How to Ride a Jet Ski Safely: The Ultimate Checklist

According to research completed by The University of Vermont, there are more than 1 million registered owners of jet skis.  Nearly 35% of all water accidents involve personal water vehicles such as these.  With staggering numbers like this, it is important to know how to operate and ride a jet ski safely, so you don’t become a statistic. 

Many people do not know or forget when they are about to get into an accident that jet skis only turn when you have the throttle on. You may lock up when you are about to get into a wreck and let off the throttle. The important thing to do is throttle up and turn as quick as possible.

How do you ride a jet ski safely? To truly use a jet ski safely, you need to be familiar with the equipment you are using as well as the safety rules and regulations that have been put in place to ensure safe operations of personal water vehicles.  This may be accomplished by taking a special safety course, which is often offered by the coast guard or another water safety group.

Jet skis are a tremendous amount of fun and can be enjoyed by the entire family, but only if they are operated in a safe manner. Failing to operate your jet ski safely can have dire consequences.  In this article, you will learn about the different types of jet skis and how to safely operate them so you can enjoy your time on the water. 

Riding a Jet Ski Safely

One of the most responsible things a jet ski owner can do is learn how to use the machine responsibly and safely. In this day and age, personal watercraft can have upwards of 300 horsepower on something that weighs less than 1,000 pounds, so that can be a lot of power for someone to get used to. Not only does this prevent personal injury, it also ensures the life of your machine and the safety of those sharing the water with you.

Research completed regarding jet ski accidents pinpointed some of the main causes of accidents and injury with these 3 factors.

  1. Children driving the jet ski
  2. Reckless driving
  3. Lack of experience and training

Children Driving

The idea of a child driving any motor vehicle doesn’t sound like the best idea.  I understand you may have the most responsible child that is adept at operating machines, but that doesn’t mean he or she is able to control a personal water vehicle.  In fact, he or she is legally not supposed to be driving on land or water.  

How Old do You Have to Be to Drive a Jet Ski?

Each state has different laws when it comes to children driving jet skis. To legally operate a personal water vehicle the age limit ranges between 12 and 16 years of age.  Most states require a parent or adult to be present when children on the younger end of the spectrum are operating the craft. has created a chart with specific state regulations that you can easily reference, however it is important that you check your states current regulations, as changes happen frequently. 

Reckless Driving

When you are on a jet ski it’s easy to get caught up in the atmosphere and fun which can cause you to drive recklessly.  Reckless driving in the water is no different than reckless driving in the water.  As the operator or a jet ski, you are expected to be a responsible and safe driver.

What Constitutes Reckless Driving on a Jet Ski?

  • Weaving in and out of the path of other watercraft that are either stopped or in motion.
  • Following another watercraft too closely.
  • Crossing in front of a tube or person being towed by another watercraft.
  • Turning closely toward a boat or person in order to spray them with water.

 These items were borrowed from the VA laws related to reckless operation of watercraft. Check with your local state to determine the laws. As you can see the actions that constitute reckless driving in the water are very similar to the actions that are reckless in a motor vehicle, apart from spraying water. 

Lack of Experience and Training

Although riding a jet ski looks to be simple, it is still important to take a proper training course to ensure you know how to operate the machine correctly.  There are courses offered through a variety of agencies in each state.  The best way to determine where you can take the course is to do a quick google search for personal watercraft (PWC) safety courses near me. 

Because each state has their own requirements the list of agencies providing this training, is too extensive to place in this article.  If you are struggling to find a course, it would be beneficial to reach out to a parks and recreation department 

Traits of a Safe Jet Ski Operator

Knowing the three most common actions that cause accidents on jet skis makes it even more important to know the traits of a safe operator. 

  1. Drive defensively
  2. Make sure you have at least 300 feet of stopping distance
  3. Use appropriate and required safety equipment
  4. Take a safety course

Drive Defensively

When you drive defensively with a motor vehicle it means you are always alert to the conditions around you and are constantly adjusting for changing conditions. According to Nationwide Insurance, defensive driving on a jet ski includes the following characteristics:

  • Be alert to other jet skis and boaters
  • DON’T jump the wake provided by passing boats
  • Only carry the proper number of passengers on the jet ski
  • All passengers are seated behind the driver (no exceptions!)
  • Don’t loan your jet ski to inexperienced drivers

Knowing it isn’t possible to prevent all accidents from happening makes defensive driving even more important. Your defensive driving actions could mean the difference between having and not having an accident. 

Provide 300 Feet of Stopping Distance

Just like driving a motor vehicle you need to provide ample stopping distance. Remember it takes extra time for vehicle to stop depending on the speed it is traveling.  A jet ski is no different. If you choose to follow a watercraft or individual with less than 300 feet between you the risk of having an accident is greatly increased.

Some jet skis have brakes which will decrease your stopping distance, but never count on them to stop you on a dime like you may think. Changing water conditions, chop, and weight on the ski may change the stopping distance.

Use Appropriate and Required Safety Equipment

Having the proper safety equipment easily accessible is required for the safe operation of a jet ski.  Each state has specific safety equipment requirements.  Before heading out on the jet ski you need to check into the type of safety equipment that is required.  Most states require the following things.

Safety Equipment Requirements or Specifications Cost
Life vest This is required for EVERY rider. The life jacket must be Coast Guard approved Type I, II, III, and V are all accepted as appropriate. ** The life jacket must fit appropriately The cost of a life jacket can range between $12 – $300.00 depending on the brand and type you decide to purchase. 
Fire Extinguisher Must be Coast Guard approved type BC-1 Must be easily accessible  You may need to purchase a bracket to hold the fire extinguisher The cost of a marine fire extinguisher is very small compared to the amount of damage a fire can do on a watercraft.
Kill Switch Lanyard Always attached to the ignition key and the operator  Kill Switches are very minimal and come standard on many jet skis.
Signaling Device Must be easily accessible Typically attached to the life jacket A cheap whistle can work to alert other boaters.
Backfire Flame Arrestor and Ventilation System Keep the jet ski safe for the environment. This prevents backfires from igniting the jet ski hull. Most jet skis come equipped with this from the factory.
Registration  States require you to have proper registration decals displayed for easy viewing. Check with a state boating authority to determine what decals are necessary.  The fee to register a jet ski is going to vary by state but it is typically around $50.00 per year to register. 

Life Jackets for PWC Operation

** There are four types of life jackets that are deemed appropriate by the coast guard. According to these are the intended uses for each. Use this chart to help determine which is the best option for you. 

Type I

  • Recommended for use in rough water or where it may take a long time for rescuers to arrive. 
  • This jacket will likely turn an unconscious person face up.
  • Helps retain body heat
  • Useful when boating in rough water or alone as well as for racing, cruising and fishing

Type II

  • Useful when close to shore and rescue can be close at hand if needed
  • Does not keep your head above water without treading water
  • Not useful in rough water
  • May turn an unconscious person face up
  • Useful when; fishing, cruising or sailing in calm water

Type III (non-inflatable)

  • Recommended for supervised water activities like water skiing, boat racing, canoeing and kayaking or other situations were rescue is quickly available if needed
  • Not useful in rough water
  • Will not turn an unconscious person face up

Type III (inflatable)

  • Not recommended for rough water 
  • Useful for inland activities where quick rescue is available 
  • May not turn unconscious victim face up

Type V – special use

  • Must be used for the intended purpose- usually specific like rafting, sailing, etc.
  • Meet minimum Coast Guard Requirements

Type V – Automatic Inflation 

  • Only used one time
  • Not likely to turn a victim face up

Type V – Hybrid Inflation

  • Intended for most boating activities
  • Will not help an unconscious victim

Clearly there are many options when it comes to life jackets and each serves a very specific purpose.  It is important that you choose the correct life jacket to ensure full safety when you are jet skiing.  

Take a Boaters Safety Course

Once you have all the necessary safety equipment it is critical that you take a safety course.  Remember, one of the leading causes of accidents is inexperience and lack of knowledge.  While the safety course won’t likely make you an expert, it will give you a greater understanding about using your jet ski properly and safely.

When looking at training courses you will see three options.  There is a classroom option, an online option and an on-water option.  You are also free to take each of the courses to ensure you have greater knowledge regarding the use of your jet ski.

What is Included in a Safety Course?

When you take a safety course the content covered will be virtually the same regardless of the state you live in. You will be expected to learn and remember the following things. 

  • The logistics of your watercraft such as the engine, equipment on the craft, how to transport it safely to the water source as well as the best way to maintain the craft.
  • How to get on the water and the rules associated with being on the water with your craft and how to use sound signals as well as the traffic rules on the water
  • How to navigate various waterways with depth and other features
  • The legal requirements for your specific state
  • What to do in an emergency on the water

If you are taking a safety course on the water, you will be focused more on the navigational aspect of the jet ski. The topics of study for you will include. 

  • Launching
  • Handling and recovery
  • Planning and decision making
  • Ride speed and skills
  • Tips for accident avoidance

Length of Time Required to Complete the Course

When taking a course, it can be completed in one day.  If you are taking an online course, you can likely finish the course within about three hours.  

If you are taking an online course, be sure to print out your certificate of completion so you have it on hand.  You will likely be able to retrieve it after, but it’s typically best to do it right away so you don’t forget to do it later. Some states may even send you a boaters education completion card. I have one from my boaters education course that I took several years ago.

Is There a Charge for The Course?

The charge for each course will vary by state, but yes, there is typically a small fee for each course.  The cost is usually around $30.00.  This includes the training, study guide as well as the fee for the actual exam.  Again, check with the location you will be taking the course to determine the actual cost. 

Are Jet Skis Dangerous?

One of the most common questions asked when looking at jet skis is the safety level of the activity.  Jet skis can be dangerous if not handled and maintained properly.  If you follow all the safety guidelines set forth by the boating commission and take the proper courses, jet skis are safe to use.

When you neglect to take the proper courses and precautions, Jet skis become extremely dangerous pieces of equipment that can cause great injury to both the operator and bystanders.  It is important to remember however that even with the best training and most wonderful safety features there is an element of danger with personal water vehicles.

Riding a Stand-Up Jet Ski Safely

I’m certain you have witnessed individuals buzzing around standing up on the jet ski and they make it look like a piece of cake.  Let me tell you, standing to ride a jet ski is far from easy.  In fact, it involves a strong sense of balance because the machine is far less stable than the seated models. 

If you think you are in the market for a stand-up jet ski you need to follow these guidelines to ensure a safe ride. 

  1. Ensure the proper placement of your feet (staggered and a bit wide will help with balance)
  2. Don’t give the jet ski too much gas to begin or you will fall off
  3. Practice turning while going slowly…you must lean into the turn
  4. Always wear a lifejacket and the kill switch lanyard
  5. Make sure you have completed the proper safety course prior to riding

Learning to ride a stand-up jet ski takes time and practice so don’t expect to get it overnight. While you are learning it is going to be extremely important that you are aware of your surroundings in the water.  It is easy to become hyper focused on the task at hand and lose track of what is going on around you.  When using a jet ski this can be dangerous. 

Riding a Sit-Down Jet Ski Safely

The common school of thought is that sitting on a jet ski is much easier than standing.  While this may be true, there are still precautions that need to be taken to ensure a safe ride.  

  1. Make sure you have taken to proper safety courses 
  2. Wear a life jacket and the kill switch lanyard.
    • Remember EVERY rider needs a life jacket, even in shallow and calm water…accidents do happen.
  3. Make sure your seated position is comfortable (easy reach to handles and feet are firmly placed) 
    • All passengers must sit behind the driver
  4. Don’t try to go fast quickly.  Take your time to get to know the full power of the machine as well as how it handles.
  5. Lean into your turns while maintaining a centered seat.

There are a lot of things to remember when you are riding a jet ski, especially if you are a new rider, but with practice it will become second nature just like driving a car.  It is important however to not allow your comfort level to diminish your ability to be safe on the jet ski.  

As you become more comfortable and confident, you may be tempted to chase wakes and begin jumping over them.  While this is fun and completely possible, you need to exercise caution when doing so, especially if you have passengers with you.  

The Statistics

In the 2017 Recreational Boating Statistics Report, personal water vehicle injuries were ranked at 2 out of 5 with 46 total deaths and 624 total injuries.  Some of the top causes of incidents were listed as, operator inattention, operator inexperience, excessive speed, hazardous water and the force of the wake or wave.  

Likely there are many other details and factors involved in these rankings, but it does offer evidence that operating a jet ski can in fact be relatively dangerous without proper attention and training.  This study confirms the importance of following all the safety guidelines provided earlier in the article. 

Types of Jet Skis

When looking at jet skis, you will find several types to choose from.  Each type has unique characteristics that make it suitable for specific locations.  It is important that you pay attention to this information when purchasing or using a jet ski.

Type of Jet Ski Brand and Model Features
Lite Recreational  Sea Doo Spark Best for small lakes and rivers, not for rough water
Smaller model of jet ski
Not extremely fast moving
Recreational Sea Doo GTI, Yamaha VX’s Kawasaki STX 15F Max speed of 5oMPH
Larger than the lite models 
Not technology heavy
Performance  Yamaha Wave runner Used for racing
Max speed is 70MPH
Sport Sea Doo Wake Very powerful and fast
Added features for towing 
Luxury Sea Doo GTX iS LTD All the bells and whistles of luxury
Suspension features that adjusts for water conditions
Depth finders
Comfort when riding

As you can see, each type of jet ski is quite different and manufactured for specific conditions.  If you use a jet ski in improper conditions you will risk injury to yourself and the machine. 

Ways to Ride a Jet Ski or Wave Runner

If you have ever watched someone ride a jet ski, you may have noticed some people standing while others are sitting.  Jet skis are made for a specific method of riding. No matter which method you choose there are pros and cons to each. 

Standing Up

Riding a jet ski while standing up can be a tremendous amount of fun but it requires a significant amount of skill to do it safely. Today there only two manufacturers, the Yamaha Superjet as well as a Kawasaki Jet Ski. There are other aftermarket brands who make skis, but they are mostly for closed course trick competition. Here are the pros and cons of a stand- up machine.

Pros cons
1. The machine is smaller in size which allows for each transportation and storage.
2. Smaller size means less parts to maintain, thus making this a low maintenance machine.
3. You can’t pull with this type of jet ski
4. Solo riders only
5. Slower moving than most machines
6. More fun than a sit down model (in my opinion)
7. Takes skill to ride
1. Standing machines offer less stability because the rider must find his/her center of balance
2. They are challenging to ride
3. Limited onboard storage
4. Lack of bells and whistles

The pros are greater than the cons for this machine, but the cons are important to note.  If you are a new jet ski rider or have trouble balancing, this may not be the best machine to use.  Beginners would likely do better using a more stable and secure model.

Sit Down Models

The most common type of jet ski and what you are probably more familiar with is the sit-down model. Here are the pros and cons of this model of wave runner:

Pros cons
1. Multiple riders can use the machine at one time 2-3
2. More stable for individuals with health concerns
3. Best for families
4. More relaxed riding
5. Good for tow sports such as wakeboarding and tubing
6. Often there are sound systems that you can add into the jet ski
7. The machine is often equipped with onboard storage compartments
1. The size can be a hinderance when it comes to transporting and storing the machine.
2. There are many more components which means higher maintenance 
3. Often referred to as a couch as they can get boring for some users riding solo.

If you are searching for a jet ski that is appropriate for your family and various lake activities a sit-down model would likely be the best choice.  Because of the stability, it is appropriate for someone that suffers from joint or muscle issues.  

What Are Popular Brands of Jet Skis?

There are several brands of jet skis on the market that are popular.  I am going to discuss three brands in more detail.  The three brands I am going to highlight are Yamaha, Kawasaki and Sea-Doo. If you will remember, each of these were mentioned previously as the types of jet skis were introduced.  Here you will read about the models and price of each. 


Model Use Sit/ Stand Cost
EX Series Recreation Lite Sit $6,899 – $9,399
VX Series Recreation Sit $8,999 – $11,799
FX Series Luxury Sit $13,699 – $17,599
Superjet Racing stand $8,699


Model Use Sit/ Stand Cost
SX-R Recreation / Racing Stand $9,999
STX-160 Recreation Sit $9,599 – $11,699
STX-15F Recreation Sit $9,699
Ultra LX Luxury and Racing Models Sit $11,999
Ultra 310X Luxury and Racing Models sit $15,299 – $17,999


Model Use Sit/ Stand Cost
Spark/ Spark Trixx Recreation Lite Sit $5,499 – $7,599
GTI 90/130 and GTI SE 130/170 Recreation Sit $8,999 – $10,799
GTX Limited 230/300 and GTX 170/230 Touring Sit $12,999 – $16,199
Wake PRO 230 and Wake 170 Tow Sports stand $12,199 – $14,899
GTR 230, RXP-X 300 and RXT-X 300 Performance sit $12,399 – $16,199
Fish Pro Sport Fishing sit $14,999

As you can see the choices between jet skis are quite varied in both use as well as price.  Purchasing a jet ski is a big commitment so you want to make sure you are making a wise investment. The best way to find what is right for you is to do research, talk to other jet ski owners, read everything you can online about the jet ski you are contemplating.  Remember there will be good and bad reviews for every type so you will need to use your discernment. 

Some jet ski dealerships will also allow you to take a practice ride. If you have not been through a proper training course and are completely new to the world of jet skis, it would be advantageous to ride with an experienced driver.  

Final Thoughts

Jet skis are an excellent personal water vehicle to spend time on. While there are risks involved and ensuring safety need to be a priority, you are bound to have a great time if you decide to purchase one.

Always remember anyone that is going to be riding on or driving the jet ski needs to be properly trained.  This will lessen the chance of a preventable accident from occurring.  Most importantly, have fun with your new water toy!