter the water and then swim to the child, keeping their head above water to always keep the child in view. In the event the child is farther away, don’t panic. Again, the passenger should keep the child in constant sight. The driver should quickly slow the craft, turn around and head at a low-wake speed back to the child, following the passenger’s directional guidance. Though a PWC’s enclosed jet pump is less dangerous than a propeller in the water, always shut down the engine before pulling alongside or attempting to get a child back aboard.
Like any outing with a child, preparation is key, not only to keeping them comfortable and safe, but also ensuring the experience is fun for all involved. Plan ahead, keep things slow and calm and allow your child to experience the thrill of being out on the water, just like Mom and Dad.