Operating your personal watercraft
Did you know that personal watercraft are recreational boats—just like your express cruiser, trawler or sailboat? As mechanically propelled vessels, they must follow the same navigation rules as other boats.
According to the U.S. Coast Guard’s 2019 Recreational Boating Statistics, personal watercraft are involved in 19 percent of reported boating accidents.
Like many cruising boats, PWCs typically have deep-V hulls. However, unlike propeller-driven vessels, personal watercraft have a water jet propulsion system. Without rudders, props, and struts to provide directional control or drag when slowing, a personal watercraft that loses power also loses nearly all steering and braking ability.
When a hazard suddenly appears, boaters instinctively back off on the throttle. Unfortunately, a PWC will continue in a straight path for some distance before stopping. This factor contributes to the disproportionately high accident rate of personal watercraft.
To improve the safety of PWCs, the industry responded by introducing off-throttle steering systems. Although they vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, these systems provide operators with some steering, even when not applying power.
To further improve safety, Sea-Doo introduced a braking system that uses a special propulsion nozzle to redirect some of the thrust forward to slow the vessel. In tests, watercaft with the system stopped in half the distance as those without it. Yamaha followed suit with its braking system.
The next time PWCs begin following in your wake, keep in mind that most can only be steered when under power, and few will be able to stop in a reasonable distance.
Personal watercraft are different from other boats. With their open, sit-on design, they are designed to run on plane, making them awkward at slow speeds, and are propelled by an internal water-jet that sucks water through a grate under the PWC and expels it under high pressure toward the rear, pushing the craft forward. They typically expel a small stream of water (which could be water that was used to cool the engine) straight upward to aid others in seeing the PWC.
How to operate your PWC safely
Personal watercraft operators must be alert and vigilant when operating a craft that goes so fast and responds so quickly. On a personal watercraft with no braking system, you must allow adequate distance to make a safe stop. The quickest way to stop may be to turn the PWC in a tight 180-degree arc under power.
You should expect to fall off your PWC. However, if you follow the manufacturer’s safety guidelines, your fall need not be dangerous as personal watercraft lack injury-causing rudders and propellers. If you fall, push yourself away from the personal watercraft.
Today, most PWCs come equipped with a lanyard cut-off switch that stops the engine when the operator falls off. You attach the lanyard to your wrist or life jacket and insert the other end into the cut-off switch plug. When you fall off, the cord pulls out of the cut-off plug, turning off the PWC. Then you can swim to the craft and reboard.
Don’t assume that all personal watercraft operators know the rules of the road. Practice the general rule of responsibility that requires you to depart from the rules as needed to avoid an accident. –Pat Lemagie
Operating your PWC
Gain valuable skills to help you operate your personal watercraft like a pro so you can focus on having fun.