PWC Safety: 4 Issues You Need to Know

8 August 2017 By Hillary Hoffower

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

According to the U.S.’s National Transportation SafetyBoard, most accidents are associated with rental operators, underage operators,undertrained and undereducated boaters, and a variety of other factors associatedwith 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 oneyourself — keep these key problem areas in mind.

Unequal Balance

According to Mark Fry, founder and managing director ofInternational Yacht Training (IYT), which offers yacht training, maritimecertification, and safety training, including a PWC course, the problem todayis that the power-to-weight ratio of the modern PWC is far higher than it usedto 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 thisis what’s happening with PWCs,” he says.

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

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

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

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


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

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

To prevent this, he recommends setting an exclusion zone orno wake zone around the mother yacht, as it will cause a huge blind area wherethe rider can’t see what’s happening on the other side — especially true whenguests try to perform a “fly-by” to impress fellow guests.

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

Lack of Activity

Hughes points out that accidents are most likely to happenwhen PWC users don’t have a focus on doing something specific — a high-poweredPWC and blank canvas of water are likely to entice a rider to initially driveflat out in a straight line and try to spray other people with their wake, bothlikely 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, highlylikely 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. “Coachthem 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 torace side by side.”

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

And remember, slow is pro. “Anyone can drive a PWC in astraight 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 havesuitable fendering. It’s a great skill to have and it makes pilots much moreaware of how to control a PWC properly.”

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

Training andProcedures

“The most important thing for the captain, who might nothave the luxury of telling the owner that he doesn’t want to carry PWCs, is tohave 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 inboth personal use of the equipment and in how to teach others. The firstpriority? Keeping the activity safe. Second priority? The ability to show duediligence and evidence of the fact that you’ve done all you can reasonably doto avoid accidents.

“Have a clear safety brief and ensure that people stick tothe rules. If a guest gets away with one thing, then it’s hard to keepcontrol,” he says. “Challenging guests are, of course, an issue but in theevent 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, commonsense must prevail.”