Watercraft War - The PWC Controversy
(Originally printed in Boating World Magazine in 1998.)

It may not rank with the Union v. the Confederacy or the Serbs v. the Bosnians, but there's a most uncivil war being waged in and around marinas and launch ramps, and it may well get a lot worse before it gets any better. The battle over personal watercraft has become the most incendiary subject on the water, pitting boater against boater, manufacturer against manufacturer, and, most ominously, attracting ever more legislative scrutiny.

The tension between PWC and "traditional" boaters is nothing particularly new, nor is it particularly unusual. In almost every recreational activity there's been a schism between the fans of new technology and traditionalists. Snowboarders were, and in some cases still are, ostracized by skiers and banned from some resorts. The United States Golf Association, in response to complaints from some professionals, considered "outlawing" oversized golf clubs. And, once upon a time, sailboaters were aghast at the notion of having to share "their" waters with the newfangled powerboats that were catching the public's eye. But in the case of PWC, the rhetoric seems a little more fiery, the stakes a little higher.

ITEM: "Blood on the Water." (title of a CNN/Time Impact newsmagazine segment)

ITEM: "Jet skis zoom and garner complaints." (USA Today headline)

ITEM: "Personal watercraft ripe for regulations." (Lexington [KY] Herald-Leader headline)

"I believe there's a lot of sensationalism," says Henry Lonski, vice president of Bombardier, Inc., makers of Sea-Doo PWC. "If you look at the headlines, they're extremely negative and sensational, but if you read the copy it's very conflicting. A case in point is the USA Today article. If you look at the text, they end it with a 78-year-old guy who just wants to do it again." Lonski's point is worth considering. An excellent example of this is the National Park Service's recent proposal to ban PWC from all national parks, a proposal which was carried in newspapers across the country, often accompanied by articles and editorials favoring the proposal.

While the coverage of the Park Service proposal could easily have given the impression that the ban was a done deal, the truth of the matter is that the proposal was more literally a "proposed proposal." To actually take effect, the proposal must first be published in the Federal Register (which had not yet happened as of this writing). The proposal is then subject to a 90-day comment period, during which time anyone can speak out in favor of or in opposition to the proposal. After the 90-day comment period, the proposal will be revisited by the Park Service, which may or may not accept any of the recommendations made during the comment period. Only then would the proposal become policy, meaning that the Park Service ban will not take effect until sometime in 1999 at the earliest. "We've still got a ways to go," Dennis Burnett, regulations manager of the Park Service, told the Associated Press in an interview, adding that the proposal "could obviously change based on the number and type of comments we receive."

"What the Park Service is doing," according to John Donaldson, executive director of the Personal Watercraft Industry Association (PWIA), "is sending trial balloons up. They're floating the trial balloons for a number of reasons. One, they're trying to see where the opposition is and how strong it is."

ITEM: "San Juan County (Washington)'s stand against waterjet-powered PWC came to a head July 9 when the state Supreme Court affirmed local authority to ban the machines from the county's vast waterways northwest of Seattle." (Associated Press)

Gauging the depth of PWC opposition is an inexact science, but the opposition is strong, well-connected, and according to Irwin Jacobs, chairman of Genmar Holdings, it's growing. "I'm not going to make any prediction as to what will happen, regulatory-wise," Jacobs says, "but there are people who are requesting the removal of PWC from the waters. It has a life of its own right now because of the government agencies and all the people who are involved. It has major support. It's never had this kind of support."

Jacobs has become a leader of the anti-PWC movement, having surprised the marine industry in 1997 by announcing the resignation of all Genmar companies, including Aquasport, Carver, Crestliner, Glastron, Larson, Lund, Hatteras, Ranger, Trojan, and Wellcraft, from the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) as a protest against the NMMA's policy of offering membership to PWC manufacturers. "The fact of the matter is," Jacobs says by way of explanation, "PWC have hurt the boating industry. There's no question that they have. But they've hurt it in a way they're not even focusing on. Forget about whether they took sales from us, that's a whole separate issue and that's what they're entitled to do. They are intimidating. Their products are intimidating our users of boats on the water right now, to the point that there are people saying, 'we gave up boating.' We're losing people off the water, leaving the lakes, because of PWC."

Are people really getting off the water? Statistics are always open to interpretation, but according to figures released by the NMMA, the answer is "not really." In 1991, the year the NMMA began tracking PWC sales, there were 439,300 boats sold, with PWC accounting for 68,000 of those sales. In 1997, total boat sales reached 595,700, of which 176,000 were PWC. (Both numbers are down from their peak in 1995, when PWC sales were 200,000 out of a total 649,460 boats sold.) So the argument can be made that "traditional" boat sales have held steady from 1991-97, with PWC sales accounting for the added 130,000 units. Or you can say that proportionally, PWC sales have made a huge dent in traditional sales, growing from 15 percent of the total marine market in 1991 to 30 percent in 1997. The NMMA also points to a slight increase in total participants in recreational boating, from 77,719,000 in 1995 to 78,406,000 in '97.

Sales figures, though, aren't the most important numbers in this controversy. Accidents are what really count.

ITEM: "Personal watercraft in use in 1996 represented 7.5 percent of the State-registered recreational boats, yet PWC accounted for 36 percent of the 1996 reported recreational boating accidents, 36 percent of the total number of vessels involved, and more than 41 percent of the persons injured in those boating accidents." (National Transportation Safety Board, Safety Study, Personal Watercraft Safety)

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) safety study NTSB/SS-98/01, quoted above, which PWC opponents have pointed to as indisputable evidence that the craft should be banned, was performed in response to the increase in PWC fatalities and the fact that PWC are the only type of recreational vessel for which the leading cause of fatalities is not drowning, but blunt-force trauma. However, in the study the NTSB states clearly that, "The Safety Board initiated the current study to more closely examine fatalities and injury in addition to accident characteristics associated with PWC accidents. The study was not designed to estimate how often PWC accidents occur." (emphasis mine) So while the NTSB study is crucial to understanding and hopefully reducing PWC-related accidents and injury, it should not be used as a statistical bolster for anti-PWC arguments.

Captain Tony Stimatz, U.S. Coast Guard (ret.), was the Coast Guard's chief of boating safety until his retirement this year, and he emphatically agrees that the NTSB study shouldn't be used as a statiscal back-up. "The NTSB talk about risk exposure a little bit," he explains, "but they didn't make a big point of it. They didn't point out that when it comes to comparing apples to apples, we can't do it, and here's why."

Why, according to Stimatz, is because there's no way of knowing - at least right now - what kinds of risks are associated with PWC or other boats in terms of how, how much, where, and when they're used. "There aren't any studies showing usage," Stimatz says. "They don't exist. This last grant solicitation the Coast Guard had asked for somebody to go out and do a major survey looking at that. When I first got into the job, four years ago, I realized that the injury and fatality rates we were using was meaningless. It was per number of registered boats. No other means of transportation captures risk that way. They use passenger hours, passenger miles, trips, or a combination of the three because you can get different types of risk depending on which ones you look at. So when you look at boating, we're moving in the direction of getting risk per hour of exposure. That's gonna require a major survey effort to try and project a national average use and number of passengers per boat. So we're in the process of working on getting that. In 3-5 years, we may have an answer. It's not simple and it's going to cost a lot of money."

ITEM: "Starting in the year 2000, anyone who wants to operate a PWC in the state of Pennsylvania will be required to complete eight hours of boating safety instruction. The state Fish and Boat Commission has imposed the new safety training requirement because PWC account for about half of all the boat collisions in Pennsylvania...even though they account for only about 6 percent of the registered boats." (Reuters)

ITEM: "If the 13-year-old at the controls of the Yamaha Waverunner that Kelly Burba was riding on May had been required to take a boater safety class, there's a chance the two wouldn't have been close enough to hit the boat that killed Kelly, 17, a Louisville, Kentucky, high school senior." (Lexington [Kentucky] Herald-Leader)

The NTSB study found that the most common type of PWC accident is a collision with another vehicle (PWC or otherwise), and the most common causes of accidents are inattention, inexperience, and inappropriate speed. Not surprisingly, most accidents occur in the first three hours of riding, and half of the accidents occurred within the first hour. "This goes along with the fact that we've put a lot of people on the water as an industry," Lonski explains. "We do our best and put our best foot forward with videos, books, tapes, lectures, and all of that, but when the person goes out on the water, what's the level of competence that first hour? That's something we're wrestling with as an industry. The first hour of use on any product that has a level of unfamiliarity takes a lot of common sense. Unfortunately, it hasn't been necessarily exhibited, and that's been statistically proven. So we have to do a better job of that."

The PWC industry has been working hard at that goal. The PWIA's Model PWC Operations Act, which is recommended to legislatures as a blueprint for regulations, recommend laws prohibiting riders younger than 16 years of age, requiring life jackets while riding, and requiring boater education for riders 16 and older.

While licensing is still a hot-button issue for a lot of boaters, the PWC manufacturers are supporting it wholeheartedly in an effort to reduce the number and severity of PWC-related accidents, and to improve the image of PWC and PWC riders. As far as accident and injury reduction are concerned, the NTSB "continues to believe that if more recreational boaters were trained, the number of persons killed and injured in recreational boating accidents, including those involving PWC, would be reduced." Connecticut is an example of how well mandatory education works. Since 1993, all PWC riders in Connecticut have been required to be certified by taking a safe handling course, with no exceptions. Since '93, the NTSB reports, PWC use in Connecticut has increased substantially, but there have been no fatalities attributable to PWC in the past 10 years. (emphasis mine)

Alfonso Campos, Lt. Commander of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), has seen the benefits of education first-hand. "I work in water safety enforcement," Campos says by way of introduction, "and we get lots of complaints. That's what's bringing this whole thing on. The operation, the concern about the kids riding them without any type of education."

Texas, according to Campos, is following the PWIA's lead when it comes to education. "One thing we've done in the last legislative session," he explains, "was pass the boater education law. It specifically addressed PWC. You have to be at least age 16 to operate one, first of all. The only way you can get around that is if you've had a boater education course, or if you're accompanied by somebody 18 or over. That's a step in the right direction. And that applies to all other boats, as well. But you'd see so many underage people, really just children, operating PWC. As young as nine and 10 years old. They're easy to handle and maneuver, but they're easy to make mistakes on."

The NTSB doesn't mention this in its recommendation, but education might have another benefit as well.

ITEM: "I hate PWC because they do not follow the rules of the road and they endanger themselves by chasing my wake. I know if I hit someone I'd be blamed, but even worse, I would never forget such a terrible experience. They should not be out in traffic." (from the rec.boats newsgroup)

ITEM: "If there are responsible ways to have fun on a dirt bike (er, I mean PWC), it takes more imagination than many of the owner apparently have to figure them out." (from the rec.boats newsgroup)

ITEM: "Let's take all the high-speed, thrill-seeking PWC'ers and force them to perform their tricks and stunts in a large, roped-off area far away from beaches, swimmers, and other boaters, where no one else is exposed to their dangerous antics and noise." (from the rec.boats newsgroup)

The launch ramps and marinas are the front lines and trenches of the PWC war, where the fighting is the bloodiest. Sales may have slowed, but every year nearly a half-million new boaters try to find space on already crowded lakes, rivers, and seashores. And PWC, with their combination of speed and maneuverability, are the newest kids on this overpopulated block, making them obvious targets. "PWC users experience a one-way user conflict," Donaldson believes. "The PWC users don't feel they're in conflict with anybody, but almost everybody else feels like the PWC user is in conflict with them. There are specific techniques you use when it's a one-way conflict: awareness and education. You have to make the people who don't perceive they're involved in conflict aware that there is a conflict."

This obliviousness to the perceptions of others may be the biggest hurdle PWC enthusiasts have to clear. The PWC industry works around the clock to improve their image, through their Public Safety Loan Programs and projects like Kawasaki's Operation Challenge, which introduces people with disabilities to watersports. And these programs are winning converts among the law enforcement personnel who are actually out on the water. "PWC allow us more visibility within that user group of other PWC operators," TPWD's Campos points out. "And they're useful as a rescue tool because of the speed you can reach a stranded boater or a person in the water, if you know what you're doing. I'd rather approach somebody using a PWC than my 18-20-foot boat if I want to get them out of the water. Then again, I have experience and I've been trained in rescue.

"We've used PWC for the last five years at TPWD," Campos adds. "The use has increased every year, and I think that's a positive. The officers out there are looking for innovative ways to work, and you risk doing less damage to another PWC if you're on one yourself."

But the actions of a single yahoo plowing through a no-wake zone can undo a year's worth of good works.

Irwin Jacobs gives a personal example. "I have a lake home up north," he says, "in the Cross Lake area of Minnesota. I had my two grandchildren there, on the dock, fishing. Now, we live almost on a dead-end part of the lake. It's like a peninsula, but it's not on the main channel and we're on the short end, so it isn't like we're where all the traffic comes. But I'll be damned if we're not out there and four PWC come out and start jumping each other's wake. And they're coming so close to shore that our lines would've been tangled if we'd been casting that way. That's how close they were to us.

"I got really upset and waved them down, and two of them came over. I said, 'Look, there are laws now in the state of Minnesota, and you can't do this. You can't be 20 or 30 feet away from me here. You've gotta be out 200 feet from shore, and even then you ought to have some courtesy for people.' This is what he said to me: 'Get the ... off the shoreline.' Where do I go if I don't go on shore and I don't go on water? Where does a person go?

"All that does is make me go do what I'm doing. And the bottom line is, there are millions of stories just like that."

ITEM: "Even disgruntled sailor John McDowell admits there's a place for the aquatic thrill rides. 'I wouldn't want to ban anyone from enjoying the beauty of this lake,' says the Henderson, Nevada, resident, watching warily as a PWC takes off from a nearby slip at the Lake Mead Marina." (USA Today)

Is there a chance for peace with honor? Jacobs doesn't think so. "It's a billion-dollar industry," he says, "but it isn't going to go to two billion. It's gonna shrink fast, because there are going to be laws and things out there that you and I will have no control over any longer. Remember when you used to go to a party and the non-smokers had to leave the room? Now the non-smokers stay and the smokers have to leave, and that's what's going to happen on the lakes. People aren't going to hide from it anymore. They're starting to stand up to it at every level, from local governments and editorials to national."

Bombardier's Lonski disagrees. "As long as it's fair and reasonable and applies to all marine products," he says, "there is middle ground. We've been fighting battles for the last 10 years, and I believe that significant compromises have been reached all across America, and around the world. I think there is a meeting place for all parties, and common sense rules."

The best hope for a peaceful end to the war lies with the foot soldiers, the individuals on the water, at the launch ramps, at the marinas. If cool heads can prevail there, if the two sides can work together to find ways to share the water like sailors and powerboaters have, then there's every likelihood that the compromise movement will trickle up to the legislators and regulators. Otherwise, the civil war sparked by the PWC controversy may be longer, bloodier, and more divisive than it already is.

Back to the Presidential Library...

Back to the Capital of the Republic.