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What is Needed for Steering Control on a PWC?

Ian Fortey by Ian Fortey Updated on December 21, 2022. In Personal Watercraft

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Learning how to operate a personal watercraft can be a little counterintuitive as, if you’ve never tried one before, it is potentially confusing. Unlike a propeller-powered vessel which pushes against the water to push your boat forward, a jet-drive vehicle like a Jet Ski or Sea Doo requires water to be pulled into the jet drive and then propelled out of the nozzle as a powerful water jet that provides thrust. The most important thing to remember for maintaining steering control is that, if you release the throttle, put the PWC in idle or the engine shuts off you will no longer be able to control the steering because it is directly tied to the engine being powered.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at how you control the steering on a PWC and what functions you are able to use at idle speed and normal speed.

Steering Wheel vs Steering Nozzle

The big difference between almost any kind of boat on the water and a personal watercraft is the actual steering control. Most boats have a steering wheel that allows you to operate them in a very similar manner to your car on the road. The wheel on a boat controls the movement of the rudder which is what allows for steering. The propellers don’t alter course at all so all of your propulsion is in a forward direction until the wheel alters the rudder, forcing water against it in one direction or another.

PWC steering control allows for you to redirect the nozzle itself, which is a significant departure from how a boat works. It would be equivalent to literally shifting the direction of the prop on a boat, but it’s obviously much more convenient and also more functional.

Steering is usually controlled by handlebars as opposed to the wheel, so control is more akin to that of a motorcycle than a car. The steering nozzle turns as you turn the handles and directs the nozzle in the opposite direction of your hand motions, forcing the water jet to push the entire PWC in the desired direction as a result.

Other jet propelled vessel steering, like that on jet boats and certain pontoon boats that make use of jets, works like traditional boat steering with a wheel. However, the way the steering system controls the jet nozzle is the same as it is with a PWC.

Jet Nozzle Functionality

Man on Kawasaki Jet Ski

In a PWC and other jet drive vessels, the jet drive propulsion system works by sucking in water from underneath the PWC itself. The water is pulled into the jet propulsion engine where the actual jet part forces it out at a very high rate of speed. It’s forced out through that nozzle which is very similar to a simple hose in terms of how it looks when its operator. The powerful water jet releases the water with such forces that the jet ski itself is pushed forward according to Newton’s Third Law of Motion. 

The jet can be adjusted from side to side to allow for turning and changes of directions thanks to the steering cable that connects the nozzle to the steering column itself. You can think of this sort of like a driveshaft in a car engine that, with the transfer of motion through the axles, allows the wheels to turn as you turn the steering wheel. There is also a reverse function on most PWC models though it is not as powerful as the forward motion because of how it has to work. The jet nozzle cannot be directed backwards so what happens in many models is a kind of scoop or shield is lowered in front of the nozzle when the PWC operators switch to reverse. The nozzle directs the jet against this scoop which forces it down and under the PWC allows for it to reverse, but in a process that is typically slower and a little clunkier than forward motion would be. 

The Steering Lanyard

Most modern PWC models will require the use of a lanyard for operation. This emergency feature requires a lanyard to be worn by the operator, attached to the life jacket or wrist, that physically connects you to an emergency on/off switch on the PWC’s controls. If your body pulls away from the PWC for any reason, such as a fall, the lanyard pulls free and activates the switch, shutting off power.

With no power, steering and the jet engine are immediately shut off. This safety feature has likely saved a number of lives since it became a more widespread feature.

In the past it was possible that some models could continue to run without an operator if they fell off. If the throttle was engaged, the PWC would continue onwards and any kind of drift and wind and current shifts could alter the path of the craft. If the operator fell off in the middle of the turn, the nozzle could be fixed in that position causing the PWC to continue turning and coming full circle, potentially coming back around to hit and injure the fallen operator. 

The lanyard is arguably the most important safety feature on a PWC as a result as, with its proper use, it’s nearly impossible for a PWC to run out of control if an operator is thrown free for some reason.

The Beginner Lanyard

This is something worth taking note of as it applies to some models of PWCs, such as Sea Doos. You may have two different lanyards at your disposal. With Sea Doo brand PWCs one is yellow and one is green. The yellow lanyard is the standard lanyard and when you connect it to your engine cut off switch you are able to operate as normal. 

The green lanyard is a beginner lanyard. This is designed for younger operators or people new to PWCs who want to learn in a safer way how to operate the craft. With the green lanyard in place the PWC has its power limited. The engine is not able to exert full power meaning you will be operating at lower and safer speeds as you learn how to control it. If you use this lanyard by mistake not knowing the difference, you’ll definitely notice the decrease in speed and power.

Which Operation on a PWC Requires More Than Idle Speed?

When you power on a PWC you want to do so in water that is at least knee deep. This is vital to ensure that nothing is sucked up through the bottom with the potential to clog up your motor. The water is sucked into the bottom because of the pump action before it is pumped out the nozzle. If the water is too shallow you risk sucking up mud and debris which can clog the intake. 

You need to be on the PWC before you power it up and have that lanyard securely in place as well. The key will power your jet ski just like any other watercraft but you’ll need to press the starter button, usually a red button on the left side, to activate the engine and power up. Now here’s where things can get tricky.

Older models of PWCs as well as some cheaper models may actually start moving at this point. It won’t be fast by any means, but in some models as soon as the engine is powered the pump is active and it begins to operate even at idle speed. You’ll proceed forward at a slow and steady pace which you can adjust to go faster later with the accelerator, but it will still be moving even if you aren’t accelerating.

Newer models and high end models don’t allow this to happen. When you power on the engine it’s truly at idle and so you’ll hear it and feel it under you but you’ll be floating in the water still until such time as you actively hit that throttle and force it into motion. 

For any serious forward motion, for turning and reversing you’re going to need to engage more than that idle speed in order to gain proper control of the PWC and make use of its power.

Learn To Master the Throttle Lever

In order to control your PWC you’ll need to apply throttle to accelerate and move forward. The throttle lever is on the right hand side of the handle bars. It’s a trigger-like lever that is easily accessible to your index finger when you’re in control and gripping the handlebars. 

If you are unable to properly control the throttle you will be unable to properly control your PWCs steering. It’s not a steep learning curve but first timers can and do mess this one up which results in the odd accident and operator getting tossed as the jet ski bunny hops violently on startup.

If you’re too aggressive with throttle right off the bat, the jet ski will effectively launch itself forward. The bow rises and the stern dips low causing it to jump, which is often called bunny hopping. You’ll get a couple of serious, aggressive bounces which can knock an operator off if they are caught off guard. 

The best way to control the PWC is to ease into the throttle. Slow, steady pressure to build up speed in a smooth and easy to control way. The process doesn’t need to take a lot of time, but putting full pressure on the throttle right away is an easy way to lose control very fast. 

Releasing the throttle lowers the speed of the jet ski and is a lot smoother to handle than a sudden burst of speed. Even if you remove your hand entirely it will slow to a relative stop in an easier to control way. That said, if you’re in the middle of any kind of turn or maneuvering, a sudden drop in speed can make the craft harder to control so it should also be done with some caution.

Steering Control Requirement Basics

Kawasaki Jet Ski

In simple terms, here are the things you’ll want to be aware of when operating a PWC to ensure you have smooth control.

Power

The most important thing need for steering control is power. It is vital for steering control on a PWC and this can’t be stressed enough. If you turn the handlebars hard to starboard for a right turn and then release the throttle entirely, the PWC will continue to make that hard right until you once again apply throttle to change the direction or reverse. 

If your lanyard comes loose or your engine shuts down, you lose steering control of the PWC and its momentum will carry it forward until it stops on its own. 

Smooth Movements

This is solid advice for the control of any moving vehicle. Just like you risk an accident in a car if you suddenly pull hard to one side at high speed, you’re gambling with safety in a PWC when you do the same. A hard turn at high speed can cause the nose to dip under water or, if you happen to hit a wave or another boat’s wake, the exact opposite by causing the craft to jump. You may find yourself leaning too hard into that turn and putting your weight off balance, causing the PWC to dip low and potentially even flip. 

Proper Weight Distribution

Somewhat less appreciated but still important for maintaining proper control of a PWC is weight distribution. If you’re leaning to one side or the other, if you sit too far back, or if you have something on the PWC with you it can throw off the balance. A PWC has to have even weight distribution or the craft will dip low and alter the way it is able to progress through the water. 

Reliable Equipment

This should go without saying but if you find that it’s hard to control your PWC and you’re certain you are operating it properly, then it’s possible you’re not the problem and the PWC itself is. As we mentioned, the intake can get clogged and that can affect the impeller and how well you are able to accelerate and reach speed. There can also be issues with your steering cable. It’s possible that a damaged cable or a damaged nozzle will make it hard or impossible to properly maneuver in one direction or the other, or even at all. 

Responsibility

Like any watercraft, a PWC needs a responsible operator. That means never operate a PWC when you are intoxicated. Likewise, you should avoid using a PWC on rough seas and in poor weather or poor visibility. When you are boating around other boats and swimmers, use caution, reduce speed and keep your eyes open so you can be aware of who and what is around you at all times. This will improve your response time and ensure you can steer around potential dangers without putting anyone at excess risk. 

The Bottom Line

Steering control of a PWC requires the ability to maintain control of the throttle, control of the handlebars, and an understanding of weight distribution and how the equipment should operate. A lanyard attached to the engine cut off is vital for proper safety as a PWC that is able to run without an operator is a massive safety risk. Getting hit by a PWC at speed can cause severe internal injuries and worse. 

As with any craft on the water, you need to be aware of your surroundings and operate the vehicle cautiously and responsibly. If you do encounter problems, power down quickly and safely to deal with them. Your safety and the safety of others is always paramount. 

About Ian

My grandfather first took me fishing when I was too young to actually hold up a rod on my own. As an avid camper, hiker, and nature enthusiast I'm always looking for a new adventure.

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