Introduction to Personal Watercrafts

There are various sizes available for jet-propelled watercraft, but the PWC is the most popular for recreational boaters. 

What Is a Personal Watercraft (PWC)?

Generally, a personal watercraft (or PWC) is a small boat where the operator sits, stands, or kneels rather than being inside (as is the case with an ordinary boat). Similarly to jet-propelled boats, a PWC uses inboard jet drives for its primary propulsion system. The easiest way to recognize a PWC is to think of its most popular brands, the Jet Ski and the Sea-Doo. 

Due to the popularity of PWCs in US waters, specific laws and regulations are needed to ensure PWC safety and operation. The recreational boating community often shares the same waterways as PWC operators, and sometimes recreational boaters are also operators of PWCs. As a result, boaters and PWC operators need to be knowledgeable about the characteristics of their watercraft to ensure their safety. 

Practices for Safe Boating With Personal Watercraft

The safe and proper handling of a PWC requires practice, just like that of other types of boats. For the new operators, it would be wise to spend one-on-one time with an experienced one to hone their skills, gain knowledge, and develop confidence in managing a PWC. This knowledge should not only be limited to skills but should also include appropriate decision-making to ensure everyone’s safety.  

As a PWC operator, you must refrain from doing the following things to ensure everyone’s safety: 

  • Neglect safety when operating a PWC
  • Operating a PWC before sunrise or at night
  • Operating a PWC and speeding up near swimmers 
  • Operating with an inadequate distance between a PWC and another vessel
  • Operating a PWC in close proximity to a person or vessel
  • Driving a PWC under the influence of alcohol or drugs 

State and local laws govern many of the provisions outlined above. To operate their PWCs legally, operators must know what is and is not legal. 

What Are The Operational Characteristics of a PWC?

PWC operation differs significantly from that of other types of boats. Each is highly maneuverable and built for quick, sharp turns or rapid acceleration. Despite these characteristics, each PWC model has distinct functions that every operator must completely understand. 

Among the general components of PWC are:

  • Hull: the body of the watercraft
  • Throttle: controls the speed and comes with attached handlebars 
  • Deck: the flat surfaces of the vessel, including compartment covers, seats, and footwells
  • Power or “Kill” Switch: used to turn on/off the PWC with an attached safety lanyard 

Operational Requirements for PWC

chart of anatomy of a red jet ski

A PWC is considered to be a type “A” Motorcraft and, therefore, must adhere to the following requirements of the US Coast Guard:

  •  A marine-rated fire extinguisher and other emergency signaling devices must be installed on each PWC.
  • Each PWC must be registered per state regulations and have its registration number displayed. For specific restrictions, operators must adhere to the guidelines provided by the state. 
  • Both the driver and the passenger must wear personal flotation devices. The US Coast Guard requires that PFDs be approved, worn at all times, and of an appropriate size. 
  • Operators should adhere to the manufacturer’s specified capacity limits for people and equipment. A capacity plate is attached to each PWC, indicating how much can be carried. Detailed information can be found in the operating manual. 
  • State requirements may vary, but boating education courses are required before PWC operation. 

A PWC is highly maneuverable due to the jet drive propulsion system, which is highly responsive to even the slightest steering turns. As a result, PWC operators often attempt dangerous maneuvers beyond their boats’ capability to handle them safely. There is a risk of falling overboard due to these risky attempts. Even safe maneuvers can result in a fall overboard due to some uncontrollable contributing factors (like strong winds or waves).  

As a result, PWC operators must be able to reboard their watercraft from the water. For a successful attempt, it is best to begin from the rear, or stern, of the watercraft. Reboarding devices are one of the best solutions to help the person get into the PWC from the water. These include a built-in transom ladder, lifting harness, and swim platforms.

personal watercraft

When the operator is thrown from the watercraft, most PWCs have installed a lanyard-mounted cut-off switch. The switch automatically shuts off the engine if the operator falls overboard. 

Additionally, PWCs come with an automatic idle and self-circling device that controls the speed of the PWC by making it circle slowly in the area if the operator falls off.

Preventing PWC Accidents

Studies have shown that striking an object is the leading cause of PWC accidents. It is crucial to remain vigilant and keep a proper lookout if boaters operate in a congested area. Slowing down and being aware of what is around or if another vessel is approaching is the best way to prevent such accidents.

PWC are small and easily maneuverable, so boat operators must learn to give the right way to other bigger boats. Due to their smaller size, larger boats overlook what is around them and may not notice a PWC.

As with operating any other vehicle, boaters must maintain a safe speed and distance from other boats. Lastly, operators must be confident in their knowledge and skills in managing a PWC for everyone’s safety.



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