Cape Cod Times Personal Watercraft Editorial

(7/21/98)
A Personal Watercraft and it operator. Cape Cod Times Photo. Click jetski to see regulations.

There's chaos on America's waterways, especially in the matter of 'personal watercraft.' We need legislation to fund and mandate more and tougher law enforcement, and stricter licensing standards.

YES, JET SKI DRIVERS, that really was handwriting on the water. In big, bold letters. It said this: WISE UP OR YOU'RE OUTTA HERE. "Jet Ski" is the brand name (it's Kawasaki's) by which most of us know the floating controversy called the personal watercraft. They look like a snowmobile on water, powered by motorized pump that pushes out a powerful jet of water, squirting the little boat ahead like a water bug darting across a pond.

Unlike the water bug, silence is not part of the picture. Anything but. Noise is one of the many objections non-Jet-Skiers raise when they gripe about personal watercraft. The other objection is really the biggest - the way too many of their drivers operate them. Even more than motorcycles or snowmobiles, personal watercraft seem to invite horsing around. They're fun when they're spiraling around in tight circles, or jumping waves and wakes. They make sharp turns easily, and their lightning acceleration is a guaranteed adrenaline rush. They are an exhilarating nautical toy for the young, and the young at heart. And also, unfortunately, for the irresponsible. Because they're readily available, for sale or rent, and because there are few strict standards for driver training or readily enforced rules for their safe operation, there are a lot of accidents, and an enormous volume of complaints. People are getting killed on these things, and innocent bystanders are getting killed because of them. To most other waterfront recreation seekers, personal watercraft are as popular as Hell's Angels at a debutante cotillion. The personal watercraft industry is well aware of its potential for becoming a national pariah, and is doing something about it - massive efforts at improving the safety and etiquette habits of watercraft users, and agreeing to improve engine exhaust systems so the little vessels become significantly quieter and less polluting.

It may be too little and too late in some areas. The National Park Service, swamped with complaints about personal watercraft, is preparing to ban them from all national parks (including, most likely, the Cape Cod National Seashore, although individual parks have two years to consider regulating them instead of banning them) except for those created especially for boating. They've been severely restricted in the Florida Keys, and the Washington state supreme court has upheld a total ban on them in island-dotted San Juan County in Puget Sound. "The only asset we have left is the frail, remote, pristine and quiet environment," said Friday Harbor port director Steve Simpson. "If we lose that, we've lost a major economic asset and some of the spirit of the San Juans." This country-wide debate over personal watercraft has a raft of lessons in it. One is that our waterways are increasingly becoming as busy as our highways, but without anywhere near the law-enforcement presence or the driver training and licensing that we demand for our roads. As America becomes more and more dedicated to the boating life, that has to change - we've got to start spending more of our tax dollars on nautical law enforcement, and on mandatory training and licensing programs. And while we're at it, we've got to decide what kinds of boats are acceptable and appropriate, and what kinds aren't. We wouldn't allow a jet-powered dragster to run on I-95, nor would we condone a Grand National stock car running up and down Main Street. They have their place, but it's not out on the public roadways. The same is true for some kinds of boats, but we haven't learned that lesson yet. We're still letting high-powered speedboats and personal watercraft roar through the same corridors where other boaters paddle their canoes and kayaks. They are not compatible, and often not even safe on the same waterway. It's time for state legislatures and Congress to take notice. The resolution of this problem lies in the law, which has a lot of catching-up to do.