Whoa, Cowboy! 8 Tips for Avoiding PWC Accidents

26 February 2009 By Tim Hughes, director, Blueprint Watersports

If you have personal watercrafts (like a Jet Skis, WaveRunners or Sea Doos) on board your yacht for your guests, there are undoubtedly times when you wish you didn’t. And chances are you know when a guest is going to have an accident long before they do.

Most large yachts have PWCs and as long as guests demand them, yachts will continue to carry them. Even standard, unmodified PWCs can reach speeds in excess of 70 miles per hour (61 knots) almost instantly with no skill requirement whatsoever.

You might be thinking, “Do accidents really happen or is it just urban myth?” Sadly, despite low levels of accident reporting in the public domain, PWC accidents are frequent. U.S. statistics show that PWCs account for 19 percent of watercraft sales, but 45 percent of injuries that take place in the water. In recent years, PWC deaths have occurred all over the world and are not linked by location, sea state, age of the operator, quality of the equipment, nationality or alcohol. They are linked by two things: speed and lack of experience.

Obviously, it’s difficult to tell your charter guest that you think he or she acts like a "cowboy" and shouldn't be allowed to use the PWC. So how can you prevent accidents from happening?

The first solution is training. Most accidents occur with inexperienced pilots, often on their first outing. A simple, one-hour lesson will tell you whether or not your guest is capable of using a PWC. The best news is that they might actually learn something and enjoy the PWC even more after the session.

Speed is the other concern. You don’t really need a 70-mph PWC. A less powerful unit will look the same and only experienced riders will know the difference.

Many modern PWCs also have chipped keys that govern the engine to different limits in order to start riders off at a low power setting. A cruising speed of around 34 miles per hour (30 knots) is more than fast enough and will give guests the thrill they seek. And you don’t have to tell them that the engine is governed. Many people refer to the lower-rated key as the “learner key”. Of course, the moment a guest hears that, he will insist on the fastest setting available as a matter of principle!

Supervision is also really important. Guests should be supervised by line of sight at all times and early intervention is far better than picking up the pieces when it’s too late. Management controls are now widely available and a PWC can be shut down to tick over speed remotely. OK, that might not be so good for the crew tip, but at least you will still have a live guest.

Tips for Preventing PWC Prangs:

1. Training is everything – insist guests take a short training course for all PWC users. Write it into the ship’s operating procedures and stand firm. Get the support of the owner and management company, and advise guests that this will be happening in advance of their arrival so there are no false expectations.

2. Speed kills – Don’t carry high-powered PWCs and/or use governed power settings.

3. Have the stews serve the guests the fancy drinks with umbrellas after the watersports activities, not before.

4. Supervise guests at all times and don’t wait for something to go wrong if you're unhappy with their performance.

5. Risk assess your area of operation and set geographic limits for riders. What is there to hit, where are the dangers, who else is using the area and are your guests aware? If they go too far, you’ll never catch them in the tender, so stay in control.

6. Insist on the right protective clothing – eye protection obviously improves visibility, reducing the chance of a collision, and Impact Vests can make a real difference in the event of an awkward fall.

7. Check that guests understand – you may have delivered a first-class safety brief but does the guest speak your language or were they even listening?

8. Have a well-rehearsed emergency action plan. If the worst does happen, how will you deal with it? Is your first-aid training and equipment up to date for collision-induced injuries? Does everyone in the crew know what to do and how to get help?

Due to legislation in some countries, the British Royal Yachting Association (RYA) introduced a PWC scheme for superyachts in 1997. A yacht can now become a recognized RYA Teaching Centre in its own right and issue certification to guests that is valid for the duration of their charter. This is a great program and gives yachts the perfect excuse to insist on training for all PWC users, which undoubtedly will lead to fewer accidents.

Tim Hughes is a director of Blueprint Watersports Limited, based in Cowes, U.K.

Blueprint provides training and consultancy to the marine industry and specializes in assisting superyachts seeking to become RYA Recognised Teaching Centres for the PWC scheme. For more information, visit