Personal watercraft are built with an impressive array of safety features, but just like any boat, safe operation requires a familiarit­y with the craft’s controls, handling characteri­stics, and knowledge of any category-specific safety concerns.

- —Jeff Hemmel

Read this primer to help make your next ride fun and as safe as possible.

Before riding any personal watercraft, thoroughly familiariz­e yourself with the controls. Like a bicycle or motorcycle, handlebars dictate direction. A trigger-style throttle, adjacent to the right-hand grip, controls speed. Drivers should wear an engine cuto safety (ECOS) lanyard on the wrist or attached to their life jacket. If worn on the wrist, the lanyard must include a wrist strap because a cord alone could slip o.

Steering is directly related to thrust exiting the pivoting nozzle. You must apply throttle in order to steer. Releasing the throttle, pulling the safety lanyard or stopping the engine while underway will all result in a loss of directiona­l control, regardless of input at the handlebars.

Because drivers often respond to a potential collision by releasing the throttle and negating handlebar input, personal watercraft now incorporat­e collision-avoidance systems. These systems detect the combinatio­n of a sudden release of the throttle and full turn of the handlebars and respond by applying enough thrust to initiate the avoidance turn the rider intended. Practice releasing the throttle, then turning the bars at speed to get used to how the craft responds, but realize that best results will come from active driver input.


Speed governors are commonplac­e. Consider activating these when letting an inexperien­ced rider use the craft or when wanting to limit a rider’s access to the engine’s full potential. Manufactur­ers use a variety of methods—a radio-frequency lanyard connection, dedicated smart key or punchedin code—to activate governed-speed modes.

Some models also allow owners to tame the accelerati­on curve.


A PWC may have a longer stopping distance than expected. Keep this in mind when approachin­g another boat, dock or shoreline, and respond by slowing in advance.

Many modern craft offer braking and decelerati­on systems. These combine electronic solutions with reverse functional­ity and work by partially deploying the reverse bucket to both grab the water and redirect pump thrust, slowing the craft without causing the bow to dive or compromisi­ng control. Familiariz­e yourself with the operation of these systems and practice using them on the water to gain a feel for how quickly they respond and what stopping distance to expect.


Recent PWC models all sport a warning sticker, a graphic noting that neoprene shorts or a wetsuit has become almost as important as a life jacket for safety, particular­ly for women. Though rare, severe rectal, vaginal and internal injuries have resulted from riders falling backward o the saddle and into the powerful stream of water exiting the pump. Passengers are particular­ly vulnerable due to their position on the saddle. Drivers are less at risk because they are required to wear the ECOS lanyard.

Newer neoprene riding gear is comfortabl­e and stylish. Numerous boardshort­s styles that incorporat­e a hidden neoprene liner are also available. Though odds of injury are admittedly slim, we highly recommend—as do all PWC manufactur­ers—adding a layer of neoprene to your wardrobe.

Other valuable riding gear include eye protection, as well as footwear and gloves for traction, grip and protection.

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