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Personal Watercraft Safety Rules and Guidelines

Operator's Duties When Underway

Personal watercraft are extremely maneuverable. Using that maneuverability to weave in and out of traffic, jump boat wakes, splash others, or swerve at the last moment to avoid a collision is very dangerous and illegal in most states. Before performing any rapid maneuvers, check for other traffic right, left, and behind you to prevent a collision.

An operator is responsible for his or her own safety, the safety of any passenger, the watercraft, and any damage the watercraft's wake may cause.

Be thoroughly familiar with the way the boat handles. Know the stopping distances and turning radius. Avoid taking unnecessary risks that could endanger life, limb, or property. You should know where you are and where you are going.

Keep an eye out for changing weather conditions and be prepared to act if the water or weather requires. Know and practice the rules of the road.

Exercise courtesy and common sense. This will make your trip safer and more enjoyable.

  • chart showing 1/3 sections as rules for not running out of fuel. 1/3 "going out" 1/3 "coming back" and 1/3 "reserve"Use the following rule to prevent running out of fuel: 1/3 going out, 1/3 coming back, 1/3 reserve. (Not counting the fuel reserve tank.)
  • Make sure your passenger sits on the seat provided.
  • Make sure you and your passenger are wearing PFDs.


Noise carries farther on water, particularly when it is otherwise quiet. During early morning and late afternoon, stay away from shoreline areas with homes, campgrounds, or similar areas. Change your operating area often; even if your craft does not exceed the sound limits, the constant noise from operating in the same area causes many complaints. Do not modify your exhaust if this results in a higher noise level.

illustration of person behind jet skiFalling Off and Reboarding

Your personal watercraft was designed to allow you to fall off and reboard. It is quite different from other boats, where falling overboard is almost always dangerous.

Personal watercraft are designed in two different versions: engine idling and engine shut-off. The idling watercraft continues to circle slowly when the operator falls off. The automatic shut-off version stops the engine with a special lanyard.

Both versions require some action by the operator of the personal watercraft. For circling boats, the operator/owner must set the engine idle speed to the proper level. Instructions are located within the owner's manual. For engine shut-off craft, the lanyard must be attached properly before operating the machinery. Operators should be prepared to spend some time in the water and use special care when riding in heavy traffic. While learning, however, operators should practice in a lighter traffic area.

District of Columbia Rules

In the District, an operator may not jump the wake of another vessel within 100 yards of the vessel. When two or more personal watercraft are operating at a speed of 10 mph or greater, drivers must maintain a separation of at least 25 yards between the personal watercraft.

Water Skiing

In addition to watercraft riding, water skiing is one of the fastest growing sports in the country. The weather and water conditions for both of these activities increase the chance that watercraft operators will share the area with water skiers. Since a personal watercraft is much more maneuverable than a boat towing a water skier, watercraft operators should stay out of the way of boats and skiers and keep a watch out for skiers in the water nearby.

Things to Remember

The following tips will make personal watercraft more welcome on the water:

  • Remember to share the water with others.
  • Stay on the lookout for other boats, skiers, and hazards.
  • Use common sense to prevent mishaps.