Jet Ski operation different than other watercraft |

Jet Ski operation different than other watercraft

Gregory Crofton

Operating a Jet Ski can be confusing. The machine has no brakes. Instead, its engine cuts out when a rider falls off or when their hand comes off the throttle.

“If you’re used to driving a car you slow down to avoid a collision, of course, but you also try to steer away,” said Megan Standard, spokeswoman for the California Department of Boating and Waterways. “That experience doesn’t translate on a personal watercraft. You need to maintain throttle speed so you can steer out of a collision. But if you let go of the throttle, you can’t steer.”

Tack those technical challenges on to the age limits to operate a Jet Ski on Lake Tahoe – you need to be 16 in California and 14 in Nevada – and occasionally that adds up to trouble.

“With personal watercraft often it’s a collision type of accident because they don’t know what rules of road are,” said Fred Messman, boating administrator for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. “They treat them more as a thrill ride at an amusement park instead of the boat that they are.”

Messman helped change Nevada boating laws as of January 2003. They now require that a Jet Ski operator is at least 14 years old, it was 12, and that the rider has completed some type of boater education course. Courses are available online through a state Web site, but businesses that rent the machines are also required to educate their customers before they go out on the water.

The U.S. Coast Guard station at Lake Tahoe said accidents like the one on Monday can often be avoided if operators of Jet Skis give each other plenty of room.

“Be aware of your surroundings and of other Jet Skis around you,” said Justin Baumgartner, a law enforcement officer with the Coast Guard. “You don’t know what they are going to do, and they don’t know what you are going to do. Five-hundred feet is a good distance to be safely away from them.”

– Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or by e-mail at

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