Personal Watercraft (PWC) Safety Guide

personal watercraft pwc safety

Personal watercrafts (PWCs), also commonly referred to as their brand names like Jet Ski, WaveRunner or Sea-Doo, have evolved from unique, niche vehicles to one of the most popular categories of boats currently on the water. But while the fun factor is high, and cost and hassles comparatively low, PWC should never be dismissed as a big kid’s toy. Their unique design, propulsion, and maneuverability demand that operators both understand and respect the craft’s abilities.

Here’s how to have a fun—and safe—PWC experience.jet ski safety guide

Before You Ride

  • Familiarize yourself with the owners’ manual and all safety warnings, paying particular attention to the operation of the jet jump.
  • PWC manufacturers recommend neoprene shorts or wetsuits to protect lower-body openings from impact with the water during a high-speed fall or the powerful thrust produced by the pump.
  • Never attempt to board when the engine is running, and keep loose clothing and long hair clear of the pump intake.
  • As with any type of boating, thoroughly understand boating laws and the rules of the road. Many states impose stricter age restrictions on personal watercraft use. Check local boating laws for the specifics in your area.
  • Different size PWC have different passenger and weight capacities; exceeding either could negatively affect the handling of the craft.
  • Familiarize yourself with the handlebar steering, throttle control and safety lanyard. Never operate a PWC without the safety lanyard attached to both craft and driver’s wrist or life jacket. Remove the lanyard whenever the craft is unattended to prevent unauthorized use.
  • Driver and passengers should always wear a Coast Guard-approved life jacket.
  • Eyewear will block the force of wind and water spray that could impair vision.
  • Gloves and footwear offer welcome additional grip and traction.
  • Wetsuits or windbreaker-style jacket/pant combos are advisable for cooler weather because PWC riders are far more exposed to the elements than the typical boater.

Familiarizing Yourself with Your Personal Watercraft

Take time to familiarize yourself with a PWC’s unique handling. Choose a quiet area and practice using the throttle, carving through turns, and coming to a stop. If equipped, put the craft into reverse and note how it steers when backing.

Understand that throttle is required to make a turn. Rather than a rudder, personal watercraft use directed thrust produced by the jet pump to steer. If you stop that thrust by releasing the throttle or stopping the engine, the driver will lose directional control over the craft. Because releasing the throttle and turning the handlebars fully to one side is a common reaction in a collision-avoidance situation, manufacturers long ago addressed this scenario by having craft automatically apply a small amount of thrust should the driver perform those actions. That minimal amount of thrust is enough to initiate a turn in the direction the driver intended and possibly avoid an obstacle, but manual throttle input is essential for true directional control.

safely operating a pwc or jet ski

Like any boat, a PWC will not rapidly slow but rather will coast to a gradual stop when the throttle is released. In the case of a fast-moving PWC, that distance can be 250 feet or more. Many newer models provide stopping power by electronically linking the reverse bucket to a handlebar-mounted control lever. Applying the lever at higher speeds drops that bucket partially into the flow of water exiting the craft’s jet pump, redirecting thrust forward and to the sides to rapidly slow forward motion.

Safely Riding Your PWC, Jet Ski, WaveRunner or Sea-Doo

  • Pay close attention to nearby boat traffic, remembering that other boaters might not be prepared for a PWC’s quick response and short turning radius.
  • Before initiating a turn, look to both sides, as well as behind, to make sure no boats are overtaking your craft.
  • Always give other boaters ample space, as well as stay a safe distance from shore.
  • Never follow directly behind another watercraft, jump boat wakes, or attempt to spray other boaters, swimmers or beachgoers. Falls can and will happen, especially during the learning process. Should you start to fall, don’t be tempted to hang on. It’s safer to get clear of the watercraft. Re-board only with the engine off, with the driver boarding first and then passengers.
  • In the event the craft flips, look for a sticker on the stern detailing the proper way to flip the craft upright to avoid engine damage.
  • Though a PWC might be able to operate in shallow conditions, avoid environmentally sensitive areas. While PWC might not have any rudder or propeller extending below the hull bottom, the extreme pressure of water exiting the jet pump can still do damage in shallow conditions. Riding in shallow waters can also cause damage to your craft because the suction of the pump can draw in sand, rocks and other debris in waters less than 3 feet deep.

Finally, never operate a personal watercraft at night. Not only are personal watercraft not equipped with navigation lights, their unique design exposes riders to a greater chance of falling off the craft, a situation that could be dangerous in low visibility.

PWC safety guide


Required Safety Equipment for a PWC

  • A life jacket for each operating passenger, and person being towed
  • A Coast Guard-approved B-1 fire extinguisher
  • An approved sound-signaling device such as a whistle or horn
  • An emergency engine cutoff lanyard attached to the operator
  • Proper display of registration numbers, letters and validation decals
  • Vessel registration, to be displayed when requested 
  • A functioning backfire flame arrestor and passive ventilation system

Recommended Safety Equipment

  • Hand-held VHF radio, and a cell phone as a backup
  • A basic first-aid kit, sunscreen, and burn cream
  • A dewatering device such as a hand operated bilge pump 
  • An anchor and enough anchor line for your area
  • If pulling a skier or other tow-sport participant, a skier-down flag, ano server over a certain age, and rear–view mirrors may also be required. Even if they’re not required, they’re good to have.
  • And finally, when operating on inland waters, it’s recommended you have a suitable, daytime distress signal such as flares, an orange flag, or signal mirror.

Read Next: Boating Safety Guide

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Editor's Note: This article was originally published in May 2017 and updated in October 2019. Content collaboration with author, Jeff Hemmel, and some content provided by BoatUS.


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