Obeying Laws And Staying Safe In A Personal Watercraft

May 18, 2016

A personal watercraft is about 10 feet in length and although this may seem small, a PWC comes with a large amount of responsibility. This small vessel has the horsepower of a large engine and the acceleration capabilities of a motorcycle. It is not a toy and should never be treated as such because the United States Coast Guard classifies PWCs as Class A vessels. This means that the same operation and safety equipment laws for boats under 16 feet in length also apply to PWCs. In most states, there are education and operation requirements for drivers of Class A vessels. Anyone who buys a PWC should be aware of these and comply before heading out into the water. These are some important tips to remember to avoid any problems.

PWC Required Equipment

  • A B-1 fire extinguisher approved by the Coast Guard
  • One life jacket for each person on the vessel
  • Registration numbers that are properly displayed
  • Validation decals that are clearly displayed
  • A whistle, horn or other sound signal
  • A backfire flame arrestor and ventilation system that both work well
  • The vessel's registration documents
  • A lanyard attached to the operator for emergency engine cutoff


Safety Equipment Recommendations

  • A first-aid kit, burn cream and sunscreen
  • A small VHF radio
  • A cell phone as a backup for the radio
  • A bilge pump or hand-operated dewatering device
  • For skiers, a skier-down flag, rear-view mirrors and other required accessories
  • An anchor with enough line to use it properly
  • A daytime distress signal for operation on inland waters

Although not all of these items may be required, they are useful to have anyway. For distress signals, orange flags, large signal mirrors or flares are suitable.
Following The Rules Preserves Fun

The quickest way to put a damper on the fun is to get in trouble for breaking laws. In many states, the laws for operating PWCs are stricter than the requirements for operators of recreational vessels. For PWCs, the minimum operating age is 16. However, this may not be the case in every state. Always check individual state laws before allowing a teenager to operate a PWC. When loaning out a watercraft, make sure that the person borrowing the PWC knows the applicable laws and will observe them when operating it. The owner of a PWC is responsible for it and for its misuse. For state operation requirements, BoatUS.org provides more resources. Simply click on the applicable state to see updated requirements. 

Follow these rules to ensure safety:

  • Take a boating safety course
  • Wear a PWC life jacket
  • Read all applicable laws
  • Do not carry more than the recommended number of passengers
  • Do not drink before using a PWC
  • Memorize navigation signs and marks
  • Take steps to avoid collisions by watching the water carefully
  • Respect ecological sanctuaries
  • Check the PWC's functionality before using it
  • Always yield to larger vessels
  • Keep clear when passing other vessels
  • Steer to the right when meeting vessels head-on
  • When approaching another vessel traveling in the same direction, the vessel on the right must alter its speed to pass

When unsure about the rules of the water, it is best to reduce speed and drive defensively. A boating safety course will help PWC owners learn, practice and remember important information. This information can save PWC owners from serious trouble by keeping them from inadvertently breaking operating laws. To learn more about PWC safety, discuss concerns with an agent.

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