A 40-meter yacht on charter dropped anchor in St. Angelo Bay in Ischia, and the deck team got to work preparing the water toys for their guests. Their toy box had gotten a bit fuller recently as they had acquired a new set of powered surfboards. This would be only the third time they had been used.
The crew briefed the guests in their operation and gave an in-water demonstration. Donning high-impact watersports jackets, the guests waited their turn. With the deckhand’s assistance, the first guest learned to control the board, and when she felt confident, the deckhand turned his attention to the next one waiting. The crew were attentive: the captain stood by in the tender, and the chief mate watched from the swim platform.
After some time on the board, the first guest fell off, gripping the board’s control handle as she went down. The board spun around and hit her in the head. The captain witnessed this from the tender and rushed to her aid. Helped out of the water by the deckhand, the guest was confused and bleeding from the head. On the way to the master stateroom, she had a seizure. The yacht quickly weighed anchor and, directed by Naples Radio, headed to Ischia, where an ambulance waited to take the guest to the hospital. She suffered a compound fracture to the skull, a hairline fracture on one of the neck vertebrae, and a deep laceration near the left ear.
“There are a plethora of new and more extreme water toys on the market every few months. They seem to be developed and brought to market faster than experience of use can help to develop what all of the safety concerns might be...”
This was an actual incident that happened five years ago. At the time, the yacht was registered as a commercial yacht under the Malta flag. The accident report issued by Malta’s Marine Safety Investigation Unit (MSIU) determined that the cause was the guest holding onto the control handle as she fell. Although she had been briefed that she needed to release the handle in order to disengage the ignition key and shut down the engine following a fall, the investigators found that the instructions for an inexperienced rider were counterintuitive — that gripping the handle was “a spontaneous reaction not to lose control of the surfboard.”
The safety investigation report concluded that improvement was needed in both training surfboard operators and in the system’s inherent safety design. It also recommended that the yacht, “consult with the manufacturers to reduce the maximum speed limit, considering the potentially limited experience and lack of skills which the operators maybe have.”
Regardless of the guest’s failure to stop the engines as she went down, her injuries would arguably have been minimal or nonexistent had she been wearing a helmet. Interestingly, the accident happened in Italian waters where PWC operators must wear a helmet. But what exactly is a PWC?
When someone says “PWC,” you tend to think of Jet Skis and WaveRunners. Tim Hughes, director of Bristol Maritime Academy, which delivers the RYA’s PWC instructors training to superyacht crew, says that the RYA does not consider a powered surfboard a PWC. But under the legal definition in many jurisdictions, it does qualify. In Italy, legislative decree No. 171 defines a moto d’acqua as “any pleasure craft with a hull length of less than four meters, which uses a propulsion engine with a water jet pump as its primary source of propulsion and is intended to be powered by one or more people sitting, standing, or kneeling on the hull, rather than inside it.”
Says Hughes: “There are a plethora of new and more extreme water toys on the market every few months. They seem to be developed and brought to market faster than experience of use can help to develop what all of the safety concerns might be,” he says. “And it’s very difficult to categorize all of the toys as they are all so different — motorized, petrol, electric, planing, foiling, jet-powered, submerging, etc.” The surfboards in question had a two-stroke internal combustion engine, powering a water-jet pump for propulsion. They weighed 17 kilograms and could go up to 30 knots.
The MSIU found that the board’s manufacturer, JetSurf, put out conflicting messages regarding helmet use. The checklist that came with the boards, “highly recommended” the use of a helmet. The yacht had not been given user manuals, despite the captain’s attempts to acquire them. Had he been successful, he would have seen that it stated helmets were “compulsory.” Yet JetSurf’s website, like other powered surfboard brands, shows pictures of riders both with and without helmets.
Even if a manufacturer deems helmets mandatory, “this is maybe wishful thinking unless there are laws and enforcement in place — which there aren’t,” says Hughes. “All they can do is highly recommend the wearing of a helmet. If they do that and make it clear, then it becomes the rider’s responsibility. On a superyacht where the board is one of the toys, then you can argue that the responsibility moves to that of the captain.
“It’s so important that captains carefully assess the risks of each piece of equipment and to the best of their ability, create simple operating guidelines for their safe use. This won’t eradicate accidents but can help to avoid them, help to mitigate likely injury, and help to keep crew on alert and ready to intervene if things get out of hand, or even deal with an injury,” says Hughes. “Simple example — foiling surfboard — risk of foil impacting on limbs or head. Mitigate by requiring guests to wear a full-length wetsuit and helmet, plus buoyancy aid. Also, having crew trained to use the toys will give them the ability to teach others more safely and to be aware of when and how things might go wrong.”
This column originally ran in the October 2020 issue of Dockwalk.