If you’re wanting to ride a jet ski for the first time and looking for beginner tips, then you have come to the right place. I have gathered many tips and tricks that I’ve learned through the years of teaching people how to ride.
I’ve helped many new riders and have seen the pain points they come across and answered all the questions here. It can be scary when you’re new to riding, but with this guide, it will help to clear away those fears, so you can get out there riding!
Let’s first start off with some of the main bullet points…
1. Required Equipment
- Life jacket for each person on the craft.
- Coast Guard approved fire extinguisher.
- Whistle or air horn. Best to have a whistle on each life jacket.
- Safety lanyard.
- Registration numbers
- Mirrors if you pull someone (many craft already have this).
- Keep identification on you in a dry bag like this one here*.
2. Recommended Equipment
- A smartphone which can be used for GPS, post here.
- First aid kit.
- Bilge pump or bailer.
- Anchor – Guide here.
- Skier down flag if you pull someone.
- Shock tube if you pull someone and to avoid sucking up your tow-rope.
- Distress flag.
- Solar Charger, post to explain it here.
3. What Not To Do
- Don’t drink and drive.
- Don’t drive after sunset.
- Don’t be stupid.
- Don’t start your watercraft in less than waist-deep water.
- Never carry more people than the limit on the watercraft.
4. Consider A Boaters Safety Course
I highly recommend any new riders take a boaters safety course. Some states don’t require it, and others require it for anyone under a certain age.
To be honest, everyone should be required to take the tests because we take a test to drive cars, so why not boats? The test can often be taken online for cheap, and you learn a lot, a lot more than you would in this guide. To learn more about these tests, check out this here
5. Always Wear a Life Jacket
A life jacket is meant to save your life; even if you can swim, still wear a life jacket. A life jacket is for when you fall off the craft, and for some odd reason you can’t swim due to a cramp, getting hurt, or passing out – a life jacket will keep your head above water.
I recommend bright color life jackets if given the option, so you stand out in the water.
Make sure you have a whistle, I like having one attached to all my life jackets. In many states, it’s required that the whistle is within reach of the driver, so don’t hide it and keep it attached to your life jacket at all times.
6. Wear The Correct Gear
If you think having the correct riding gear is not necessary, then please read the rear warning sticker on your jet ski – yeah, the correct bottoms are important.
7. Dry Bag
Make sure you have proper documents like driver’s licenses, boaters ID, insurance, and some spare cash if you need to get gas. Keep these items in a dry bag*.
Don’t forget to take your phone and keep it in the dry box as well. The water looks very different once you’re out there, and you can use your phone’s GPS to give you an idea of where to go.
Pro tip: When you get to the ramp or at your home, pin the location to the phone’s GPS map. This way, when you get lost, just look at that pin on your phone to see where to head towards.
8. Safety Lanyard
The safety lanyard is the cord that attaches to you and the watercraft. This is a kill switch that turns the engine off if you’re not on the craft.
Make sure the safety lanyard is attached to you when the jet ski is running.
It’s preferred that the safety lanyard is securely on your life jacket. If that is not an option, you can attach it to your wrist (your owner’s manual will tell you the best place to attach your lanyard).
Don’t be a fool and always have this attached. If you do fall off and did not attach the safety lanyard, the watercraft will drift away from you and can crash into someone else, or it could circle around and hit you.
9. Jet Ski Controls
Before heading out, make sure to learn the controls of the watercraft. I have a video below to show you how a Sea-Doo works, but many of the other manufacturers follow similar controls too…
- Know where the on and off buttons are.
- Check gauges before heading off. Make sure you have gas and no check engine lights on.
- Learn the controls of the watercraft, forward – neutral – reverse or if it has brakes, learn that.
- If you have brakes, learn the triggers. The best way to learn is to flip the triggers gently back and forth to get the feel of the craft and learn what they do. It’s best to do this in the middle of the lake or far away from others.
- If you’re new, avoid going into sport mode or using the performance keys.
- The throttle on a jet ski is sensitive, so only give it a little gas.
- Take time to learn the machine. Go through the owner’s manual and learn all the features before you go full power.
10. Steering and Driving
They’re a lot easier to drive than most people have you believe, but there are a few things to keep in mind.
When you first turn on the watercraft, many of them start in forward, so be prepared if you start moving. If your watercraft has iBR, you will start in neutral, but still, be ready and clear.
Many watercraft need to be given a little throttle if you want it to steer. This is more important on older watercraft, as newer ones like Sea-Doo will have off-throttle assisted steering.
Always keep a safe riding distance from others.
Always know who is around you and keep a safe distance. Other boats can’t move as quickly as you can on a jet ski, so keep that in mind.
Sometimes it’s good to assume other people on the water are idiots, and you should avoid them because they might not be paying attention and doing dumb stuff. As someone who’s been hit by a boat, always assumes someone doesn’t know what they’re doing.
If the watercraft is new, you need to break the engine in; we have a guide on that here.
11. Braking and Neutral
Brakes and neutral are not what you think they are when it comes to watercraft.
It’s more common these days to have jet skis with neutral and brakes, but there are still some without them.
The tricky part is that neutral is not like neutral on your car or boat. A jet ski has a direct drive, so if the engine is on the impeller to make you move is moving too.
Neutral on a jet ski is a bucket that controls the direction of thrust, and the neutral spot is in between forward and reverse.
Don’t be shocked if the watercraft still moves a little when in neutral.
The brakes are the same bucket, and it doesn’t work like the brakes in your car. The brakes on a jet ski will slow you down, but what it’s doing is putting the craft in reverse to slow you down. That is why the brake lever and the reverse lever are the same levers and if you hit the brakes, you’ll slow down and eventually go in reverse.
12. Docking And Loading Onto Trailers
Docking can be hard for new riders, but the trick is to go slow. If you have reverse or brakes, then pull the trigger in to slow down and release and then slight tap forward and then hit the reverse to slow down.
You want to creep up and then slow down; you want to be moving so slow that it’s annoying. This slow-moving is what keeps you from hitting the dock too hard. With more practice, you’ll be docking without issues.
If you don’t have reverse or brakes, then before you get to the dock, spin in a small circle with no throttle. This spinning kills your momentum and will take a second for the watercraft to get moving again, and in that second you point to where you want to go and then turn the engine off to coast into the dock.
The last thing you want to do is get to the dock and ask “what should I do” because then it’s too late and you’ll crash. Loading onto a trailer is like docking, just go slow and line it up. I have a guide to loading and unloading here.
13. No-Wake Zones
Only idle in no-wake zones. The no-wake zones are the white floating cones at the entrance of a cove or near land and boats.
This is to respect others and to keep waves from damaging boats, and to keep the waves small at the ramps for loading and unloading. Often the water police give the worst tickets at the no-wake zones, so it’s best to follow the rules.
Your jet ski can lift out of the water if you jump waves, and you should brace for impact. Lift yourself up a little bit to help with the hit.
Avoid big boats or high-traffic areas when you first start out.
Even a 24-foot boat can make a big wave, especially if it’s a wake boat. These big waves seem small at a distance but become bigger when your watercraft gets up close to it.
These waves can be scary if you’re not ready for them. Don’t let the wave attack you from the side as you run the risk of rolling over, but attack it head-on and carefully.
15. Falling Off
With the sizes of the modern watercraft, excluding the Rec-Lite ones, you almost have to try to fall off on purpose. A sure-fire way to fall off besides getting a small watercraft is to overload the watercraft. It’s wise to get a watercraft with a reboarding step on it to make it easier to get back on.
If, for some reason, you fall off and the watercraft rolls over, it’s best to get it rolled back over by following the rollover directions at the rear. It’s not good to leave a 4-stroke watercraft upside down, and the direction you rotate it is very important.
You will need some upper body strength to get back on the craft. The smaller the craft, the harder it is to get back on. The watercraft nose will lift when trying to get back on the rear, this is normal.
When climbing back on, use the step for your feet and knees, and then get your other knee on the back of the craft. The craft will feel a little shaky depending on how big it is, it's not that bad, but some balance may be needed. Get the other knee on the craft and straddle the seat back to where you can drive again.
Remember, getting back on a watercraft is a lot harder than it seems, you’re soaking wet, and waterlogged so not only are you picking yourself up but also the water that you carry. Think of getting back on a jet ski like getting out of a pool using only the top 2 rungs of the ladder and the ladder moves a bit.
First-time riding, find an empty spot where you can play with the controls before going off.
Ride with friends who have jet skis already and get tips from them. You can often find local riding groups and pick up tips from them too. Just search Facebook for local jet ski riding groups.
17. Sucking Stuff Up
A shock tube* is a great tool to have if you do any pull sports. A shock tube will help keep the tow-ropes away from the impeller of the watercraft.
More often than not, if you suck up rope, it will need to be towed in and put on a trailer to remove. Sucking up a rope can ruin the weekend if you’re not careful, and makes getting a shock tube more worth it.
Avoid shallow areas, you’re riding a very powerful vacuum, and it will suck up sand and rocks if you get too close to land. If you see water that is about waist deep, then you need to turn the engine off and then coast in.
Sometimes you will suck up things that are floating in the water and won’t see it, or your kids might suck something up and won’t tell you. These things do happen, and training and being more aware of your surroundings will help to lower the chances. Only start the watercraft in waist-deep water, too.
18. Buy The Correct PWC
Even the slowest watercraft will feel fast to new riders. See the guide on what jet ski is excellent for beginners.
Sometimes a 3 seater is really a 2 seater for normal-size adults. This goes more for the Rec-Lite categories and a little on the recreation category too.
I’m not a small guy myself, 240 pounds, and have a small Sea-Doo Spark.
If you are larger, you can still ride a watercraft just fine, but I do recommend that if you’re overweight, avoid the Rec-Lite category or 2-seaters of watercraft unless you like getting wet.
If you are overweight, the hardest part of jet skiing will be getting back on the craft if you fall off.