Personal Watercraft Safety

The advent of “Personal Watercraft” in recent years has heightened our awareness to the issue of speed on our waterways. In general, PWC are operated at greater speeds than powerboats, and infinitely greater speeds than sailboats.

To some degree, speed is essential on a PWC since it is nearly impossible for operators to keep their balance at slow speeds (5 knots or less). Not unlike your bicycle, if you slow down enough, you’ll fall over. Add a passenger behind you and some wave action, and the rate of speed to keep your balance actually increases.

There is yet another factor that enters in to the speed equation. The steering on a PWC relies on the thrust of the water jet on its stern. The water is pumped through a small jet that is directed from port to starboard by the handlebars. The slower the rate of water discharge, the less effective your steering becomes.

What does this have to do with boating? Well, the PRIMARY cause of PWC accidents is excessive speed. Also, there are many boating accidents due to excessive speed. You might be interested to know that the same Navigation Rule governing the speed of an oil tanker governs the speed of a PWC and all vessels in between.

Rule 6 of the International and Inland Navigation Rules is entitled “Safe Speed.” Rule 6 requires vessels to operate at speed that will allow an operator to “take proper and effective action to avoid collision and be stopped within a distance appropriate to the prevailing circumstances.” Okay, what does that mean?

Rule 6 goes on to list factors that “shall be among those taken into account” in determining safe speed. These factors apply to open water and close-quarters situations. They apply to Ski boats, sailboats, cruise ships and PWC, just to name a few. Let’s talk about a few of those relevant factors.

The first is “Traffic density.” Since there are essentially no speed limit signs on the water (other than in no wake areas), the more vessels in your vicinity, the slower your speed should be. Traffic density also deals with proximity. The closer you are to other vessels, the slower you should be going.

Next is the “state of wind, sea and current.” These factors apply not only to your vessel, but the vessels around you as well. You may be in a 500-horse power cruiser that can overcome any current. However, that isn’t true of the trawler or sailboat ahead of you. A strong wind abeam can be a menace to a slow moving boat in a narrow channel. Your wake can only make things worse.

Another factor is “maneuverability with special reference to stopping distance and turning ability.” In your car, the faster you go, the longer the stopping distance and larger the turning radius will be. Just as you would drive slowly in a parking lot or a residential street, you should be prepared for quick stops on the water.

“Visibility” is another factor. The effects of fog, rain or darkness should have an influence on your boat speed. Exercising good judgment is the key.

Common sense should prevail out there. The truth is that some people just don’t think, and the boating accident reports tell quite a story on those folks!

Until next time, we wish you clear skies, fair winds and calm seas!


World Wide Marine Training, LLC, is a U.S. Coast Guard Approved facility authorized to give examinations for captain’s licenses up to Master 200 Tons, Able Seaman up to Unlimited, STCW Basic Training, Radar, ARPA and other Endorsements. Please visit or call toll-free 866-249-2135.