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
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.
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
“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
“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
“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.”