The U.S. Coast Guard defines a Personal Watercraft (PWC) as a craft which is less than 16 feet in length and designed to be operated by a person or persons sitting, standing or kneeling on the craft rather than within the confines of a hull. Since the USCG considers the PWC a class A inboard boat it is required to be registered, just like a boat; the registration papers must be onboard while the craft is in use. The USCG states the registration number and hull identification numbers are to be visible.

Personal Watercraft

The PWC has grown in popularity over the years since they first came about in the late 60s. Along with that growing popularity has come growing accidents. The USCG has reported in 2011 there were 44 fatalities and over 700 injuries reported on PWCs. It also reported that most accidents are related to: operator’s not paying attention, no look-out, operators on rented PWC, under-age operators, operators who have not had the proper training/education, excessive speed, behaving in a reckless manner, drinking, and not following the “Rules of the Road.” For these reasons, it is always a good idea to have the personal watercraft insured and to successfully complete a boating safety course.

Due to these factors, there are federal and state regulations pertaining to the operation of the PWC. The federal regulations include The Personal Watercraft Act of 2005, which states:

Every personal watercraft shall at all times be operated in a reasonable and prudent manner. No person shall operate a personal watercraft in an unsafe or reckless manner. Unsafe personal watercraft operation shall include, but not be limited to the following:

(1) Becoming airborne or completely leaving the water while crossing the wake of another vessel within 100 feet (although the distance depends on the state you are in) of the vessel creating the wake, or wake jumping.

(2) Weaving through congested traffic.

(3) Operating a vessel at greater than slow/no wake speed within 100 feet of an anchored or moored vessel, shoreline, vessel underway, dock, pier, boat ramp, marina, swim float, marked swim area, person in the water, person(s) engaged in angling, or any manually-propelled vessel.

(4) Operating contrary to the "Rules of the Road" or following too close to another vessel, including another personal watercraft. For the purposes of this section, following too close shall be construed as proceeding in the same direction and operating at a speed in excess of 10 MPH when approaching within 100 feet to the rear or 50 feet to the side of another motorboat or sailboat which is underway unless such vessel is operating in a narrow channel, in which case a personal watercraft may operate at speed and flow of other vessel traffic.

Although PWCs are exempt from many of the requirements that other boats must follow; the federal safety requirements for personal watercrafts are as follows:

Type II Life Jacket

Life Jackets - PWCs operators and those riding are required to wear an approved personal flotation device such as a Type II life jacket.

Visual Distress Signals – Again, the requirements are the same as for boats but since PWCs are supposed to be operating on inland waters only during daylight hours, keeping a red or orange cloth in the storage compartment will suffice. If in an area where night use is permitted, utilize the same visual distress signals requirements as for a boat.

Fire Extinguishers – One Type BC-1, USCG approved extinguisher should be also kept in the storage compartment.

Backfire Flame Control - PWCs have a watertight backfire flame arrester that is required to display Coast Guard, Underwriters Laboratories (UL), or Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) approval numbering.

Sound-Producing Device – A whistle is the most convenient sound-producing device and can be attached to the operator’s PFD.

Navigational Lights – In areas where PWCs are allowed to be out at night, the requirements are the same as that for a boat.

The PWC should always have general maintenance and upkeep, and should have an electrical cut-off switch with the lanyard or a self-circling device in working order in case the operator falls off.

Each state also has regulations pertaining to PWC operating; see your state for more information.