A curious dad and an adventurous son discover the joy of jet skis on a Connecticut River outing, and learn about personal watercraft safety in the process.
There are many sporting activities that families can enjoy together, depending on the kids’ (and parents’) appetite for adventure, the locale and the family budget. We’ve been snowmobiling in Finland, skiing and snowboarding all over North America and Europe, snorkeling just about everywhere warm, dirt-biking and ATV riding in Montana, and parasailing in Mexico. But on many a beach vacation, we’ve passed a jet ski sitting on the sand like a sexy beach toy just begging to be rented, and always wondered if that would be fun.
Regan: One Sunday I woke up to the joy of a day of jet skiing.
Thanks to a day-long adventure with a Personal Watercraft (PWC) manufactured by Kawasaki under the Jet Ski label, I’ve got the answer — it’s an incredibly fun sport for adults and kids. Kids will have to be content riding in back, clinging to an adult, until age 14, 16 or 18 (age limits vary by state), but will still enjoy the thrill of racing over the water with their hair blowing.
For adults, it’s an easy-to-learn and exciting speed experience; however, these big, powerful, well-engineered vehicles must be operated with respect and restraint. For all ages, safety instruction and cautious driving are an absolute must, but, properly operated, a Personal Watercraft (be it a Jet Ski, Waverunner, or whatever) can provide a wildly enjoyable outing for a family.
Proceed with Caution
You’ll find you can rent Jet Ski models designed to carry three passengers with ease, but for extended adventures (3+ hours), I think the ideal load is two. While more than 1.4 million families own one, most American families will rent, either at a lake or beach near their home, or on a vacation.
Under no circumstances should you allow children under 16 to operate the machines. There have been fatalities on California’s Lake Tahoe involving teens, incidents which should caution parents against casual use by younger children, even as passengers. Young children riding in front of a driver can be propelled forward in the event of a collision or a large wave, and can bounce off the back, particularly if they are too short to allow their feet to reach the foot well.
Our day on a Jet Ski was spent on a big, beautiful Kawasaki STX-15F three-passenger model, riding on the historic Connecticut River upriver from Old Saybrook, Connecticut. My son Regan (age 12) and I were first given a solid PWC Safety and Handling mini-course, which is a very important part of the experience.
Regan: We wore short wet suits and a bunch of other safety and “water skiing apparel.” I do not have a driver’s license (I’m only twelve) so I had to ride on the same jet ski as my dad while he drove.
A few states mandate a more lengthy, four to eight-hour water safety course for certification to operate any watercraft and require you to carry your certification with you at all times (certifications are a state issue). We recommend that you take the course whether required or not. Call your local Coast Guard station or visit the US Coast Guard website to determine your state’s standards and to find out where the courses are given.
If you’re planning a Jet Ski adventure off a distant shore, call the hotel/resort/marina at your destination and find out about marine safety certification at that location. In those states with mandatory training, the accident rate for PWCs has fallen dramatically. Safe boating requires basic knowledge of the regulations and PWCs, considered to be “power-driven” vessels, must obey the rules which apply to all boat operators. Certified personal flotation devices (PFDs a.k.a “life jackets”) are universally required, but helmets are not. Sunglasses or goggles are recommended.
Aqua Touring on the Connecticut River
It was a glorious fall day on the Connecticut River as we made our way under the I-95 bridge bearing speeding cars which traveled a world apart from us waterborne creatures. The water was calm and flat on this warm fall morning. There are many “No Wake” zones on the river that limit speed to 5mph in respect for private riverfront properties, marinas and bridges, so a typical journey has intervals of speed and slow.
Regan: It was a sunny day and pretty hot, too. When we got out of the harbor we had to go slow for a little, but after we got out of the “no wake zone,” my dad hit the accelerator. In about six seconds we were at 50mph. It’s a great feeling to be going that fast with no roof or windshield or anything.
Because its shallow waters defied large boat navigation, the Industrial Revolution never made its ugly mark on the Connecticut River, so the views around us were generally pristine postcards of New England. The quiet, picturesque hamlet of Essex passed by on the south bank, beckoning us to come back to explore its historic streets and myriad antique and other shops. The fascinating Connecticut River Museum (860/767-8269) is well worth dismounting your PWC.
A few miles further north, we steered our sturdy craft to dock at the Blue Oar (860/345-2994), a charming little riverside sandwich shop above a marina, for a tasty repaste and a break from the ride. Properly refreshed, we then went a few miles onward to a wide stretch in the river, where the boat traffic was minimal and the water sweet and flat.
Once past the No Wake zones, we were able to crank up the throttle and really feel the breeze. At the top speed of 60mph, you’re really flying and it’s a kick! On calm water, more throttle produces an easy, smooth, controllable ride. With choppy water, however, the ride gets bumpy and a little treacherous at speed, as it did when we returned downriver in an afternoon breeze, facing heavier homeward-bound recreational boat traffic.
Regan: At this part of the water way, no other boats were there so we sort of messed around on the jet skis. We then turned around and headed back. About 10 minutes later, we hit the wake of a big boat. My dad was going too fast and I fell off the Jet Ski. It hurt a little but it was pretty refreshing.
We were warned, and it was borne out by our experience that day, that one of the dangers of higher speed on PWCs is diminishing peripheral vision. I did find myself concentrating more on the path before me, and less on the traffic which might approach from the sides. So, you find that concentration must be constantly focused on the environment around you. While there is no brake on a PWC, if you back off on the throttle, it quickly slows in the water, which, by the way, creates a safety hazard for a rider behind you. Most PWC accidents are collisions between craft, often due to the rapid deceleration following release of the throttle. Give your fellow riders a wide margin of safety and don’t follow directly behind, but rather off to the lead boat’s flank.
Regan: About two hours later we pulled into the harbor where we started. Everyone was pretty exhausted by then. After we said our goodbyes, I fell fast asleep in the car riding home.
Aquabonding Made Possible by Rentals
So, how does a family try this sport? When you see the Jet Ski on the beach, try it out it for a half-hour rental. A reputable dealer or resort will include an instructional session. We did just that recently on a beach south of Cancun. It was quite casual — no contract, deposit, release, just US$60 cash — but a close inspection suggested that the machine was new and, indeed, proved to be in perfect working condition. Most beach resorts have a rental concession, so check it out. The threshold age for a passenger would be determined by their ability to hang on and pay attention.
Regan adds: The Kawasakis that we used were fast, comfortable, good looking, had good acceleration, and are quiet and have very low emissions. Next time you have the chance to rent a jet ski, you should.
Given a choice, you’ll find lakes, bays, and lagoons much smoother and more enjoyable than the waves of the ocean. That’s why at many recreational lakes you’ll find rental facilities (to find one near you search the internet or ask the concierge at your hotel.) For example, at the Wahweap Lodge Marina (928/645-1004) on the Arizona side of Lake Powell, you can rent a two-person Kawasaki. You must be 18-years-old to operate a rental PWC here, which costs $50/hour, for a minimum of two hours, along with a $500 refundable deposit. Though the lodge is seasonal (March-October), the marina is open year round.
At the popular Sandestin Resort in Florida’s Panhandle region, you can rent a two-passenger machine, but must be a guest of the resort and 22-years of age (16-years with a Florida Boat Safety License). The $50/hour rate is fairly typical of resorts, though it can go higher or lower depending on your locale and the season. Call 850/267-8000 for rates and availability.
Off the Gulf of Mexico Coast, you’ll have a vast, calm bay to explore with children. They can watch dolphins leaping ahead of your watercraft, or study the mangrove roots that can only be seen by exploring the many small creeks and inlets from the water. And isn’t that why you rented one in the first place?
PWCs have long generated controversy in environmental circles for both the noise and water pollution coming from their engines. The two-stroke engine, which mixes the oil with the gasoline, has historically produced more emissions and noise than the four-stoke variety, which is a mini-version of the engine in your car. The boating industry has addressed these concerns with direct-injection, two-stroke engines, and a new generation of four-stroke models have dramatically reduced their environmental impact.
For more environmental and safety information, visit www.pwia.org, the website of the Personal Watercraft Industry Association.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.