Recreational Boating Safety – Operating a Personal Watercraft

Bob CurrieBy Bob Currie, Recreational Boating Safety Specialist
U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Station Galveston Flotilla
The Auxiliary’s vessel examiners perform safety checks on all types of recreational boats, including personal watercraft, also known as jet skis. The US Coast Guard Vessel Safety Check (VSC) has several requirements and recommendations specifically for personal watercraft (PWC) operators.

Display of Numbers
PWC numbers are applied just as they are on any watercraft. Just be sure they are of contrasting color, 3 inches high, block letters (no fancy fonts), and properly spaced as in the diagram below. In Texas the registration sticker goes aft of the numbers on both sides. The numbers and registration sticker must be visible above the water line.

Life Jackets
PWC operators MUST wear a US Coast Guard approved life jacket. The Coast Guard recommends that life jackets be speed rated; that is, the life jacket should be designed to withstand the impact of hitting the water at high speed. Impact life jackets are rated by the speed they will withstand and should be matched to the top speed of the PWC. Texas law prohibits the use of inflatable life jackets on PWC. Check the documentation inside the life jacket for its speed rating. The life jacket here is rated for 100 mph. Any person towed by a PWC is considered to be an occupant of the PWC and is required to wear a life jacket. In order to tow a person behind your PWC you must have a rear-view mirror or a rear-facing safety observer whose job is to let the PWC operator know if the person being towed falls off or is having any trouble.

Engine Cut-off Switch Lanyard
PWC operators must wear a device that will kill the engine if the operator falls from the PWC. This device must be attached to the operator or the operator’s clothing when underway.

Operation of Your PWC
All operational rules for regular motorboats also apply to PWC. In addition to those requirements, in Texas it is unlawful to (1) operate at night (sunset to sunrise); (2) operate within 50 feet of another PWC, motorboat, vessel, platform, person, object, or shore except at headway speed (headway speed is slow, idle speed, or speed only fast enough to maintain steerage) without creating a swell or wake; and (3) operate a PWC and jump the wake of another vessel recklessly or unnecessarily close.

NOTE: In Texas, children under 13 are specifically prohibited from operating a PWC unless accompanied on board by a person at least 18 years of age who can lawfully operate the PWC. To be able to lawfully operate a PWC, anyone born on or after September 1, 1983, must have completed a boater education course. Proof of completion must be carried with the boat operator.

Visual Distress Signals
Recreational boats less than 16 feet in length are not required to carry day signals. Night signals are not required for any PWC, regardless of length, because nighttime operation is not permitted. Bright clothing is recommended, as a PWC may not be readily seen by the operator of a much larger vessel.

Fire Extinguisher
PWCs are required to carry USCG approved marine fire extinguishers. There are several types of fire extinguishers made just for PWC. Don’t forget about the Kidde brand fire extinguisher recall. Many of the recalled fire extinguishers were designed for PWC. The picture below is of one of the recalled PWC fire extinguishers.

Effective April 20, 2022, you must make sure that you have the new classification of fire extinguisher aboard. The Underwriters Laboratory (UL) label must say “Marine Type – USCG Approved.” In addition, it must not be expired (over 12 years from date of manufacture), the gauge must be in the green, and the nozzle must be clear of debris. The year of manufacture may be found either on the bottom of the fire extinguisher or on the Underwriters Laboratory UL label.

Sound Producing Device
As we know from previous discussions, ALL boats must have a sound producing device. PWC operators must have that sound producing device attached to their life jackets. The picture shows a pea-less whistle. The old-style whistle had a cork ball that acted as back pressure to increase the distance in which the whistle could be heard. Those cork balls deteriorate rapidly when exposed to moisture, so they do not make an acceptable sound producing device.

Bilge Requirements
As with any inboard boat, the bilge must be free of debris and clean. Battery posts must be covered. There must be a backfire flame arrestor, but forced ventilation is not required.

Righting a Capsized PWC
PWCs are designed to float when capsized. There is, however, a prescribed method for righting a capsized PWC. Most manufacturers have placed a decal at the rear or bottom of the craft that indicates the direction to roll your PWC to return it to an upright position. If no decal exists, check your owner’s manual or ask the dealer. With this information, you should be able to roll the PWC over and reboard with little trouble. If you roll it over the wrong way, you could damage your PWC by allowing seawater to enter the engine.

There are some special rules for operating a PWC, such as the restriction on operating at night. PWC operators and passengers must also wear a life jacket. Don’t forget to install your drain plugs! I have rescued more than one PWC operator who forgot to install their plugs. Observe no wake zones and do not circle another boat within 50 feet.

For more information on boating safety, please visit the Official Website of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Boating Safety Division at Questions about the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary or our free Vessel Safety Check program may be directed to me at [email protected] SAFE BOATING!


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