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VOL. 9 NO. 7
Take a class

Understanding PWC

Personal watercraft should follow rules of the road

The kill switch

Personal watercraft are recreational boats just like your express cruiser, trawler or sailboat. Unfortunately, many boat owners think of them as toys, and many PWC operators use them that way. As mechanically propelled vessels, they must observe the same rules of the road as other boats while under way.

Personal watercraft are involved in 17 percent of reported boating accidents, according to U.S. Coast Guard’s 2014 Recreational Boating Statistics.

Like many cruising boats, PWC typically have a deep V-style hull. However, unlike propeller-driven vessels, which have rudders, props, and struts to provide directional control or drag when slowing, PWC have a water jet propulsion system with nothing protruding below the hull. This means that any loss of power results in an almost complete loss of steering and no brakes.

When a hazard suddenly appears, a car or boat operator’s first reaction is to back off on the throttle. Unfortunately, a PWC will continue in a straight path for some distance before stopping. This fact alone contributed to the disproportionately high accident rate of personal watercraft for many years. The PWC industry responded by introducing off-throttle steering systems. Although they vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, the systems allow limited steering even when the operator is not applying power.

In 2009, Sea-Doo introduced a model with a new braking system, which uses a special propulsion nozzle that redirects some of the thrust forward to slow the vessel. In tests, PWC with the new system stopped in half the distance as vessels without the new nozzle.

The next time a couple of PWC begin following in your wake, keep in mind that most can only steer when under power and few will be able to stop in a reasonable distance.

Many PWC operators don’t know the rules of the road so remember Rule 2 of the COLREGS, or the General Prudential Rule, which requires you, the skipper, to depart from the rules as necessary to avoid an accident with a PWC or any other errant watercraft.
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