How to Drive a Jet Ski – Plus Riding and Docking Tips

Driving a jet ski is not complicated, but there are a few things you need to know.

So if this is your first time riding a jet ski or just looking for some tips, this article is for you.

Before You Start!

Before you drive a jet ski, there are a few things you’ll need.

  • Life Jacket
  • Safety Whistle
  • Fire Extinguisher
  • Licences and/or registration (If required by your state)
  • Orange Distress Flag (If required by your state)
  • Riding shorts
  • Water shoes
  • Lanyard

The items above are a must for every ride. If you’re not sure why you need the riding shorts, just read the warning labels located at the glove box or rear of the PWC.

The following list of items is not needed, but I highly recommend having them when you ride your jet ski.

  • Your phone
  • A dry box to put your phone
  • Boat towing membership
  • Dock line
  • Telescoping Paddle
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen

To see a list of more recommended jet ski accessories, click here.

Pre-Ride Checklist

Before you take off or touch the water there are a few things you need to do.

  1. Make sure the drain plugs are in.
  2. Start it for 5 seconds to make sure it starts fine.
  3. Remove rear trailer straps.
  4. Make sure you have your life jacket on.
  5. Only start the jet ski in 3ft or more of water.
  6. Ensure the lanyard is connected to you and the jet ski before driving your jet ski.

How To Launch A Jet Ski From A Trailer

The complete guide on how to launch a jet ski from a trailer can be found here.

How To Launch A Jet Ski From A Drive-Up Slip

Drive-up slips have rollers that allow you to move the jet ski back and forth.

It’s easy to push the jet ski off, as the video below shows.

Every drive-up slip is different, but the goal is to push the jet ski back just far enough that it stays on the slip while you board the jet ski, and few good rocking motions with you on the jet ski gets it in the water.

Once the jet ski is in the water, you can turn it on and take off.

You have to be careful with your surroundings and other boaters when you get it off the drive-up slip. You don’t want to hit rocks or someone else’s boat.

Getting the jet ski back on the drive-up slip will take practice. The key is to go slow! The good news is that if you don’t give it enough power, you just slide back into the water and can try again. You got to find that sweet spot, and with enough practice, you’ll get it.

Here is a great video showing you how to drive on and launch a PWC from a drive-up dock.

Jet Ski Controls and What They Do

Jet skis use handlebars to control the steering.

On the handlebar, you’ll find the buttons and triggers that control the jet ski.

Some jet skis come with manual reverse; as shown below, you pull a lever to drop the reverse bucket.

The Sea-Doo lanyard is the key and killswitch in one that starts your jet ski. Kawasaki and Yamaha lanyard clips on the left side of the handlebars and acts only as the killswitch.

Jet Ski Forward, Neutral, Reverse

There are 3 types of jet ski transmissions.

  1. Forward only
  2. Forward, neutral, and reverse
  3. Forward, neutral, reverse, and brakes

Not every jet ski has brakes or even reverse.

If the jet ski does have reverse, it can either be manual or electronic.

I have a guide here for the complete breakdown on the forward, neutral, reverse, and braking on jet skis.

Attach The Lanyard To Yourself

The lanyard will need to be attached to you; with Sea-Doo, it has a clip to connect to your life jacket.

For Yamaha or Kawasaki, they give you a wrist strap.

The lanyard needs to be on you and connected to the lanyard spot on the jet ski. The lanyard is a safety switch that will shut the engine off if you fall off.

How To Start A Jet Ski

Before you start a jet ski, you need to be in at least 3 feet of water.

Every manufacturer is different, so please consult your owner’s manual for exact details on how to start a jet ski.

Here are the typical steps…

  1. Press the start/stop button to wake the jet ski up.
  2. Place the lanyard onto the correct spot of the jet ski with the other end attached to you.
  3. Make sure the gauges have no errors before starting.
  4. Hold the start/stop button until the engine has fully started.

To shut the engine off, either hold down the start/stop button or pull the lanyard off the jet ski.

Note: All 4-stroke jet skis are fuel injected and you must NOT give it gas when starting. Avoid touching the throttle or reverse levers when starting your jet ski. You do need to hold the start/stop button in until the jet ski has fully started, unlike push-button start cars.

Jet Skis Will Move When You Start Them

Make sure you’re clear around your jet ski before you start it, as it will most likely move, even if slightly.

  • If your jet ski has brakes, then it will start in neutral.
  • If you don’t have brakes, your jet ski will start in whatever position you’re in, which is often the forward position.

Even if you have brakes, be prepared for the jet ski to move.

Jet skis use a direct drive; this means when the engine is on, the impeller is spinning. There is no true “neutral,” so slight movement is expected even if you’re in neutral.

Keep The Handlebars Straight When Starting

Since jet skis are a direct drive, they will move in whatever direction you have them if you have the handlebars turned.

This means if you have your jet ski in the water while in neutral and you start it with the handlebars to the right, the jet ski will turn to the right slowly. Keep this in mind, especially around the dock, so you don’t hit anything.

Hopefully, I’m not freaking you out into thinking a jet ski will just take off like a mad man when you start it. This is not true; I just want to make you aware that there will be some movements, even if it’s in neutral.

If you don’t have brakes on your jet ski, it will take off at idle speed in whatever gear you’re currently in. So be prepared to go once it’s started.

Docking A Jet Ski

The trick to docking a jet ski is to go slow.

If your jet ski has brakes, the trick is to spend more time in neutral than you do in forward when around the docks or trailers. I only use forward or reverse if I need a boost or go in a different direction.

If you have a manual reverse, you have a lot more range of motion. The reverse lever is only moving a bucket in the rear, which redirects the flow of water. Between forward and reverse is neutral, so all you got to do is find that sweet spot for neutral. Once you find that sweet spot stay around it to help you go slow; just like the instructions for the braking models, you want to spend most of your time in neutral around the docks and little time in forward or reverse and only use them when needing a boost or a change of direction.

If you only have forward, then you have the trickiest jet ski of them all to drive. A neat trick you can do to kill your momentum is to spend in a circle at idle. One spin in your spot at idle will kill any momentum you have, and you can point the jet ski where you need to go and then kill the engine. Just make sure you’re aware of the size of your jet ski and what is around you before you spin.

Once you’re at the dock, shut the engine off on your jet ski. As discussed earlier, jet skis are direct drive, so if the engine is on, the impeller is spinning. Never leave a jet ski running even if it’s in neutral when docked.

Jet Skis Need A Little Gas When Turning

If you’re coming to a stop and try to turn the handlebars, you’ll notice the jet ski does not steer. You need to give the jet ski some gas to steer.

In a panic situation, people will completely let off the throttle, which is bad as you lose steering. You need to give it gas to be able to turn and get out of an emergency.

You’ll notice that some manufacturers will even bump the RPMs to give you steering in this type of situation. Unfortunately, not every jet ski has this feature, so it’s better to do it yourself.

The jet ski will steer if you’re at idle speed but it needs some gas when not idling around. Also, a jet ski will not steer if the engine is off.

No-Wake Areas

No-Wake areas are the “school zone” of the water.

You go slow and watch out for people.

In many states, a No-Wake zone is 200 feet from land. A white buoy is also used to let boaters know you’re in a No-Wake zone.

In a No-Wake zone, you go at idle speed.

Some boaters don’t like jet skis and even consider the idle speed of some jet skis to be too high. So it depends on where you launch and the rules of where you keep your jet ski, overall you want to be at or under 4 mph at No-Wake zones.

Some jet skis have a No-Wake Mode or a Slow-Speed mode that allows you to set the jet ski speed from 1 mph to 5 mph. This mode often comes packaged with models that also have cruise control or a speed regulator/limiter.

Why Go Slow In A No-Wake Zone?

The reason you go slow in a No-Wake zone is not to affect the other boaters while they’re at the dock or loading or unloading. Launching or leaving the ramp is very hard if you have waves messing you up, so you must be respectful of others while in this area.

The No-Wake Zone is also the golden area for water patrol. They watch these areas the hardest and will give you a ticket if you’re not following the rules. So make sure to follow your local laws and regulations, especially around the no-wake zones.

Even the area right before the No-Wake zone must be respected and is watched closely by water patrol.

Be sure to know the No-Wake zones or you’ll get pulled over like in this video.

Jet Skis Are Affected By The Wind When Docking

Driving a jet ski is different than what most people think of, especially if you’re used to driving a car.

Unlike a car, a jet ski has the wind and waves affecting it. So you may be going one way, but the wind is carrying you a different way.

To give you an idea, here is a video showing you how wind can affect steering for boats.

You’ll find you can sometimes use the wind to your advantage and help you dock. So keep the wind and current in mind when docking, especially on super windy days.

Driving A Jet Ski Is A Little Different From A Boat

If you know how to drive a boat, a jet ski will not be hard.

But there are a few things to keep in mind.

  1. A jet ski is a direct drive system, so if the engine is on, the impeller is spinning. This means the jet ski can spin on its self while in neutral.
  2. Jet skis are also smaller and lighter, so you must take it easier when around the docks.
  3. Also, backing up is the opposite of what you think with jet drive compared to other boats.


The best advice I can give you is to practice driving your jet ski.

Find a quiet spot on the water to test your controls and maneuvering skills. Then, see how the jet ski responds and test different situations out.

If the jet ski has brakes, try them out to see how long it takes to slow down.

To practice docking, get an inflatable tube and a quiet spot and try getting close to it without touching it. Try coming at it from the front and both sides. The tube works great as there is no pressure and if you do hit it then it’s no big deal as it bounces away. Just make sure to be in at least 4 feet or more of water.

With enough practice, you’ll be an expert in no time.

1 thought on “How to Drive a Jet Ski – Plus Riding and Docking Tips”

  1. A couple of other requirements:

    You need to have a fire extinguisher onboard. Most PWCs have a bracket to hold your fire extinguisher.

    In coastal waters and on the Great Lakes you need a Coast Guard approved visual distress signal, such as an orange distress flag. Some states like Ohio require a distress flag on any lake.

    Have fun! As noted, a dry box is a great idea not only for your phone but also your car key fob and wallet.


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