Jet skis account for the highest percentage of water sports accidents and deaths each year. Causative factors include operator inattention or inexperience, lack of training, the fast top speed, and the lack of surrounding protective shell that a boat provides. Jet skiers often pass closer to other boats than boaters do to jump wake.
Nothing is more fun than taking a ride on a jet ski. Jet skis are a must-own for anyone who lives on a body of water or for anyone on a beach vacation. But just like any vehicle, a jet ski can be dangerous when not used properly.
It is important to know what can go wrong so you can get the most enjoyment out of your jet ski. Here are 12 dangers that come along with riding a jet ski and how to prevent them.
1. Flipping The Jet Ski
The newest jet skis are big and very stable, so they are not easy to capsize, but it is still very common to flip one while riding. In fact, it is so common that almost all jet skis have a sticker on the back that tells you what to do when you capsize. To avoid flipping your jet ski while riding you should
- Avoid abrupt movements: The most common way to capsize a jet ski is by making a turn too abruptly. Make sure to turn gradually until you get a good feel for how the jet ski handles.
- Know your abilities: Another common way people flip a jet ski is by riding more aggressively than they can handle. Keep your speed down and do everything deliberately until you are more than comfortable with the ski.
- Watch out for waves: Jet skis tend to be extremely balanced when in motion. But if you are standing still, the more people you have on the jet ski, the more susceptible you are to be knocked over by turbulent water.
What To Do When You Capsize
If you end up capsizing your jet ski, you need to know what to do, or you risk damaging the jet ski or injuring you and your passengers.
- Let go: If you start to feel the jet ski starting to flip, let go. You aren’t going to do anything to help if it is going over. Trying to hold on or correct the flip will potentially cause more damage or injury. You might accidentally grab the throttle or steer the jet ski into fallen passengers or bystanders.
- Turn off the jet ski: A running engine can potentially draw water into the air intake. If water gets into the crankcase, it can damage the engine and the jet ski won’t restart. You should have a lanyard that will shut things down when you get thrown off, but if not, make this a priority.
- Swim to the back of the jet ski: Almost all jet skis have a sticker on the back of the jet ski that tells you how to flip that particular jet ski back over, clockwise, or counterclockwise. Different models need to be turned in different directions and that sticker will tell you which way is right for yours. If you turn it the wrong way, you will get water in the engine.
- Flip the jet ski back over: Get up on the hull and grab the intake grate, almost leaning over the ski. Start rocking the ski back and forth, holding on to the sponson on the side opposite from the side you want to go into the water. This should flip the jet ski over.
- Get back on: You want to get on from the back. If you try to get on from the side of the ski, you are likely to capsize it again.
- Start the engine: Jet ski engines are self-bailing, so if the engine starts back up, it will empty the hull of water and you are good to go. If it doesn’t start, you need to get it back to shore to dry out the engine.
- Clean and dry the plugs: Once you get the ski back to shore, you should remove the plugs and ground the wires. When the wires are grounded, clean and dry the plugs, put a little bit of fuel in the cylinder holes and put the plugs back in. Crank the engine. If it starts back up, you are good. If not, clean and dry the plugs again.
- Let the engine run: Once you get it started, let the engine run for 30 seconds, then put it back in the water. Let it run in the water for five minutes or so, and everything should be fine.
2. Falling Off The Ski
That all depends on how fast you are going and what the terrain is like around you. You can’t always control the circumstances around an accident, but there are some things you can do to lessen the damage of a fall.
- Slow down: The faster you go, the harder your impact will be with the water. Make sure that you are driving at a speed that you are comfortable handling. If you have passengers, it is always smarter to go slower than you would normally drive on your own.
- Avoid the shore and rocky terrain: Hitting the water may hurt a little but hitting a rock or shore will hurt a whole lot more. Serious injuries happen when people ski too close to dangerous objects. Make sure that you are in an area with water that is more than waist deep and clear of rocks, docks, or other solid objects.
- Wear protective gear: Wearing the right gear will help a lot when it comes to protecting yourself from falls. You should always have a lifejacket on; in most states, it’s the law. There is nothing more important that you will put on. Jet ski shoes will help with grip, a wet suit or dry suit can protect you from the water, and goggles will protect your eyes.
- Fall right: In most circumstances, you will have very little control over how you fall but falling the right way can ease the pain of contact and prevent injury. If at all possible, try to land on your back. It’s a lot less painful than smacking your face against the water surface. You should also try to keep as loose as possible. If you tense up, you make your body more rigid and less flexible, and the impact will be more severe.
And if you are carrying a passenger, make sure they are still there at all times. I’ve mentioned it before, but I stranded my daughter offshore in the Bahamas a few years ago. I only realized when the owner asked me where my passenger was. Luckily, my son picked her up right behind me and brought her in.
3. Injuring Yourself
Jet skis are built to be as safe as possible, but as with any human-operated recreation vehicle, injuries will still happen. Here are some of the common injuries for jet ski riders listed by body parts and how to avoid them.
When you are speeding at 70 miles per hour, there are a lot of threats to your eyes. Bugs, falling leaves, or any type of debris in the air will hurt significantly at those speeds. There is also the possibility of landing on your face if you fall off the jet ski. Any of these risks can cause contusions, scratched corneas, or in the worst situations, vision loss.
Whenever riding a jet ski, you should wear goggles or floating sunglasses. Try to pick a pair that fits well and feels right. But remember, the safety of your eyes is always more important than comfort or fashion.
Arms and Legs
There are many ways to hurt your arms and legs while riding a jet ski. The most obvious injuries come from falling off the ski, but poor driving techniques can lead to limb damage as well.
- Broken bones: Broken arms and legs can happen easily when falling off the ski. Hitting the water hard or even the ski itself as you fall can lead to extreme trauma. Speed is a key factor in the amount of damage you do in an accident, so the best way to avoid broken bones is riding within your limits.
- Damaged joints and ligaments: Some more advanced riders will drag a leg in the water to make sharp turns. It’s a nifty trick but if done wrong, you could sprain your knee or worse. You can also sprain your knee from cornering too fast. Once again, build up your speed and trick repertoire slowly, making sure you are driving within your limits.
Head and Neck
The obvious head injury is a concussion from hitting the water too hard, but there are other ways to get concussions as well. If you are riding with a passenger, something as simple as a quick turn could cause you to bump heads. It is just as important to know the experience and skill level of your passengers. Make sure everyone on the jet ski is comfortable with your speed and aggression.
Neck fractures can occur when you fall off the ski, as well. When you hit the water, body parts can be forced in different directions. The head is heavier and bulkier than your neck. So when your head hits the water at a different time or angle from your body, it forces the neck to twist and turn. This can lead to neck injuries. Muscle pulls or tears are the least concerning. Ruptured disks can occur. And as shown below, there is a risk of fracture.
In the CT scan below, we’re looking at the mid-cervical level (neck). You’re viewing a slice taken from head to toe, or from the side. This image is from the left of center, which is why it doesn’t look like the spine pictures in books. The red arrow shows a fracture of the left joint plate of the 6th neck vertebra (C6) where it connects to the 5th. The yellow arrows show how C5 has pulled forward from C6, while the joint between C4 and C5 is normal.
When there is a fracture and movement of the bones, damage also occurs to the small ligaments that hold things in place. That can be seen on MRI, but that is not often done because we know there is damage just by seeing the fracture. This patient will do well, by the way, with just a neck collar for 4-6 weeks. More serious injuries are a risk, though.
4. Damaging The Ski
Inexperience and recklessness are the easiest ways to damage your jet ski. It is important always to know the terrain where you are riding and to pay attention to what the jet ski is telling you.
- Avoid shallow water: Just because your jet ski doesn’t have a propeller doesn’t mean you can ride in shallow water. It is recommended that you ride in water no less than 2’ under the intake grate. Otherwise, you risk sucking sand, pebbles, and anything else sitting on the water floor into the pump and potentially ruin your engine.
You also risk hitting or dragging the bottom of the ski which may not hurt the engine but will certainly ruin your ski.
- Watch for submerged objects: Even in deeper waters, there is the danger of hitting submerged objects. This could be especially dangerous if you are traveling at fast speeds. Not only will you damage your ski, but you will most likely injure yourself.
- Know the gas from the brakes: A common mistake with newer riders is confusing the gas with the brakes. When you are new to the controls and thinking about all the things you need to do, it is simple to grab the wrong handle.
Going faster when you are looking to slow down is a sure-fire way to damage your jet ski. Make sure you spend enough time with your ski so you are clear on where all the controls are and what they can do for you.
- Look for floating debris: There can be a lot of debris and garbage floating in the areas you will be running your jet ski. Things may get lodged in the impeller or sucked into the pump. If you run with something in your impeller or pump, your jet ski is going to stop running or lead to more damage.
It’s important to be aware of your surroundings and listen to what is going on with your engine. You should always have an eye on the horizon so you can see what is coming. Sunglasses can be an important item when it comes to avoiding obstacles and debris.
The key to avoiding damage to your jet ski is to understand how the ski works. Not only does this allow you to know how to fix minor issues, but it also gives you the knowledge to know what to stay away from.
If you know the inner workings of the vessel, you should be able to make minor repairs that will prevent major damage from occurring — knowing how the ski works will also give you the knowledge to avoid dangerous situations. Pay attention to the dash codes and get to know the sounds your ski makes so you can stay ahead of any major engine damage.
5. Loading On Trailer Or Floating Dock Too Fast
One of the easiest ways to damage your ski comes after you’ve had your fun. Loading the jet ski on a trailer or docking it at home can be tricky if you aren’t experienced enough. Here are some tips for getting your jet ski back home safely.
If you are loading on a trailer, coming in too fast can easily crack the front of the ski. Whenever you are pulling your jet ski onto a trailer, you should:
- Start slow: You should glide into the trailer area and line up the jet ski while in an idle.
- Give it a little gas: Once you have the ski lined up with the trailer, give it a little gas. If the ski slides back down the trailer, try again with a little more power.
Docking too fast
If you are loading on into a dock and come in too fast, you are likely to jump the dock’s front stop and crack your hull. Or your rear unit can cross the rollers and get stuck. My nephew did exactly that during a refueling. The SeaDoo rear bucket jumped over the roller. It took four volunteers to help us lift it backwards. Slight bend in the bucket resulted, which we had to get straightened.
There is also the possibility of coming in too fast and causing the front end to dive under the dock. SeaDoo’s IBR had a recall a few years ago. Just before the recall, my son took my ski for fuel. Very experienced rider. The ski surged forward from idle speed and slid under the dock. The front damage cost $600 to repair.
I blamed the rider, but the dealer check the codes and said it was a system failure. Of course, the company didn’t pay for the damage. Not only will this damage the ski but may also injure the driver and any passengers. Whenever you are pulling your jet ski into a dock, you should:
- Start slow: Just like with a trailer, try to glide into the dock area and line up the ski in an idle.
- Move in: Give the jet ski a little gas and move up to dock slowly until it is in place.
6. Underestimating How Long It Takes To Stop
Jet skis don’t stop on a dime. It is going to take experience to get used to how quickly you can go from an open throttle to a dead stop. Some skis have brakes, and some do not, but all skis take several yards to stop at medium speed and dozens of yards to stop at top speeds. Skis with brakes can offset that risk if the rider understands how jet ski brakes work.
Not knowing how long it will take you to stop your ski can lead to personal injury and jet ski damages. If you are new to jet skiing, you should practice coming to a stop in a wide-open area where you will not endanger yourself or others. Skis with brake systems can stop up to 100 feet shorter distance from 60 mph. Consider that when test riding before buying.
7. Riding Or Cutting Too Close to Other Crafts
Chances are you won’t be the only one on the water, which means there is always the possibility of colliding with other vessels. Much like the rules of the road, there are set guidelines all water vessels must follow to avoid hitting each other. It is your duty to know these rules.
It is best just to stay away from other vessels as best you can, but there is going to come a time where you will need to know what is expected of you from others.
As a vessel with a motor, you must stay out of the way of all vessels without a motor. Sailboats always have the right of way.
Whenever you run across another motored vessel, there is a set right of way, much like when you come to an intersection on the road. Here are the rules depending on the paths of your jet ski and the other vessel.
- Path crossing: If two vessels are on perpendicular paths the vessel on the left must give way or allow the vessel on the right to continue on its path
- Head-on: If you are on a head-on path with another vessel, each vessel should move to the right to avoid a collision.
It is a good rule of thumb never to put yourself in front of an oncoming boat. If something breaks or you fall off your ski, the other boat will not be able to stop. Try always to avoid situations where you are putting you or your passengers at risk from situations you don’t have control over.
My son once jumped the rear wake of a coast guard boat a few years ago, and they chased him down and lectured him for 15 minutes. He kept asking what law he broke, and they couldn’t answer. They mentioned collision risk, he pointed out he crossed sideways from behind. They mentioned speeding, he countered by asking what the speed limit is on the river and is this a no wake zone.
In the end, he was in the right, and he got no ticket. But the experience wasn’t pleasant. And now state law here specifically includes a ban on jumping a boat’s wake at any distance. That leads us straight into the next topic.
8. Breaking a Law and Getting Ticketed
There are just as many laws for safety on the water as there are on land, and you need to pay attention to all of them if you want a safe and peaceful ride without incident. The laws are in place not just to protect you, but others as well. Here are some of the basics to keep in mind.
- Do not speed in a no-wake zone: Wake zones are set up to protect marine life, shoreside property, and other people out enjoying the water. Make sure you know where these zones are and lower your speed as much as possible when passing through.
- Don’t drink and drive: This one should be obvious. Just like when driving a car, all 50 states have laws against drinking and operating a watercraft. Don’t do it.
- Have required safety gear: You should always have a lifejacket on. You also need a whistle or horn and an emergency cutoff lanyard. Your jet ski, by law, also needs a Coast Guard-approved B-1 fire extinguisher.
- Observe legal times and places to ride: Know the body of water you are riding in and the places that you are allowed to be with your jet ski.
- Be licensed if required: Most states will require you to have a license for your jet ski. Make sure you have any needed registration properly displayed as well.
9. Getting Lost
It seems a little silly in this day of advanced technology, but getting lost is still a very serious danger, especially if you are riding offshore or on a river with many small branches. You need to pay attention to the terrain around you and look for landmarks whenever possible, just in case your technology fails. Here are some things to keep in mind if exploring on your jet ski.
- Navigation apps: If you do a lot of jet skiing in areas you are not familiar with it might be worth getting a navigation app like Garmin BlueChart Mobile, Navionics, or Polarview MX. Most of the apps are free but you are usually expected to pay a fee for specific charts.
- Paper maps: It’s probably a good idea to keep a paper map with you as well. You never know when cell coverage will disappear. Paper maps are easy to store and never go out of service. Though they can get wet, so keep in a waterproof pouch.
- The sun: If you spend a lot of time in the water, it is certainly worth your time to learn to use the sun for your directions. The sun moves from east to west over the course of a day. You should be able to use approximate time of day to figure out a direction based on where the sun is in the sky.
10. Running Out Of Gas
Jet skis run on gas, so just like your car, you are going to have to pay attention to how much you are using, or you may end up in trouble. Most jet skis have a 16-gallon tank and use about 12-14 gallons an hour if driven aggressively, leaving you around 75-90 minutes of fun.
But there are going to be circumstances where you are going to find yourself milking every ounce of gas you can, like if you find yourself lost. Here are some things that help if you find yourself in a tight spot with gas.
- Know the marina hours: It would really suck if you planned on filling up before heading home and find out the marina closed an hour ago. Know the hours so you don’t get stuck.
- Carry an accessory can: You can rig a jerry can to the ski if you plan on being out longer than your tank can take you.
- Stay close: If you know you are low on gas, don’t wander off. Keep close to the launch ramp or dock so you won’t have to go far if your engine starts to sputter.
- Know how long you have: Gas gauges on jet skis are not very accurate. They are an approximate gauge of what you have left. It is better to know how long you have been out and what size tank you have.
- Use economy mode: If you get to a critical point, use economy mode so you can return to the dock at a steady speed. Fluctuations in speed use more gas.
- Always have a tow rope: You never know when you are going to need it.
Over the years, we’ve tried several brands of gas cans. Most of them leak at the nozzle seal. We keep our skis at a local marina that does not sell gas, and two nearest river gas stations close early on weekdays. Often without warning, they’ll close at 5 pm. If we go out after work, we only have one tank to use.
So we often carry 3 of these. Fuel weighs nearly 8 pounds per gallon, so I’d rather not carry a 10 gallon can. Having 2 of these per jet ski can add an hour or more to your fun. Just make sure your marina owner is OK with having gas cans on the dock. Or you can store them upright in your vehicle.
11. Getting Caught In A Storm
Weather can be one of the scariest situations you will run into on the open water. It is important always to check the weather before you go out. Tune in to the National Weather Service to get the most updated warnings for your area. While some storms may just pop up, most are seen coming and easy to avoid.
You should also always keep an eye on the horizon. If you see dark, ugly clouds come rolling in, it is time to go home. Don’t try to get those last few minutes of fun in, get to safety. Storms potentially bring choppy water or large waves that make riding dangerous. They can also bring lightning that is life-threatening. If you do get stuck out on the water, it is important to know what to do on a boat if there is lightning.
- Stay low: If there is absolutely nowhere to go, you want to stay as low as possible on the jet ski. Lightning hits the tallest object, so if you are upright on your jet ski in the middle of a lake, you’re the number one target.
- Get to shore: Even if you are far from home, get to shore as quickly and safely as possible. There will be much more protection from a storm onshore than in the middle of a body of water.
- Look for rocks: Rocky terrain is best. Try to find large rock formations that you can hide under. Not only will they give you shelter from the lightning, but they will keep off some of the rain as well.
- Stay away from trees and antennae: Both of these attract lightning strikes. You don’t want to be parked under either one while the storm is raging.
12. Letting Inexperienced Riders Use Your Ski
Ultimately, you are responsible for everything that happens on your ski even if you aren’t the one driving it, so be picky about who you let use it. The less experience a driver has the more all these other dangers become possibilities. If a rider isn’t familiar with a jet ski, they are more likely to:
- Fall Off
- Hit Stuff
Don’t put yourself in a position where you are liable for someone else’s stupidity. This is especially true if you use your craft for any of the business endeavors I wrote about.
If you are going to let a newbie drive your jet ski, make use of the custom speed feature on most skis. This will prevent them from maxing out speed and performance. It will allow you to gauge their handling ability and prevent any mistakes from causing major damage.
Riding your jet ski should be a fun experience. The key is to be smart and know your limits. Pay attention to these suggestions, and you should have a great time in the water.