A Personal Watercraft (PWC) is a small vessel which is designed to be operated by a person sitting, standing or kneeling on it. The US Coast Guard defines it as an inboard boat and it uses a water jet pump as the primary source of motive power.  

A PWC is not a toy despite the fun that you can have with one. If you operate a PWC, you have the responsibility of knowing and obeying boating regulations and practicing boating safety. Personal watercraft are subject to the same rules and requirements as any other powerboat plus additional requirements specific to PWCs

PWC Regulations

In addition to the general regulations in effect for motorboats PWC owners must also be aware that there are local laws and ordinances around the country that further restrict PWC operations. They include:

  • Age of the operator
  • Hours of operation
  • Special no wake zone provisions
  • Assigned operating areas and restrictions
  • Speed and distance limits. 

Make certain you know the laws that apply to you in your area of operation. For example, some states prohibit wake jumping or require no-wake speed when within 100 feet of the shoreline. Because PWCs are not equipped with navigation lights, operation is prohibited at night and during times of restricted visibility.

Federal Regulations for All Personal Watercraft:

  • be registered and display a registration number in accordance with state and federal guidelines.
  • have properly fitted, CG approved personal flotation devices (life jackets) for each person on board (In most states they are required to be WORN by a PWC operator or passenger.)
  • PFDs should have an impact rating equal to, or better than, the PWC maximum speed
  • have a CG approved, Class B-1 fire extinguisher aboard the PWC
  • have a lanyard connected to the start/stop switch if your PWC is equipped with such a switch. This will stop the engine if the operator falls off.

PWC Safety

Kawasaki Jet Ski
  • Never start your engine without attaching the lanyard to your wrist or PFD. If you fall off, the engine automatically stops running so your craft will not travel a great distance and you can easily swim to it. It will prevent the PWC from running unattended in areas populated by swimmers or other watercraft.
  • The Personal Watercraft Industry Association (PWIA) also recommends that the operator wear eye protection, a wetsuit, footwear, and gloves.

How Your PWC Operates

Jet Drive

PWC operators need to keep in mind that a jet drive requires moving water through the drive nozzle for maneuverability. 

  • You must have power applied in order to maintain steering control
  • If you release the throttle to idle or if the engine shuts off during operation you will lose all steering control. 
  • In either situation, the PWC will continue in the direction it was headed before the throttle was released or the engine was shut-off. Operation of the steering control will have no effect. 
  • If you are approaching a dock, shore, or other vessel at a speed greater than you can control and you release the throttle to idle or shut off the engine, you will have no maneuvering capability and the PWC will continue its forward movement.


Newer PWCs have a reverse mechanism that you can use to slow the forward motion of the vessel. 

  • These PWCs are equipped with cowlings that allow them to operate in reverse. 
  • The reverse cowling is a specially designed diverter that can be lowered over the jet nozzle. 
  • The water jet produced by the jet nozzle hits the reverse cowling and is directed back toward the front of the PWC, thus producing a force that propels the PWC backward. 
  • Although this feature is convenient for low speed operations in close quarters, it can be quite dangerous if used in situations for which it was not designed.
  • Operating in reverse can greatly reduce the ability to steer. Using the reverse feature at other than idle speed can throw the operator forward, and perhaps off, the PWC. 
  • In addition, using reverse at high speed can raise the stern of the PWC, pushing the bow down and under water. If your PWC has this feature you should use it with caution only after you have tested its capabilities and limitations at low speed in open water.

Stability and Steering

Jet Ski vs WaveRunner vs Sea-Doo

PWCs are less stable when idle and gain stability as you gain speed. Think of it like a motorcycle or bicycle that is harder to balance if you’re not moving.

  • The force of the water being propelled under the PWC and out the back adds some support to the hull during movement. 
  • Because typical PWC utilize mechanical steering devices and directional jet nozzles to turn their craft, their center of gravity and pivot point are far forward and this can create an abrupt tail sliding instability problem.
  • Do not exceed the manufacturer’s recommended load capacities

Tips for Operating a PWC


Most PWC accidents occur from running into another object, most often, another PWC. Operating in a crowded our congested area requires special precautions. Look at what other boats around you are doing

  • Always look around and behind you before making a turn.
  • Remember that you must obey all rules of operation as they apply to motorboats.
  • Larger boats may not even be able to see you if you are too close and may not be able to get out of your way in time.


Should you fall off your PWC don’t abandon it. If it has not righted itself, turn it over. Most PWCs carry a label that shows how to do this. If yours does not, check your owner’s manual.

  • Approach the PWC from the stern and pull your self up onto your knees on the boarding platform.
  • From there continue to pull yourself back up on the seat.
  • Be sure to attach the kill switch lanyard to the kill switch and to your body or PFD.
  • Start up and get back underway.

You should practice reboarding prior to operating the PWC to make sure you are able to do it alone. Remember, a PWC is less stable when idle in the water.

Reserve Fuel Tank

PWCs are equipped with reserve fuel tanks that can be switched to if you run out of fuel. With proper planning you should never have to use your reserve tank. Always plan your outing according to the 1/3 rule to avoid running out of fuel.

  • Use 1/3 of your fuel going out
  • 1/3 coming back
  • 1/3 in reserve
  • Do not count the reserve tank in this 1/3

Common Issues and Complaints About PWCs

Most complaints to law enforcement officials regarding the operation of PWCs fall into the following categories. Avoid these breaches of common courtesy and consideration.

  • Wake jumping:This is not only irritating to boaters attempting to be watchful and maneuver in heavily congested areas, but it is extremely dangerous. In one case, a wake-jumper in Florida got tangled up in the props of a cabin cruiser and was killed.
  • No wake zones: If you want to get on the wrong side of a responsible boater, disobey no wake zones. You are likely to find yourself with a ticket, since most boaters and shoreline property owners will not hesitate to report violators of slow-no-wake areas.
  • High speeds too near shore or other boats: Most states require 100-200 feet of separation between boats and the shore when moving at more than no-wake speeds. (No wake means the slowest possible speed your boat will go and still provide maneuverability.)
  • Noise:Excessive noise near shore or near anchored boats is sure to draw negative attention. Be considerate of property owners and other boaters.

Environmental Concerns About PWCs

  • Pollution: Refuel on land to reduce chances of spillage into the water. Don’t overfill your fuel tank. Check and clean your engine well away from shorelines.
  • Turbidity: In shallow waters where PWCs can easily operate, the bottom gets stirred up, suspending sediment which cuts down on light penetration and depletes oxygen. This can affect bird and fish feeding. To avoid this, operate your PWC in deeper water. If you do have to traverse shallow water, run at idle speed.
  • Vegetation: In coastal areas be aware of low tide. Low water levels expose sea grass beds and other delicate vegetation. Disturbances can cause erosion and long lasting damage. As a side effect, ingesting seaweed and seagrass is not good for your engine. Feed it clean water and it will run and maneuver much better.
  • Wildlife harassment: A PWC near shore can interrupt feeding and nesting wildlife, and cause animals to deviate from their normal behavior. And that, by law, is illegal. Mammals such as otters, manatees, and whales can be injured by direct contact with a boat, and it is believed that the noise from watercraft can even adversely influence breeding cycles and cause birth defects. So avoid areas of high animal populations.

Remember, our waterways belong to everybody! If all boaters act responsibly and courteously, obey the rules, and protect the environment, our seas, lakes and rivers will provide all of us a lifetime of enjoyment and recreation.

The Bottom Line

As fun as a PWC is, they need to be treated more like cars than toys. They can be dangerous if not used properly. You should always understand how it works before you get on. You also need to know the laws and regulations that apply where you’re going to be boating. You can still have plenty of fun with a pWC while being responsible at the same time.