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PWC Safety: 4 Issues You Need to Know

Aug 8th 17
By Hillary Hoffower


There’s no denying that a personal watercraft (PWC) is one of the more exhilarating toys you can take out on the water. But with this fun and excitement also comes risk — PWCs are more than just toys; they’re powerful machines that can be dangerous if not operated safely, responsibly, and cautiously.   


According to the U.S.’s National Transportation Safety Board, most accidents are associated with rental operators, underage operators, undertrained and undereducated boaters, and a variety of other factors associated with recreational-boating accidents, such as excessive speed, inattention, reckless operation, and alcohol consumption. 


Before you send a guest off on a PWC — or hop on one yourself — keep these key problem areas in mind. 


Unequal Balance 

According to Mark Fry, founder and managing director of International Yacht Training (IYT), which offers yacht training, maritime certification, and safety training, including a PWC course, the problem today is that the power-to-weight ratio of the modern PWC is far higher than it used to be. 


“You would never give the keys of a 1,000cc or 1,500cc, 155-hp motorcycle to someone who had never ridden a motorcycle before, yet this is what’s happening with PWCs,” he says.  


For example, he explains that the Sea DOO GTI 155 is capable of speeds in excess of 80 miles per hour without requiring a helmet or safety gear other than a buoyancy aid and a quick operator’s course. Fry believes that for the average teenager or small woman who weighs about 110–130 lbs., this is an incredible amount of power — and an accident waiting to happen. “An out of control PWC is a seven-hundred pound missile, which can do an enormous amount of damage in the wrong hands,” he says. 


With this horsepower in mind, it’s important to be extra cautious with inexperienced operators. Fry believes superyachts should carry at least one PWC with very restricted horsepower, specifically for teenagers who have very little experience and/or people who do not reach a certain weight or height limitation.  


“Most European countries do not allow beginners to own a motorcycle for the first year that is in excess of 250ccs,” he says. “I believe that the same type of restrictions should apply to PWCs until such time as operators have acclimated themselves with the power and performance of their machines and demonstrated competence in their operation.” 


You should also start out guests who are new to PWCs slowly to build skill and confidence, advises Tim Hughes, RYA personal watercraft and powerboat trainer and examiner and director of Bristol Maritime Academy, an RYA recognized training center that offers a range of PWC courses and provides onboard services for superyachts who wish to become an RYA recognized training center under the PWC scheme. 



“Serious accidents are rare, but should they occur, they are likely to be caused by a PWC driving into the side of a yacht, or from a collision with another PWC,” says Hughes. 


A modern PWC can go from 0-70 miles per hour in a few seconds, and it doesn’t take a lot of skill to make this happen; if the rider is unprepared for this, there is a tendency to grip the handlebars harder, thus holding the accelerator fully open. “This rider freeze is the usual cause of accidents where a PWC hits the side of a larger vessel, most likely the yacht that it has just been launched from,” explains Hughes. 


To prevent this, he recommends setting an exclusion zone or no wake zone around the mother yacht, as it will cause a huge blind area where the rider can’t see what’s happening on the other side — especially true when guests try to perform a “fly-by” to impress fellow guests. 


Also, don’t allow PWCs to be driven at planing speed on a collision course with another vessel. Hughes advises training people to return to an imaginary point, or soft buoy, a safe distance from the back of the yacht, and then approaching from there at a slow speed. 


Lack of Activity 

Hughes points out that accidents are most likely to happen when PWC users don’t have a focus on doing something specific — a high-powered PWC and blank canvas of water are likely to entice a rider to initially drive flat out in a straight line and try to spray other people with their wake, both likely to end badly.  


He explains that when someone heads off in a straight line, it’ll be a long way before they think about turning around, and when they do, they are likely to turn in quickly, panic, and slow down mid-turn, highly likely to result in a swim.  


To combat this, he recommends giving guests something to do. Anchor or weight inflatable marks and set up a slalom course for riders. “Coach them to improve their cornering technique and challenge them with time trials,” he says. “Always do time trials with one PWC at a time — never allow them to race side by side.” 


You can also time riders on a triangle or box course while ensuring each PWC maintains a clear side of the course to keep them apart. 


And remember, slow is pro. “Anyone can drive a PWC in a straight line but it takes skill to bring one alongside perfectly,” says Hughes. “Start by coming alongside a buoy and then a tender, or the yacht if you have suitable fendering. It’s a great skill to have and it makes pilots much more aware of how to control a PWC properly.” 


“And of course, always wear the kill cord, no excuses,” he adds. 


Training and Procedures 

“The most important thing for the captain, who might not have the luxury of telling the owner that he doesn’t want to carry PWCs, is to have in place a clear operating procedure for the equipment,” says Hughes. “This should include an assessment of the likely risks and control measures, safety rules, crew training, and guest briefings.” 


He adds that captains should have crewmembers trained in both personal use of the equipment and in how to teach others. The first priority? Keeping the activity safe. Second priority? The ability to show due diligence and evidence of the fact that you’ve done all you can reasonably do to avoid accidents. 


“Have a clear safety brief and ensure that people stick to the rules. If a guest gets away with one thing, then it’s hard to keep control,” he says. “Challenging guests are, of course, an issue but in the event of an accident, if the crew or captain allowed a guest to abuse the rules, then who will be to blame?” 


As Fry puts it, “Education is not the only answer, common sense must prevail.” 



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