How to Prevent PWC Theft: 10 Inexpensive Strategies

Personal watercraft (PWC) theft can be a problem even in broad daylight in nicer neighborhoods.  PWCs are often stored on trailers making it easy for thieves to just back up and hook on.  It can happen so fast; neighbors may not even notice.  If they do, they may think that someone is just being allowed to borrow the PWC and not realize they are watching a theft.

How do you prevent PWC theft? Most strategies are aimed at making theft more difficult and deterring the thieves.  These strategies focus on making the craft difficult to take or unusable if taken. There are 10 inexpensive strategies that can help keep your PWC safe.

  • Remove your lanyard, key, or activate the locking system
  • Lock your trailer to your hitch.
  • Lock your hitch to your towing vehicle.
  • Lock your craft to your trailer.
  • Lock your PWC to the dock frame.
  • Use wheel locks on the trailer.
  • Install a motion sensor alarm.
  • Use a cover.
  • Use ground anchors.
  • Practice careful parking.

The popularity of PWCs and their ease of transport make them easy and very tempting targets for thieves.  Anyone who has ever had their craft stolen knows the heartbreak of realizing the craft is permanently gone.  However, following these simple and inexpensive steps can help deter thieves and ensure the safety of any craft.

Remove Your Lanyard, Magnetic Key, or Activate Lock

  • Not all thefts occur when a PWC is being stored on a trailer.Many times, they happen when the craft is left unattended at the beach, dock, or other places while the owner enjoys some other fun in the sun. However, most modern crafts have a built-in locking system.  The system depends on the craft.
  • Digitally encoded lanyard is typical on a Sea-Doo
  • Removable magnetic keys are used on Kawasakis
  • An electronic lock or keyfob comes with a Yamaha
  • Most other brands have some sort of electronic device that is the same or similar. 

A simple and free step is to make sure and remove and/or activate the lock.  This will ensure that the craft will not start, so it deters theft. But someone can still tow it away.  It also protects against curious children accidentally starting the craft. Sadly, most people are “only going to be gone a minute” and do not use this locking system, resulting in the craft not being there when they return.

  •  Removing the lanyard will help decrease theft. Also, make sure to keep the craft in sight anytime it is being left somewhere, such as the beach.  A waterproof battery disconnect switch may also be helpful.  Many of them have a removable key.  This can also be used when storing to decrease battery drain.

Towing Security Tips 

  • When towing a personal watercraft, keep in mind that the craft at risk of being taken any time it is out of sight of the owner.So, every bathroom break, food stop, or any other stop leaves the PWC at risk of being stolen.  Even parking at a motel for the night may result in the craft being gone in the morning.  These tips help ensure that will not happen.

Lock Your Trailer to Your Hitch

  1. A trailer lock that should be considered is a coupler latch to lock the coupler onto the ball.  This prevents the thief from just unhooking the trailer from the two vehicles and re-hooking to theirs quickly.  Options include a good padlock or trailer-specific lock can be used instead of the cotter pin.  
  2. Even with this lock, it would still be possible for a thief to unbolt the trailer ball, but this would take significantly more effort and would be more noticeable.It is more likely that the thief would move on to an easier target that is less hassle.

Lock Hitch to the Towing Vehicle

keyed receiver hitch lock from Amazon will keep a thief from simply pulling the pin, removing the hitch, and quickly switching the trailer and craft to their vehicle, and driving away with them.  This is especially important if the trailer is going to be unattended for a longer period, such as overnight, or left in an area where it is not as going to be watched closely, such as a motel parking lot late at night. A coded lock is even easier to use, since there are no keys to lose.  Be sure to get a waterproof model and the correct length for your receiver.

These scenarios allow thieves a longer time to swap out the towing vehicle, so the hitch and receiver both need to be locked to deter theft.  If you need to leave for a longer period and do not have these locks, a cheap alternative is to remove a trailer tire.  A locking lug nut will keep any enterprising thieves from just replacing the wheel.

Lock the Watercraft to the Trailer

  • Thieves have been known to pick a PWC right off a trailer when left unattended.To prevent this, the craft needs to be locked to the trailer when it is not in use or left unattended when towing.  Invest in a heavy gauge steel wire cable lock to lock the PWC to the trailer.  The cable lock can be run through bow eye or rear tie-down rings.  Using vinyl coated cable will prevent scratching the paint.
  • The more trouble it seems, the less likely a thief will attempt to grab the craft.  Making things difficult is the idea.  PWC racers have been known to run cable through wheels, under the drive shaft, and through the trailer frame.
  • We use 1/2” braided steel cable waterproofed with nylon coating. It can be used to lock ski to you trailer, the trailer to your vehicle, or your ski to your vehicle when coupled with the marine brass lock shown below. 3/8” is a little cheaper, but standard bolt cutters can break through 3/8” cable a little more easily.

Wheel Locks

When storing a PWC on a trailer, a wheel “boot” will lock the trailer in place preventing the thief from just hooking onto the trailer and driving off.  These devices work on the same basic idea as the wheel boot used by parking enforcement officers.  The wheel chock attaches to the wheel and locks securing to the hub of the trailer wheel.  The lock is firmly planted on the ground making the wheel immovable.

These locks are often seen installed on travel trailers, cargo, trailers, and other commercial haulers.  They typically cost between $50-$150, making them more expensive than some of the other strategies, but they are basically impossible to breach and steal the trailer with the watercraft.  These devices can also be used for overnight stops when towing.

Remember that you don’t need to use all of these methods. A combination of one or two would be sufficient for travel and storage. You can use the hitch lock to keep the receiver from being removed from the tow vehicle, and then use cable with a lock to keep the craft from being lifted off the trailer. Click the image below to see the Amazon page.

Or you can use wheel chock locks and park where the trailer can’t be accessed. Buying a longer braided 1/2” cable and a waterproof lock would allow you to pass the cable around the trailer, tow vehicle frame and then lock the front or rear PWC hook to all of the above.

This method would also prevent a thief from showing up with a different trailer and lifting your ski off and onto their trailer. And it prevents someone showing up with cheap spare wheels, removing your lug nuts to remove the boot, and replacing with their wheels before heading off with your ski.

Traveling Safely with a Watercraft

We sometimes take long trips and park the tow vehicle and trailer well away from our houseboat or camping site. So we use a hitch lock for the receiver, the hitch pin lock for the trailer, and take cables with us to lock our skis up at our site.

Overnight travel with a PWC can result in it sitting in a hotel or campground parking lot unattended for the night.  Unless the owner wants to sleep in the craft, this is a prime opportunity for thieves.  However, some simple tips can prevent theft during the night.

Motion Sensor Alarm

A motion sensor alarm can be installed on the tow vehicle, the trailer, or the craft.  Various options exist.  Some turn on bright lights and alarms.  Others will send an alert to an app on a smart phone. The key is anything that will prevent the thief from completing the theft undiscovered.  

Safe Parking Tips

When parking for the night, it is important to park carefully and consider how to make the trailer as inaccessible as possible.  This can be done most easily by parking off the street, around good lighting, near security cameras if they are installed, and always locking the towing vehicle.  

Once the parking area is determined, park with a second car close behind the trailer leaving no room for it to be pushed back and hooked onto another vehicle.  When traveling alone, try to park with the trailer facing the motel door.  Another idea is to chain the trailer to a large immovable object that is close by.  Keep the chain off the ground and the slack to a minimum.  

Storage Safety Tips

In the best possible scenario, a PWC would be stored in a secure building behind locked doors.  Alternatively, being safely behind a locked gate would also help make it more secure.  However, not everyone has these options.  When storing your PWC out in the open, some anti-theft strategies are necessary.

We lock our skis to the dock frame at the marina using this waterproof marine brass combination lock. Just spray a little WD-40 in the mechanism once or twice per year, and it will last a very long time. Combination locks are much better than keyed locks at the marina, where it’s easy to drop the keys in the water under the dock.

I’ve sacrificed a couple of screwdrivers to the river spirits, so I know better than to handle keys when I’m leaning over to unlock my ski for a ride. It’s also very sturdy, and thick enough to prevent all but the most committed thief with special equipment. Click the image to see the lock on Amazon.

Covers

Many PWC thefts are crimes of opportunity.  The thief sees an unattended watercraft and makes a snap decision to steal it.  A simple and cheap cover can keep the PWC out of the sight and mind of the thief.  This is even more true when using a universal cover.  These covers can disguise the shape of the craft, making it unclear what is under the cover. 

Manufacturer covers not only conform to the shape, they often have the brand and model posted on the cover.  These covers are less of a deterrent as the thief will know immediately not only that a PWC is under the cover, but the exact make and model.  This makes it better to stick to a basic universal cover when possible.

Ground Anchor

When storing a PWC outside for an extended period, a cemented ground anchor can be used.  This can allow the craft and/or trailer to be chained to one place using a chain and padlock or a cable lock.  Anchoring methods can vary.  If a ground anchor is not available, the craft can be chained to any large immovable object.  This can be done even when the craft is placed inside an unlocked garage.

Other Tips and Tricks for Storage

When storing for extended periods, several other safety tips can deter thieves:

  • Remove trailer wheels using a locking lug to prevent a wheel from being put on.
  • Deactivate garage door openers if stored in a garage and going to be out of town.
  • Park another vehicle so that the front of the trailer is not accessible.
  • When using multiple trailers, chain the craft to the trailers and chain the trailers together.
  • When parked on the water for extended periods, remove or deactivate the battery.
  • Do not draw attention to the craft by discussing with neighbors or those who might have questionable morals. 

The key to safe extended storage is to decrease notice and accessibility.  The craft will not get stolen if it is not noticed.  The thieves will give up if it is not easily accessible.  All the tips presented are aimed at those two ideas.  Anything that accomplishes these will assist in the PWC being stored safely and not being stolen.

Bonus Tip: Trackers

One of the coolest ways to prevent theft is a GPS tracker for the craft.  They can serve two purposes.  First, they will alert the owner when the PWC is moving, which means they would have the opportunity to get the craft back before it is completely taken.  Second, they provide information as to the location of the PWC.  This allows for recovery if taken.

This anti-theft device is more expensive than some of the other ones suggested.  The SPOT Trace Anti-Theft Tracking Device is just about $100.  However, it fits nicely and is easy to set up.  It is also cheaper than replacing a PWC.  It also allows for peace of mind knowing the craft is protected.  A potential downside is the monthly fee required by some trackers.

General Precautions

Most of the simple strategies have to do with making the stealing of the PWC as difficult as possible for the thief with the idea that, if it is too much hassle, the thief will move onto easier targets or someone will notice.  But what if after all the precautions the craft is still stolen?  Some simple steps can make it more likely that the craft can be recovered.

  • Take Pictures:  Take pictures of the following:
    • The whole craft to aid in identification and proving ownership.
    • Engine compartment, hull identification number, and any unique features
  • Videotape: An alternative to photos, make a video recording of the craft, trailer, and accessories to document:
    • Overall conditioning for insurance reporting
    • Visual evidence for recovering if stolen
  • Write Down:  Just like with any valuable possession, make sure the following numbers are stored in the towing vehicle’s glove compartment with copies stored securely at home:
    • Hull Identification Number
    • Trailer ID
    • State Registration
    • Engine Serial Number
  • Make copies:  Registration, insurance, and purchase invoice should all be photocopied.  Keep one copy in the towing vehicle and the other in a safe location.
  • Marking:  Mark the craft and key components to help with identification and recovery.
    • Engrave an identifying number in several places, including on the trailer.  
    • Mark with an ultraviolet pen to mark key components. 

These efforts are inexpensive, simple, and fast.  They will not help with preventing theft but do create an opportunity for the craft to be recovered, identified, and returned to the owner.  Also, when marking the craft, if the mark is clearly visible, that may serve as a deterrent to thieves. 

Used Watercraft and Parts

Thieves steal PWCs to either strip them for parts to be sold or to re-sale the craft itself.  By reducing the market for stolen boats, engine, and parts, it reduces the incentive for stealing.  Thieves are typically stealing to make money and not for their own personal use.  All buyers of PWC parts must be aware of the problems of stolen watercrafts and make sure to only buy from reputable sources.

Check the Hull Identification Number

The Hull Identification Number (HIN) should match the HIN on the registration.  The HIN year (how to find yours) should match the title. The tag needs to be free of signs that it has been tampered with and the registration should be the original, not a copy.  Signs that the craft has been repainted or missing a number can indicate that it was stolen.  It is imperative that the seller have the title or proof of ownership prior to finalizing the sale.

The seller should be able to provide a history of the PWC in addition to proof of ownership and the registration.  By asking specific questions about the craft, such as where the seller gets it serviced, the buyer can determine the seller’s knowledge.  Questions can include:

  • If the craft is a premix, ask about the oil injection to see if the seller corrects them.
  • If oil has been injected, ask about the correct premix ratio
  • Ask about locations that they ride the craft.
  • Inquire about the cost of insurance.
  • Ask what their reasons for selling it.
  • Ask if they are going to buy another one and where.  

These questions can show the seller’s knowledge of the craft and its uses.  A thief will often have little information about a specific model.

Online Auction Sites

It is important to be wary of online auction sites. This can be an easy and fast way for a thief to sell a watercraft or parts.  If the seller is located out of state, the buyer needs to request pictures of the HIN, the physical address, phone number, and email of the seller, and photos of the craft.  Once received, this information needs to be verified.  Photos of the registration can also be checked.

Possible scams to watch out for are:

  • Registrations that do not match the name and address of the person selling.  
  • Sellers that will only give out P.O. Box addresses and not the physical location of the PWC.  
  • The seller’s state and the registration do not match.  

Although it is possible for someone to move and then choose to sell their craft, most of these are signs that it is either a scam or a stolen craft.

International sellers are almost always scams.  Exercise extra caution with them.  Again, look for red flags.  Some questionable factors when it comes to international sellers include:

  • The seller reports living overseas, but the picture shows a state registration.
  • The seller is offering free shipping from overseas.
  • The registration number is obscured or missing.

Always report suspicious listings to the auction site. This helps to reduce the number of scammers.

Remember:  If the price is too good to be true, it is probably a scam or stolen item.

Protecting Your Craft

No one wants to walk out of their home or off the beach and find their PWC has been stolen.  It is important to take precautions that can help prevent theft.  Many of them focus on making it more difficult, noisy, and bothersome for the thieves.  They are not absolute protection, but thieves are likely to move on to other targets.

Other steps, such as marking the craft’s components, can help if the craft is stolen with filing with insurance, giving the police more complete information, and increasing the likelihood of identification and recovery.  These steps are geared more towards recovery than being a deterrent. A clearly marked craft is going to tell thieves the owner has taken steps to protect the craft.

Finally, don’t give thieves a market.  PWCs are an easy target because of their popularity.  They are a quick sell and fast money for the thief.  When buying, it is up to the buyer to ensure it is not a stolen craft, engine, or parts.  When more people are careful with their buying, thieves will have less opportunities to sell and a decreased potential for money. Those factors will reduce their desire to steal.


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Tim Conner, M.D.

Tim Conner, M.D. started boating in 1974. He has been involved in recreational boating continuously since then. Dr. Conner has been active in boating and watersports safety education for decades. He rode his first jet ski in 1997, and rejoined the personal watercraft arena in 2012 with a Sea-Doo GTX 155, followed by 2 supercharged SeaDoos. Scuba certification came in 1988, and he and the family have traveled the world snorkeling and scuba diving for decades. The family has recently taken up paddle boarding. Click the photo for a lot more.

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