The 15 minute Expert! PWC Operations

pwcPersonnel watercraft, are thrusting themselves into both the sport and public safety market at an unbelievable rate. The National Safe Boating Council states that more than 30% of all registered boats are personnel watercraft, while 60% of all boating and watercraft accidents involve PWC.

A Personnel watercraft is described as any vessel with a water jet engine.

The PWC functions as a wonderful rescue tool in a multitude of water response operations. In the hands of A TRUE EXPERT it is almost like watching magic. Perhaps its only true shortcoming, is its presumed ease of use and simplicity of learning, or “ ease of becoming an export”.  Ten-year-olds and grandfathers drive them, my mother thinks they’re great. They are not very expensive, are easy to use, and they provide more fun then many riders ever dreamed they could have on the water – at least for awhile.

For those with a vast background in small boat handling the PWC is relatively simple to adapt to. In twenty or thirty hours of operating one, you can begin to believe you could do pretty much any thing you wish with it. However experienced boat operators on PWC’s is not the norm. In fact what we are seeing for the most part is PWC drivers with limited or no prior boat experience. Surprised, probably not since most boat operators of any size have limited or no boating experience. There are no laws or forced classes one must take to demonstrate proficiency in the use or operation of a water vessel. By no means does this mean that there are not really good courses conducted by Coast Guard Aux., and State Boater and or PWC safety groups, but the State mandated classes are almost always limited to dry land courses. These are better than nothing, but they certainly not enough for the would-be water rescue team.

This same process of relatively in-experienced operators taking charge of watercraft seems to be taking place in the rescue portion of the public safety sector. For years we have seen public safety rescue boat operators with little or no boating experience. Often the departments boat operator has his own duck boat or ski boat, hence he is placed in charge of rescue boat operations. Being a bass fisherman does not make one qualified to set-up a rescue boat, design boat-based rescue procedures, or operate a rescue boat during rescues – especially in rough weather.

All boats have their own handling characteristics, rubber inflate-ables do not handle like flat bottom aluminum duck boats, catamarans do not handle like V hauls, and PWC’s do not really handle like anything else on the water.  When did you last take your rubber in-inflatable in to a 70 mph G-turn, or nose dive your standard aluminum fire rescue boat right through a wave or wake without even hardly throttling off. How often have you had the opportunity to rip your way along at high speed in 18 inches of water? We seem to fumble our way up and on to a PWC and in 15 to 20 minutes we are ripping along, not even close to being willing to give it up to the next guy for his turn to learn. It is fun and quickly (in 15 minutes or so)we believe we have became great at it.

It is all great fun but when do we start learning how to perform better, faster, and safer rescues, with the help of this incredible water tool – the PWC !

Do you have a need?

Does your department respond to surface water rescues; have you performed or attempted to perform surface rescues in the past? Do you train for surface water rescues? Do you have the time to train properly to be able to perform safe and effective PWC water rescues? Have your past water rescue operations required the use or support of water vessels? Would a fast moving waterborne vessel have made a difference in the over all rescue outcome? Would you use the PWC to physically perform rescues or would you more often use it to move rescue personnel on or across the water? Is your water deep enough to use a hard hull water rescue tool? Can you use it to shuttle divers and tenders to an anchored dive platform? Has history shown that your department could use this rescue tool more than once a year or every other year?


How do you choose the right unit for your local rescue needs?

It really helps if you know what your rescue needs are and will continue to be. Bigger does not always mean better.

  1. What are you going to do with it; how are you going to incorporate it into your water rescue / recovery system.
  2. Do your department needs include ocean, river, lake, moving water, deep or shallow or a combination of different types of water situations?
  3. How are you most commonly going to launch it: are you going to possibly need to pick it and physically launch it with raw personnel-power, or will you be able to use a standard boat launch ramp.
  4. Are you going to use the PWC as a rescue tool and if so will you need to drag a proper rescue board? Or are you going to try and jury rig something out of a stokes basket or worse?
  5. Are you simply looking to use it for flood conditions, as a quick shallow water running tool? If you are making ocean responses, are they short or long range off shore?
  6. Will you be using them mainly to transport divers or other personnel?

Remember PWC require the movement of water through the jet system, they do not do extremely well in water ways with lots of plastic bags or other debris, or foam or white water air. And since they are hard hull design they do not respond well to rocks and or trees.

All of the above become issues as to size and power needs. Units like the 750 and 900 cc Kawaski STX, are excellent in areas where manpower launches are common, they work well in areas where you have limited space and quick G turns may be required. They are also excellent for areas where you will be transporting man power to and from a rescue scene. They will tow a proper rescue sled but they could use a little more torque. They do not respond well to make shift sleds like stocks baskets, far to much drag, neither the hull nor there engine are designed to take this type of abuse.

Units similar to the STX 1100 are great for open water rescues, they will tow a proper PWC water rescue sled with little or no difficulty with three rescuers if needed and a victim. They do not turn as quickly or in as shallow a water as the 750 / 900. They are a little more stable then the smaller units and offer a rear rescue ladder but no trim control. No matter which units you elect to start with this writer believes that reverse is a major issue. PWC have no neutral hence, at ideal they continue to move water, there by, motion, reverse really helps in heavy wind, waves and or current.

How do you get one?

Well you or your department can simply go out and buy one. Several PWC manufactures have a program they call the Loaner Program, Kawasaki, Yamaha, See Do, and Artic Cat, all have excellent programs to support the public safety industry. With the loaner program your local dealer loans you a new unit for the season. You have to return it in the same shape you received it in when the loan is up. If the dealer agrees, you get a new unit the next season. The key to this program is everyone who touches the craft needs to be educated in proper maintenance and use and needs to be responsible for the craft. If your department does not take care of its equipment, then the loaner program is recommended.

Proper rescue sleds,

Their are a couple different professionally made PWC rescue sleds available, however they all have several things in common.

  • They posses very little danger and almost zero entrapment possibility to the rescuer as he or she transferees from the PWC to the rescue sled.
  • They are mounted so that the rear of the PWC supports the over all tongue weight of the sled, there by, by passing any and all possibility of dived drag at the tongue of the sled.(the tongue can not go under water and increase the drag unless the entire PWC is under water).
  • The sled actually skims across the surface of the water or the wake of the PWC rather than dragging through the water.
  • They have a three-point attachment there by reducing any chance of the sled spinning like a top.
  • Proper mounting restricts 10 % or less of the PWCs original handling capability.
  • They have enough buoyancy and surface area to support two or even three people at the surface even when not in motion.
  • They are extremely stable during turns and in reasonable wave action 5 to 7 feet
  • They support the victim and rescuer out of the water and out of the drag zone, usually above the water line and exhaust.
  • They usually include several support handles thoughtfully mounted along the sides.
  • They are xtremely light weight, and are one person capable.

We do not recommend the use of a floating stokes basket if a proper sled can be used. If a stokes is not properly mounted it can easily flip and thereby drown both the rescuer an victim who are not held under water.

Quick Training Hints;

Purchase a quick disconnect shot off key for every one who is going to operate or be on the PWC have an extra one typed to the front box. You never know who is going to drive next.

Learn how to clean it, inside and out, how to flush the engine of salt or polluted river water. How to properly hose it down and dry it out after cleaning. Look at the impeller and learn how to assure it is free of derbies, sand and what ever, it is the power source and everything that comes near it has a tendency to try and go through it.

Look at the undercarriage and the impeller cover, the intake area, if this area fills with debris, such as sea or river grass, the machine can be dramatically effected, over-heating severally reduced power, and loss of control.  Learn how to deploy, clean / remove debris,  re-board the craft and move out in 10 seconds or less without rolling the machine over. In heavy ocean conditions this must be done out side the shore brake.

Learn how long or how many cranks does it require for your PWC to normally start, how long on average does it need to ideal before it is ready to go.  One school of thought is to choke it out at the end of each cleaning so the carburetor. will be full of fuel for the next time you need to start it. Check with your local dealer.

Practice water born boarding, have a team member or two hold the vessel in shallow water so it can not totally roll and simply practice getting on and off then work on two man boarding First with out it running and then under power.

Learn how to maneuver it at low speeds in and around docks or place a float off shore and maneuver around it, up to it and away with out teaching it. Learn how to work into the wind or current. Now work with the wind and or current to your back or to your side, feel the difference in control.

Feel the inertia, this vessel does not have a quick reverse and it may not work as you planned for it to. Learn how this vessel maneuvers in slow motion and then think about picking up the speed a little.  Set up an obstacle course of sorts and maneuver through it north and south so to speech then drive through it in reverse, then change it’s direction and maneuver it cross wind and or current. Practice all maneuvers from a sitting and standing position then with a second person on the rear speed is not as important at the moment as slow control, you will most likely want to push some speed, try to learn how to maneuver at extremely slow speeds.

Too frequently, we observe new operators running into, or over, maniacs with small boats or PWC’s who are racing around irresponsibly.  A few years ago I sent two of my instructors to a PWC swiftwater rescue class conducted by one of the most promoted training groups in the country. One of my PWC trainers was run over by a PWC instructor from another certifying agency during a national training program in California. Because he was wearing a helmet and a PFD he was not able to get under the water so the craft ran right over his head. The instructor hadn’t even realized he hit anyone even though another student was wildly waving him away. The fact is that should never have happened. Motion is motion, learn how your PWC moves and how inertia effects it, how to begin to predict the inertia of your vessel. And learn how to look at what is in the water where you are headed.

Getting back on an overturned PWC:

If you are in an area with rock or other hazards, moving water, or wave action you need to be able to  roll the craft and get back on it in seconds both with one and two rescuers aboard. In an hour of practicing effective techniques one and two rescuers can both roll a craft and end up on the craft ready to drive in 6-8 seconds.

Since the driver is up front and the proposed rescuer is in the back the quickest righting system is often to switch, such that the rescuer becomes the driver and the driver becomes the rescuer. This is often the quickest since the rescuer is already at the rear of the vessel and can quickly climb on board while the driver is righting the vessel, it is restarted and slowly back in forward motion while the new rescuer finishes his re-boarding, then “on with the rescue.” The key is whoever is the closest to re-board is now the driver, No one should be on a PWC during rescue conditions who cannot perform in both driver and rescuer positions. Every rescuer wears a PWC lanyard key so anyone can take the driver’s position without having to pass off a key.

When you practice roll-over techniques be sure to run the PWC in between each roll in order to empty the bilge, or the vessel can flood and you will wish it had not. Stop every 5 or 6 rolls and visually check the bilge for excess water. Roll-over’s are the real world, if you are not prepared for them you do not belong out there.

Practice deploying the rescuer from the vessel, with out flipping it over or losing control. There are a couple basic techniques that seem to work real well and allow the operator to continue to maintain reasonable control during and after deployment of the rescuer.

If you do want to switch the driver and rescuer that can easily be done in two ways without stopping the craft or slowing down. One is for the driver to stand up (if not already standing) while the rescuer ducks and pass under to the driver’s seat. The other is for a side step motion with each person taking one side of the craft. The former works quickest.

Rear deployment or side deployment of rescue swimmer

Rear: The operator slows down as he passes the victim. The rescuer slips directly off the rear of the PWC just like he was sitting on a toilet and swims to the victim. The operator slowly powers up and around to the rescuer or pick up position.   The key to this technique is that the rescuer creates little or no force on the PWC. The driver and vessel can only be forced or pushed forward away from the victim.

Side: Side deployment, requires better driving, handling and balance skills. The rescuer is going to perform a standard rescue or diving type entry from the side of the vessel. This technique requires a higher level of operator skill since it has a tendency to unevenly distribute the unloading weight while at the same time forcing the departure side of the vessel to go down and outward, hence pushing the rear out and the nose or bow in-ward.. This torquing action needs to be counter-acted for as it happens, or the PWC can roll or cause the driver to perform reactionary maneuvers to over ride the unloading weight. These reactionary maneuvers can force the PWC to maneuver in an area it did not want to be in such as hazards or the victim’s space. The PWC will still needs to be slowed down during this technique to reduce the impact to the rescuer as he hits the water.

Maneuvering your PWC to a rescue,


There are few different techniques when making a rescue approach however there are several constants to any water born vessel operation.

  1. Try to keep your vessel so that it cannot run over your victim or rescuer.  It should always be maneuvered to the leeward side (wind and or current) of your victim. Remember, it is a power operated machine that if stalled, leaves the driver with no maneuvering capability. If stalling will cause you to drift over the victim, then you’re in the wrong place.
  1. All water-operated vessels are best controlled when operated directly into the wind or current – whichever affects you more if they are conflicting.
  1. With the wind or current at your side you have side drift and hence difficult control.
  1. With the wind or current at your rear you may have little or no control at times. This also prompts the possibility of breaching and broaching in ocean and moving water situations.
  1. When running into the wind it is best to operate your vessel at speeds that are controllable. High speeds often cause the bow or front of the vessel to loft or become air born, hence less control of the total vessel and increased possibility of roll over.
  1. Even though you train in how to maneuver your vessel with the wind and current approaching at every angle you want to maintain the position of power with the vessel, nose to the wind or current, whenever possible.

This information just scratches the surface of PWC uses, how to decide what you need, maintenance, operation use, and rescue procedures. Good training programs are absolutely necessary, followed up with a well thought-out and tested standard operating procedures/Guidelines, and regular drills.

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