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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Fast fun on the water. © Christopher Hujanen
Fast fun on the water. © Christopher Hujanen

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The buzz over water bikes

New types of watercraft bring new on-water challenges.

DNR staff assisted by the Personal Watercraft Industry Association

Safety tips

Everything about personal watercraft (PWC) is happening fast. The boats themselves – water bikes or scooters powered by jets of water – can move along the surface at more than 40 mph. Sold under brand names like Jet Ski, WaveRunner and Sea-Doo, PWCs are by far the fastest-growing segment of the recreational boating market. In 1990, only 5,425 were registered in Wisconsin. By 1996, more than 22,350 had been registered, a more than 400 percent increase in just six years. This explosive growth along with traditional boat sales contributes to more crowded waterways. Combine crowding with many different, often competing, interests on lakes and rivers, and you have a foolproof recipe for creating conflicts on waterways.

Swift, maneuverable, and easy to use, PWCs provide a more comfortable ride in calm waters with small waves. Consequently, PWC are used more frequently and for longer periods of time in near shore areas. The shallow-draft bikes can operate safely in only two feet of water, but deeper water is recommended for safety, to protect vegetation, reduce erosion and reduce wear on the craft. PWCs are popular with young adults who enjoy zipping along the water and taking their friends out for a spin. In the last five years, trends have changed and PWC use is now dominated by middle-aged men with families. Two- and three-seat craft are becoming more popular than the older stand-up variety.

Many PWCs emit a buzzing noise that is noticeable on shore. Engineered changes are addressing the issue, but the same people who tolerate exhaust gases and oily films from outboard motors seem to view the PWC as noisier and more irritating because its engine operates the whole time the PWC is in use and some riders frequent the same area for long periods of time.

PWC manufacturers are well aware of these issues and continue to develop designs that are less noisy. The Personal Watercraft Industry Association (PWIA) actively endorses the use of laws to measure and abate shoreline noises, as long as rules are applied equally to all watercraft.

Increase in Accidents

Along with the tremendous increase in PWC use has come a corresponding increase in the number of PWC-related accidents. In Wisconsin last year, 47 of 112 boating accidents where people were injured involved personal watercraft. Statewide, PWCs were involved in about a quarter of all reported boating accidents. The PWC user is ten times more likely than other boaters to be involved in an accident where someone is injured. Still, boating safety specialists are quick to point out the accident rate is dropping as users become more experienced in handling PWCs.

The accident rates for personal watercraft are also higher because the craft are under constant power, compared with fishing boats that may only motor to an area and then anchor, drift, or slowly troll. PWIA figures show personal watercraft are in use more hours per day and more days per season than motorboats – eight hours a month for PWCs, compared to just 2.3 hours per month use for the typical motorboat.

Manufacturers have formed strong partnerships with boating instructors and PWC retailers to develop safety information, videos and on-water instruction. Manufacturers now provide printed safety booklets and instructional videos with each PWC sold, according to Glyn Johnston, chairman of the Personal Watercraft Industry Association.

Since nearly 60 percent of the PWC accidents nationwide happen to boaters who are only renting a PWC for a few hours, the industry offers rental businesses free education packets including a video, waterproof safety checklist, posters and literature. The PWIA recommends outlets restrict rentals to people older than age 16.

The PWIA also works with the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, the U.S. Power Squadron and state law enforcement programs to develop safety programs for PWC users. Since 1989, the industry has donated more than 4,200 craft to public agencies to teach safe operation, etiquette and behavior when using personal watercraft.

"It isn't that personal watercraft are inherently more dangerous than other types of boats," says Bart Halverson, DNR law enforcement safety specialist in Spooner. "It's the way a few people operate them that causes problems."

The PWC user is also more exposed, just as a motorcyclist is more exposed in an accident than an auto driver, Halverson added. PWC riders need to remain careful and cautious.

Personal watercraft are considered motorboats under Wisconsin law. The craft must be registered, operators must follow all safety rules and users have to carry safety equipment, including fire extinguishers.

Tips for safe operation
  • Wear the proper safety equipment including a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket and eye protection to keep water spray from obscuring your vision. Tennis shoes or deck shoes and gloves offer better control of your machine. A wet suit provides protection from the elements. A whistle attached to the life jacket can be used to summon help.
  • Take a boating safety course. The Department of Natural Resources and boat dealers know where courses are offered.
  • Respect the rights of others. Keep a safe distance from other boats, and stay away from anglers, canoeists and swimmers.
  • Be conscious of the noise your craft makes. Running a PWC in a small area for a long time can be irritating to others.
  • Keep a lookout for other boats, especially other PWCs. Collisions are the most common type of personal watercraft accident.
  • Read the owner's manual so you understand the water bike's controls and features.
  • Never operate personal watercraft without the safety lanyard attached to you. The lanyard immediately cuts the engine if the operator falls. It's a safety feature that can help prevent bad accidents.
  • Never operate at night. It's illegal in Wisconsin.
  • Don't operate a PWC if you have been drinking.

The Personal Watercraft Industry Association represents manufacturers of personal watercraft.