Mind If I Borrow Your PWC?

By Pat Piper

It can be a dilemma for a personal watercraft owner when a friend asks to take it out for a spin but it's more of a problem for a PWC owner if that friend has an accident.

photo of an Ultra 300LX 34 jetski

Last year a trailer boater took his personal watercraft (PWC) to a boat ramp in Michigan and, after a few hours on the water, came back to the ramp to load his vessel on the trailer. Some friends were nearby and, upon recognizing him, walked over and asked if they could take turns with the PWC for a quick spin. Sure, he said.

Ten minutes later, the first guy to borrow the PWC slammed into a swimmer. He told police he saw the person in the water and slowed down but lost control of the vessel. He also told police he'd never operated a personal watercraft before. The good news in this story is that the swimmer suffered only a bruise on her shoulder while trying to get out of the way. The bad news is, this occurred because the PWC owner felt pressured to let an inexperienced friend take his watercraft out. When later asked by marine police if he'd have let that same person take his boat out alone, the owner said, "Of course not!" A PWC is considered a boat by the US Coast Guard so one can easily understand the potential troubles if someone takes the helm without knowing a thing about its operation.

photo of a family on a Yamaha 10WR Fx Cruiser jetski

"Personal watercraft have increased from eight feet to 12 feet," observes Assistant Vice President of BoatUS Marine Insurance Kim Shaw. "They started with just 60-horsepower engines and now have 265 hp. They're bigger and more powerful than ever before." Shaw has also seen an increase in the number of PWCs being insured by BoatUS

One reason for this is economic. The three major manufacturers, Bombardier (Sea Doo), Kawasaki (Jet Ski) and Yamaha (Waverunner) understand these tight times require some big-picture thinking, resulting in offering PWCs that can be used by an entire family with a cheaper price tag than a boat. "We are seeing more PWCs that will seat as many as three people, instead of just one," she notes, "while also offering lots of bells and whistles, like towing rings to pull a tube or a skier."

One of the more useful features on PWCs over the past few years has been a key that will set speed limits when a younger person is at the helm. "It's a way for a parent to give their child some hands-on experience," says Shaw, "without allowing them to drive the PWC at full throttle." That's a good idea since smaller people, like kids, don't have the center of gravity that is required to control what is quickly becoming a 1,000-pound personal watercraft.

But here's one of the areas where this discussion becomes murky. Ted Sensenbrenner of the BoatUS Foundation for Boating Safety and Clean Water (and the Watersports writer for BoatUS Trailering), says the allowable age to operate a PWC depends on the state you're in. "Some states say the adult has to be over 18 and some say they have to not only be age 18 but have a boater safety card (proof they've taken a boating safety class)," he says. "In general, the PWC industry stresses that 16 is the minimum recommended age for operation." Some clarity as to what is legal and what isn't can be found at this website run by the Personal Watercraft Industry Association because of the obvious confusion for boaters who trailer their PWCs across state lines: www.pwia.org/rules

"Overall, PWC don't drive like other boats and certainly not like a car," PWIA's Dickerson offers. "Training should be done on turning, "off-throttle" steering, speed, situational awareness, and caution! Also, PWIA would recommend that any new operator take the time to ride along with an experienced operator, and then operate it with that person on board, to get familiar with the PWC's unique characteristics."

This question comes up all the time. What if I let my 14-year-old actually drive my PWC while I'm sitting on the back seat?

The answer, again, depends on the state. In Maryland, it's illegal (the operator has to be 16, regardless if an adult is onboard). In Michigan, the age is 12, so in our example, this would be legal.

Dickerson has this advice for parents of children wanting the chance to get in the driver's seat, as well as any PWC owner with friends seeking the same opportunity: "There are laws to operate these boats with no exception. The answer to all of this is owner responsibility. The size and the accessibility of PWCs make people think it's OK to let anyone take one for a ride."

The manufacturers are all too aware of the confusion. As a result, new models have a prominently placed decal telling anyone about to fire up the PWC that a safety class is needed. Sean Alexander is a spokesman for Kawasaki's Jet Ski

"Every operator of their Jet Ski should have taken a PWC safety course and read the owner's manual prior to operating that Jet Ski, meaning un-trained operators and improper use are already contrary to the warning labels and owner's manuals."

So when that friend asks for a chance "to take a spin" and says, "I'll be right back," tell them to first take a class. If you're trailering your PWC, chances are good you've already had to face that question. If you haven't, you will. 

This article was published in the Winter 2012 issue of Trailering Magazine.

Some Advice From BoatUS Marine Insurance:

A BoatUS Personal Watercraft Policy will pay the market value of your PWC in the event it is totaled in an accident or stolen.

In an attempt to save money, some policyholders focus primarily on covering the value of the PWC while ignoring liability — payments for another person's medical treatment, property damage or uninsured or under-insured boaters who are involved in a collision. This can be costly because nobody thinks they are going to have a loss and automatically look at repairing their boat if it's damaged. It's equally important that they consider what assets they have (homes, savings, retirement accounts) and how much liability is needed in the event of a catastrophic third-party claim. Bottom line: It's relatively inexpensive to go from a $100,000 to $300,000 liability.

BoatUS Marine Insurance offers a 10-percent discount to policyholders who successfully complete a safe boating course approved by the United States Power Squadron, Coast Guard Auxiliary, National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA), or the Red Cross. You can also do this online using the course provided by the BoatUS Foundation for Boating Safety and Clean Water: BoatUS.org/onlinecourse/default.asp

BoatUS story about PWCs

Personal Watercraft Industry Association

PWC Need to Knows

  • On many PWC models, steering control is lost when the PWC slows down.
  • If your child's feet can't reach the PWC's deck, the child won't be able to stay on during tight turns and is, therefore, too young to go for a ride.
  • Always wear a properly fitting life jacket designed for watersports.
  • Avoid shallow water (you can suck up stand into the water intakes) or areas with sea grass (you can clog intakes with the grass). In many areas, sea grass is protected since it helps filter the water and provides safe haven for marine life.
  • *Respect the rights of property owners and stay away from docks, swimmers and anchored boats.



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