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PWCs - A Little Safety Will Go a Long Way

By Wayne Spivak, ADSO-CS 1SR
United States Coast Guard Auxiliary

Personal Water Craft – three words that elicit such a wide range of emotions to those of us who participate in recreational boating and recreational boating safety. Just three little words and an even shorter acronym – PWC, one would have never suspected!

Ask at any public boat ramp or marina what people think of PWCs and you’ll hear everything from “greatest invention since the outboard motor” to “they should be shot on sight”. Obviously, we don’t want to encourage people to violence, but we also need to put PWCs, their use, and misuse in the proper perspective.

Cars vs. Motorcycles

The PWC issue is akin to the car vs. motorcycle controversy that has raged ever since motorcycles were introduced. Millions of Americans not only enjoy their motorcycles, but also drive them responsibly. But, as with any tool, toy or object, there are those who do not. These are the same people who weave in and out of traffic to get ahead. It’s the same people who speed like madmen, at dangerous speeds, and are a danger to themselves, their backseat riders and other cars and pedestrians.

But should we outlaw their use? Obviously we haven’t, but what many states have done is create laws that govern their use, and the safety issues that surround their use. Most states have helmet laws; prohibit riding more than two motorcycles abreast and the aforementioned weaving. Some states have enacted additional safety laws, some less.

Many states require a different driver’s license (or class of license) to be permitted to drive a motorcycle. In New York State, where I live, you can have a motorcycle license, but not a license to drive a passenger car (or any combination thereof). In order to get each type of drivers’ license, a driving test is required in addition to a written exam.

So it would seem that for all concerned, America, or specifically the States have found a compromise between safety and use. And still, there are those who insist on violating these compromises. It is these individuals that tarnish the image of the motorcycle.

Boats vs. PWCs

As it is with the motorcycle controversy, the PWC is facing many of the same problems. Safety use and misuse is ignored, trampled or fastidiously obeyed. Some of the objections are speed issues, damage to the environment, noise pollution, and a general disregard for the ‘Rules of the Road’.

What has happened is instead of finding compromises, the National Park Service, and many states and localities have just banned the use of PWCs in some areas. The pendulum has swung very high in the arc.

The PWC community has fought back and now the ban by the National Park Service is under review. But, whether you are for or against these bans, PWC users and supporters need to understand the realities of their vessels.


Many of our states have begun to require licensure for those who wish to ride PWCs. Licensure is typically taking a PWC course. (Several of the Coast Guard Auxiliary courses are approved; check with your local flotilla and/or state.) There is currently no on-the-water test.

Some states have even gone so far as to include all boaters (a good thing); others are focusing solely on PWC users. Since the criteria for a license is taking an approved boating safety course, shouldn’t all boaters take the course?

Safety on the PWC

PWC safety issues are addressed in a number of different ways. From the federal equipment requirements, to individual state requirements, PWCs are vessels and are required to carry items such as visual distress signals, fire extinguishers, audible signaling devices (whistles), and PFDs, just to name a few.

Other laws include noise abatement issues – outlawing the use of these vessels after sunset and before sunrise. PWCs are not required to have lights, thus are not permitted to be used when navigation lights are required to be used. In addition, to protect marshes and wetlands, certain areas have been restricted.

Safety issues such as those already mentioned can best be addressed through public education. The Coast Guard Auxiliary’s Vessel Safety Check is one good example of public education. This program, which is voluntary, lets qualified Auxiliarist(s) review how the boat stacks up against federal and state requirements. This is done with the owner/users of the PWC (or any boat). The owner is guided through a checklist, and if they pass the check, they are awarded a sticker showing that they have complied with all federal and state laws.

Should they fail the Vessel Safety Check, only the boat owner/operator is told what they are missing. No report is given to any law enforcement agency. We then suggest that they correct any noted deficiencies. In my experience, the PWC owners are more than interested in having the correct equipment. At the same time that we check for equipment, we suggest other safety concerns (float plans, accident reporting, etc) and also suggest a boating safety course.

A little safety and…
So, by using some good judgment, abiding by the laws and relating all actions back to the core issue in recreational boating, which is “Is what I’m about to do SAFE?”, PWCs, powerboats, sailboats, and all users of our waterways will be happier and safer together. To learn more about boating safety, federal rules and requirements, the Coast Guard or Coast Guard Auxiliary, either contact your local Coast Guard Station or Auxiliary Flotilla, or find us on the web at or