Safe Personal Watercraft Operations

United States Coast Guard Division of Boating Safety
PWCs are generally described as boats less than 13 feet in length, powered by jet pumps, where persons stand, kneel or sit on — not in — the boats. PWCs have been among the fastest growing segments of the boating community over the past few decades. Powerful and highly maneuverable, PWCs are great fun — but they are high-performance boats, not toys. Because PWC operators often are younger and less experienced, PWCs are unfortunately involved in a high percentage of reportable boating accidents.

As with any type of boating, PWC safety starts with knowing your vessel, learning how to operate it properly and understanding the rules of the road. The best way to learn is by taking a course. PWC boating safety resources include:

The National Association of State Boating Law Administrators ( provides a database of boating safety courses nationwide.

The PWC Safety School (pwcsafety offers an online course for several states, developed in cooperation with NASBLA.

The Coast Guard Auxiliary ( sponsors a basic PWC safety course that can be taken in conjunction with other boating safety courses.

The Personal Watercraft Industry Association ( offers excellent resources that promote safe PWC operation.

By law, a PWC must be registered and display its identification number. The PWC operator and all passengers must wear U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets. Other required safety equipment includes an appropriate fire extinguisher, a daytime distress signal for inland waterways and a sound-producing device, such as a whistle or a horn.

PWC manufacturers recommend that all passengers wear wetsuits or wetsuit bottoms; it’s also smart to wear eye protection, gloves, booties or boat shoes, and helmets. Recommended equipment includes a basic first aid kit, water and snacks, sun protection, a current chart for the area, an anchor and tow line, an extra engine cut-off lanyard, a portable marine VHF radio and a tool kit for simple repairs.

Before going out on the water, make sure you understand the regulations in your state and locality. Age requirements for operators and passengers vary by state, and some jurisdictions require a certificate of Personal Watercraft Operations. There may also be local regulations pertaining to speed and hours and areas of operation. And, of course, file a float plan with a close friend or family member every time you go out.

The U.S. Coast Guard offers these tips for safe operation of a PWC:
– Get plenty of practice in calm, uncrowded waters.

– Learn how your PWC maneuvers when the throttle is off. Some newer models have technology that assists in turning when you’re not throttling — but the PWC responds differently than with the throttle on. On older models, you lose steering when you’re not throttling.

– Maintain safe speeds. PWCs can reach speeds of 65-70 mph, which is frequently way too fast for water, weather or boat traffic conditions. Even if the PWC is equipped with a braking system, there can be a substantial stopping distance. Be aware that quick turns at high speeds can result in the operator and passengers ending up in the water.

– Know and follow local regulations regarding speed limits, whether posted or not. In congested areas, lower your speed; avoid operating near swimmers, divers, anglers and canoeists.

– Don’t jump other boats’ wakes. It’s extremely dangerous and usually illegal.

– Scan constantly, operate defensively and avoid aggressive maneuvers.

– Be prepared to maneuver out of the way. Remember that other boats don’t have brakes — and larger vessels cannot stop quickly.

– Never apply the throttle when anyone is at the rear of the PWC. Hair, loose clothing or life jacket straps can get in entangled in moving parts, and forceful water or debris from the jet can cause injury.

– Be aware of blind spots. Don’t pass too quickly behind another boat, as that boat can block your view of oncoming boats — and their view of you. Because PWCs are both small and fast, they are often hard for larger boats to see.

– Realize that fatigue can affect a PWC operator quickly; it’s common to become tired and experience soreness in the back, knees and elbows after about 6 miles. Plan your outing accordingly, and take frequent breaks. The operator and passengers should drink water, juice or noncaffeinated soft drinks to stay hydrated.

– Don’t operate or ride on a PWC under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

– Don’t tow a skier with a PWC designed for less than three persons. Ensure that an adult spotter is watching the skier at all times. Check whether your state requires rear-view mirrors when towing an individual.

– Plan your trips to get back to shore well before sunset. PWCs are designed for daytime use, and most states ban their use at night (and often one half-hour before sunrise and sunset).

– Never exceed the PWC’s passenger capacity, and don’t allow a passenger to ride in front of the operator.

– Practice reboarding before you go out on the water — it can be surprisingly hard. You may want to consider getting a PWC boarding ladder.

– Avoid running out of fuel. Allow 1/3 of the tank to go out, 1/3 of the tank to return and 1/3 as reserve (not counting your reserve tank).

– Don’t let an untrained or inexperienced operator borrow or use your PWC.

True or False: A personal watercraft is not a boat and therefore isn’t subject to boating laws and regulations.

False. A PWC is a vessel, subject to the same federal laws that govern a motorboat in this class. Many states and localities have additional, specific laws relating to PWCs.


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