How To Drive A Jet Ski: Mastering the Basics With Tips & Tricks

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 one or just looking for some tips, this article is for you.

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 watercraft before driving.

Jet Ski Controls

Jet skis use handlebars to control the steering.

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

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

The Sea-Doo lanyard is the key and kill switch in one that starts your jet ski.

Kawasaki and Yamaha lanyard clips on the left side of the handlebars and acts only as the kill switch.

Forward, Neutral, Reverse

There are 3 types of 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 it 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 The PWC

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 the engine.

Starting Steps

  1. Press the start/stop button to wake the PWC up.
  2. Place the lanyard onto the correct spot of the PWC 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.

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

They Move As Soon As 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 yours has brakes, then it will start in neutral.
  • If you don’t have brakes, you will start in whatever position you’re in, which is often the forward position.

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

Direct Drive

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.

Steering In Neutral

This means if you have your jet ski in the water while in neutral, and you start it with the handlebars to the right, it 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 they 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.

Without Brakes

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


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

If You Have 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.

Manual Reverse

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.

Forward Only

You have the trickiest one 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 to where you need to go and then kill the engine.

Just make sure you’re aware of the size of your machine and what is around you before you spin.

Once you’re at the dock, shut the engine off

As discussed earlier, jet skis are direct drive, so if the engine is on, the impeller is spinning.

Never leave them 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.

Assisted Throttle

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.

Idle Speed

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.

200 Feet From Land

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.

Boaters Hate Jet Skis

Some boaters don’t like jet skis and even consider the idle speed of some to be too high.

So it depends on where you launch and the rules of where you keep your ski, overall, you want to be at or under 4 mph at No-Wake zones.

No Wake Modes

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

Remember, Wind Affects You

Driving a jet ski is different from 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.

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 it 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.

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

If it 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 3 feet or more of water.

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



I began working at a jet ski dealership in 2007, initially in the parts and service area. I then transitioned to the technician side before eventually joining the sales team in 2013. I've done it all! While in sales, I created this website in 2014 to assist others with their common questions about watercraft. I now manage this site full-time, where I answer common questions, offer advice, and assist others with their PWC needs.

I've owned several watercraft and continue to buy, sell, and repair them. Currently, keep my Sea-Doo Spark as my main PWC. Additionally, I have developed tools like a used watercraft value calculator, a pricing calculator, an hour calculator, and more to better assist my readers.


  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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