Can you Jet Ski if you Can’t Swim? 10+ Life Saving Tips

There’s no denying that water recreation is fun and enticing for most people, and many people often wonder which water recreation activities are safe for people who can’t swim or who aren’t strong swimmers.

The good news is, when it comes to jet skiing, you absolutely can jet ski even if you can’t swim. The most important thing to do is simply wear a life-jacket, which all people should do when they ride a jet ski, regardless of their swimming ability.  As long as you wear a life preserver and follow these life-saving tips, there’s no reason why a person who can’t swim shouldn’t enjoy the sport of jet skiing.

10 PWC Life-Saving Tips

There are many ways you can reduce your risk of injury or drowning while riding a jet ski. The following tips are beneficial for any jet ski rider to be aware of but are especially important for those who can’t swim or who don’t swim well.

1.      Wear a Life Jacket

Life jackets, also known as personal floatation devices (or PFDs), are your first defense in water safety.  A life jacket is made of buoyant material that keeps the wearer afloat in any type of water. You cannot sink while wearing a life-jacket correctly.

Jet ski operators, passengers, and persons being towed by a jet ski should all wear a life jacket at all times. It is important to keep the zipper and/or buckles in the front of the life jacket attached at all times, or you risk having it fall off in the water.

In some states, it may even be legally required for you to wear a life-jacket while operating or riding on a jet ski.  Be sure to familiarize yourself with the life jacket laws wherever you intend to ride. Look for regulations that pertain to personal watercrafts (PWCs), the generic term for jet skis. There are also often age-specific laws that govern the use of life jackets on boats and other watercrafts, so check those too if you have any younger riders.

Lastly, if you plan on jet skiing while in a different country, be aware that the regulations might be different depending on where you go.  One of the first times I went jet skiing was in the Bahamas, where life jackets were more of a suggestion than a hard and fast rule. 

Regardless of what other people are doing, you should always wear a life jacket while riding a jet ski, no matter what. This is especially true if you can’t swim, but honestly, I would even tell Michael Phelps he should wear a life jacket while jet skiing; it’s the easiest way to keep yourself safe in the water.

2.      Bring a Whistle

Many life jackets come with a whistle attached to them. If yours doesn’t, it’s a good idea to purchase one; or if you’re renting, be sure to ask for one. All life jackets have straps or buckles where a whistle can easily be attached. This is important because it is an easy way to signal someone that you need help if you have fallen in the water.

Depending on where you are riding, a whistle may be legally required.

Whether you’re riding in the ocean or on a busy lake, there is often a lot of noise and activity in the places where people jet ski.  People on the boats nearby or at a lifeguard tower may not hear you yell for help, but they will most likely hear a whistle. Because they are an emergency signal, never blow the whistle unless you are actually in distress.

3.      Use a Safety Lanyard

If you’ve ever used a treadmill or an elliptical at the gym, you’re probably already familiar with safety lanyards.  They’re the little clips on the machine that you attach to your clothes so that if you fall, the machine automatically shuts off.  They make these safety attachments for jet skis too. 

On a jet ski, the lanyard will connect to your life vest. If you fall off the jet ski, the lanyard will be pulled out of the jet ski and automatically stop the engine.  This is an important safety feature not just for you but for those around you. A rogue jet ski can be very dangerous for other boaters and swimmers.

4.      Don’t Ride Too Fast

Half the fun of riding jet skis is the fact that they can go fast.  I’m not saying you need to keep your jet ski at idling speed, but if you aren’t a strong swimmer, it’s important to not exceed your limits and to ride responsibly when you are out on the water. 

If you are driving the jet ski, try not to go so fast that you might lose control of the craft and reserve higher speeds for straightaways rather than turns. 

If you are a passenger, ask the operator not to go faster than you feel comfortable with.  It can be fairly easy to fall off a jet ski as a passenger because you may not know what is in the drivers head with the next direction they will go, which isn’t too much of a problem as long as you’re wearing a life jacket but becomes increasingly dangerous the faster you are going. 

People can get concussions or even be rendered unconscious if they hit the water too hard when they fall. The faster you are going, the harder you’ll hit the water.

5.      Avoid Rough Water

The ocean is naturally much rougher than a lake or river.  If you can’t swim, it may be best to avoid riding on the ocean or in windy conditions because the water will be much rougher.  Because jet skis are so small, riding in rough water makes for a much bumpier ride. You have to work much harder to maintain control of the jet ski, especially at higher speeds, and it isn’t uncommon to fall off or to get rolled over by a large wave. 

In general, riding on a smooth, calm lake or river is a safer option if you aren’t a strong swimmer because it will be easier to maintain control of the watercraft and because you are less likely to encounter unforeseen hazards like rogue waves. 

6.      Ride with a Buddy or Take a Guided Tour

Even if you can’t swim, it’s still okay to operate a jet ski on your own. You do not need to just ride as a passenger. However, whether you are riding as a passenger or operating the craft as a driver, you should never be out on the water alone. 

Make sure you have at least one other person either on another jet ski or on a boat nearby who can come help you if something goes wrong.  This is a good practice regardless of whether or not you are a good swimmer.  

Many cruise ships and jet ski rental shops even offer guided tours you can sign up for. This might be a great option because you can feel safe knowing you will be in a group with an experienced guide who will be watching out for everyone’s safety and who will know what to do in an emergency.

7.      Consider Avoiding Tow Sports

This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it is a good tip if you have little to no swimming skills and/or are uncomfortable being in a large body of water.  Tow sports like tubing, wakeboarding, wakesurfing, and water skiing can be a lot of fun, and like jet skiing itself, should always be done wearing a life jacket.

However, unlike driving a jet ski, you are almost certainly going to end up in the water at some point with any tow sport.  If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of being dunked under the water or floating for a few minutes while you wait for the jet ski driver to come pick you up, it’s best to avoid these activities.

8.      Ride Where There’s a Lifeguard

Not all lakes, rivers, or marinas have lifeguard stations, so this may not be an option. However, if possible, it can be beneficial to ride where there are lifeguards nearby who can come to your aid if you fall off the jet ski and are in distress.

If a lifeguard isn’t nearby, riding in an area patrolled by the U.S. Coast Guard or even Harbor Patrol boats is an extra safety precaution that could be beneficial for you if you’re new to jet skiing and can’t swim.

9.      Learn Hand Signals

Because it can be nearly impossible to communicate verbally while on the water, there are a few universal boating hand signals that you should learn and remember. This page will teach you the basics that you should know. Even though it says for water-skiing, these hand signals apply to any person in the water communicating with a watercraft or lifeguard station.

There is one other very important signal to know, and that is the signal for “help.” To signal for help, simply raise one arm high in the air and wave.  (This is why you should never wave hello to a nearby boater if you’re in the water, because it’s actually a distress signal.)

10. Take a Jet Ski Safety Class

This isn’t a necessity, but if you can’t swim and you are new to jet skiing, it may be beneficial to take an introductory class before you go out on the water. Most lakes and marinas where you can rent jet skis will have a class for beginners that you can sign up for.  If not, there’s probably someone at the jet ski rental shop who will be more than happy to spend a few minutes teaching you the basics.

Taking a class will give you more confidence while riding and feeling confident can dramatically decrease your likelihood of falling off or getting into an unsafe situation. It can also help you feel better prepared in the unlikely event of an accident.

Help! I Fell in the Water, What Should I Do?

It can be very scary to fall in the water if you don’t know how to swim or if you aren’t a strong swimmer, but it’s important to remember that as long as you are wearing a life jacket, it’s going to be okay. Follow these tips in the event that you unexpectedly end up in the water.

  1. Don’t panic.This is the single most important tip to remember. If you fall in, stay calm and don’t panic. If you are wearing a life jacket, you are perfectly safe.  All you really need to do is hang out and wait for assistance. If for some reason you fall in when you are not wearing a life jacket, it is even more important to remain calm, because doing so will help you conserve your energy while you wait to be rescued. 
  2. If the jet ski is nearby, get back on. If you were wearing a safety lanyard and not going too fast, the jet ski may have stopped pretty close to where you fell in the water.  If so, swim over to the jet ski by moving your arms in circles and kicking your legs back and forth and pull yourself back onto the jet ski from the back, near the seat. Many jet skis are even equipped with a step that can help you get back on.
  3. Signal for help. If you can’t get back to the jet ski on your own or if it tipped over and you need help righting it, you’ll have to wait for help. As discussed in the previous section, there are a couple ways to signal that you need assistance.  If you have a whistle attached to your lift-vest, blow the whistle and wave one hand high above your head to signal that you need help.  Wait for someone to come pick you up.
  4. Relax and float. While you are waiting for help, just relax and float in the water.  Life jackets are designed to keep you floating upright in the water like a cork. It’s totally fine to just sit there bobbing up and down until someone can reach you. Try to stay somewhat vertical in the water so that others can see you and so you can watch out for other boats that may be headed in your direction.
  5. Gently tread water, don’t try to swim to safety. As mentioned above, it’s easiest to just sit there and float as long as you are wearing a life jacket. If you aren’t, try to gently tread water by moving your arms in slow circles away from your body and by gently kicking your legs in a slow, scissor motion to keep your head above the surface. Do NOT try to swim more than fifty feet or so. Most drownings happen when people try to swim to safety and tire themselves out. 

Other Tips and FAQs

There are a few other pieces of helpful information that you may want to consider or be aware of before you ride a jet ski if you can’t swim.

Can you ride in shallow water?

Many people wonder if they can avoid danger by only riding in shallow water.  The answer is, yes and no.  Jet skis are safe to ride in pretty shallow water, but you should never ride more than a few miles per hour in any water that’s shallower than three feet. 

It’s also important to remember that the floor of the ocean, lakes, and rivers, is rarely if ever perfectly even. It can be relatively easy to go from three feet of water to only about one, and running aground in a jet ski, particularly at faster speeds, is dangerous for you and could damage the jet ski. 

It’s always better to wear a life jacket and ride in at an appropriate depth than trying to ride in too shallow of water because you are afraid of falling in water deeper than you can stand.

A Lesson in Buoyancy: Salt Water vs. Fresh Water

Buoyancy describes an object’s tendency to float in a particular body of water.  Salt water is more buoyant than fresh water, so it is easier to float in the ocean than it is in a lake or river.  Keep this in mind when jet-skiing if you can’t swim.  A life jacket will keep you afloat in either, but if for some reason your life jacket falls off, it will be easier to stay afloat in salt water than it will be in fresh water.  Follow the tips above if you do fall in without a life vest.

Consider Taking Swim Lessons

Almost anyone can learn to swim, regardless of their age or physical activity level.  Most cities and towns have either public pools or swim schools that offer lessons to people of all ages if you are interested in learning to swim.  Although it’s definitely not necessary in order to jet ski, having a couple of lessons in the basics may make you feel more comfortable being out on the water. It’s also a great form of exercise.


Riding a jet ski is an exhilarating adventure that no one should have to miss out on, and luckily, not being able to swim doesn’t mean you can’t jet ski.  For the most part, when you ride a jet ski, you don’t even really have to get wet if you don’t want to.

That being said, if you’re going to jet ski without knowing how to swim, it’s critically important to follow the tips above, because they could end up saving your life.  The single most important life-saving tip to remember when riding a jet ski, whether you can swim or not, is to always wear a life jacket.  Following this one simple tip almost guarantees a safe riding experience.

Besides wearing a life jacket, it’s a good idea to bring some other common safety equipment like a whistle and a safety lanyard, and to practice common-sense safe riding tips like not going too fast and not riding alone. 

If you do happen to fall in the water, you will probably be able to get back to the jet ski and get back on by yourself without any help. However, if you do find yourself in distress, remember to stay calm and use your whistle and the appropriate hand signal to call for help. 

Even though these worst-case scenarios are unlikely, it’s always better to be safe than sorry, especially when practicing water safety.  If you still feel nervous about it, consider taking a couple of swimming or jet ski riding lessons before you hit the water and you’ll likely feel even more relaxed and prepared for an emergency. 

Happy Riding!