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Personal Watercraft are Considered What Type of Vessel?

Written by Anthony Roberts / Fact checked by Jonathan Larson

personal watercraft are considered what type of vessel

We see them performing stunts and other daredevil moves like exhibition motorbikes in open bodies of water. But, have you ever wondered personal watercraft are considered what type of vessel?

Some know these nimble and acrobatic watercraft as water scooters, although most call them Jet Skis and Sea-Doos. However, the US Coast Guard classifies them as Class A vessels with inboard motors.

Under USCG definition, Class A vessels are shorter than 16 feet from bow to stern. These include fishing boats, dinghies, inflatables, and PWCs (personal boats).

Of course, we’re oversimplifying things. So, we encourage you to keep reading to learn the juicy bits of information about these technologically impressive recreational watercraft.

An Overview of Personal Watercraft


Personal watercraft (PWC) is a revolutionary boat technology employing state-of-the-art inboard jet drive propulsion. A private water craft is less than 16 feet long and can come in four versions: stand-up, sit-down, modded, and fishing.

PWCs have come a long way from their humble beginnings in the 1950s when Clayton Jacobson III introduced the world’s first personal watercraft – the water scooter.

It would take about two decades before Kawasaki, a Japanese company that brought about a breakthrough in the industry, released its Jet Ski to provide adventurers with a whole new level of “aquatic experience.”

Early PWCs were single-person boats but highly maneuverable. Modern PWCs can seat up to four adventurers, while some have powerful engines for towing a skier. Storage compartments are also more spacious – a necessity to accommodate required equipment, such as fishing gear or even fuel.

Unsurprisingly, the PWC meaning is as varied as the motor vessel’s design attributes.

It could be a people transporter, especially for newer four-seaters. A powerful type of engine can also make the PWC a reliable workhorse in water sports (i.e., water skiing, wakeboarding, and wake surfing). Lifeguards use it for rescuing near-drowning victims.

How Does it Work?


Understanding how PWCs work ensures a more pleasant (and sometimes, more thrilling) PWC boating experience.

Like other jet-propelled vessels, a PWCs bottom hull has an inlet for drawing water. The water passes through an impeller that forces it to the engine. Meanwhile, the “jet” engine ejects the sucked-in water under high pressure, creating a jet-like stream.

Unlike traditional boats with car-like steering wheels, PWCs have motorcycle-like handlebars for effortless handling.

Unsurprisingly, the PWC’s simple operation leads many folks to think jet skis are excellent boats for absolute beginners.

Types of Vessels for Personal Watercraft


Personal watercraft have four variants, where two describe how the operator “stays” on the small vessel.

  • Stand-up – A favorite of brave water adventurers, stand-up PWCs don’t have seats. Instead, the watercraft features a well for stabilizing the rider as he stands up performing stunts.These PWCs are more affordable, lightweight, maintainable, and versatile than sit-down units. However, getting the hang of how to ride them can be tricky at first.
  • Sit-down – Perfect for cruising the coast with your partner, sit-down PWCs are fast and can accommodate up to four people (including the pilot). They’re often bigger, giving these PWCs better stability and safety.
  • Modded – Heavily modified PWCs translate to improved performance (an example is the WaveRunner).
  • Fishing – Some PWCs have integrated fish finders, rod holders, trolling mode, fish coolers, and other features vital to having a splendid fishing trip.

Legal Classification of Personal Watercraft

The United States Coast Guard (USCG) classifies PWCs as Class A motor vessels, clustering them with fishing boats, dinghies, inflatables, small fishing boats, and other recreational boats shorter than 16 feet.

Because PWCs are “legally” classified as “boats,” we can expect different boating laws apply to PWC operators, too. Hence, users or pilots of personal watercraft must also adhere to the boating guidelines the USCG requires, such as bringing the required safety equipment for Class A vessels.

State and Local Regulations


It would be a mistake to think that PWCs are not subject to the laws and requirements of other vessels, especially Class A motor vessels. Of course, there are state-related laws and regulations specific to PWCs.

For example, PWCs operating in Virginia must observe the following.

  • Everyone on a PWC (pilot and passengers) must wear a personal flotation device (PFD) duly approved by the USCG for use only in PWCs.
  • All PWCs must have a lanyard-type mechanism for switching off the engine, and the killswitch must be in the operator’s PFD or clothing.
  • PWCs must not exceed the vessel’s passenger capacity.

In Wisconsin, the following is the recommended practice for PWC operation.

  • PWC operators must focus on the craft’s forward direction.
  • Daytime water action is legal for personal watercraft in Wisconsin. Riders must not operate their PWCs at night, regardless of the weather conditions. This is because PWCs don’t have running lights.
  • PWCs must not perform the following.

Jumping a wake within a hundred feet of another watercraft.

Weaving through heavy waterway traffic.

Disturbing or harassing wildlife.

Intentionally steering toward anyone or anything in the water only to change course at the last second.

Riding within a hundred feet of a towing watercraft (i.e., wake surfers, wakeboarders, water skiers).

You might want to check with your local boating laws to learn different PWC requirements or regulations. Knowledge of local PWC-specific laws will help determine what action is safe for a PWC.

Comparison to Other Vessel Types

As mentioned, the USCG considers PWCs as boats, or Class A Inboard boats, to be specific. However, personal watercraft have unique attributes differentiating them from other vessel types. We summarized the key differences in the following table.

Attribute PWCs Other Vessels
Length Less than 16 feet Varied
Propulsion Jet pumps Propellers or screws
Operator position On the PWC Inside or on the boat
Maximum seating capacity Four Many, depending on type

Licensing and Registration Requirements

PWCs are motor vessels. Hence, state and federal regulations require these watercraft to have the necessary license and registration before riders can operate them. However, it’s worth noting that some states don’t require PWC registration. You might want to check with your local boating law.

PWC operators must also obtain the necessary license, depending on their state. For example, Virginia requires PWC operators to have a boating education safety certificate before piloting a PWC. Texas has a similar requirement, but only for PWCs with more than 15 HP.

Safety Guidelines and Operational Considerations


We must reiterate that PWCs are boats under Class A classification. Hence, these watercraft are also subject to the same safety guidelines and operational considerations as other motor vessels.

Here are some guidelines PWC operators must know, including what things must be aboard the leisure craft.

  • Personal Flotation Device – Each rider or passenger must have a USCG-approved PFD (not the inflatable types).
  • A USCG-approved B-1 or 5-B portable fire extinguisher. This item reflects the type of fire extinguisher to be on-board of a PWC.
  • A horn, whistle, or any sound signaling device duly approved by the USCG.
  • An emergency engine kill switch attached to a lanyard and worn by the PWC operator.
  • A valid PWC registration, including visible registration decals
  • A black flame arrestor to prevent the ignition of gas vapors.

BoatUS recommends the following safety guidelines for operating a PWC.

  • Don’t ease on the throttle to maintain steerage. For example, avoiding collisions is more straightforward if PWC operators apply throttle instead of slowing down. This maneuver allows them to initiate ultra-sharp turns and lightning-quick accelerations.

On a side note, collisions are the leading cause of PWC accidents.

  • Never abandon the PWC if it overturns because this vessel is self-righting. However, PWC operators must read the manual for righting and reboarding the watercraft.
  • Ensure the PWC has an emergency engine shutoff lanyard you can attach to your PFD or PWC clothing. After all, nobody wants the motor on a PWC is running continuously even if you fall off.
  • Practice operating the PWC in shallow and calm waters, focusing on boarding and re-boarding.
  • Study the area you’ll be operating the PWC on and identify shallow sections. Avoid these places to prevent damaging the PWC or losing power.



How is a personal watercraft (PWC) propelled through the water?

A personal watercraft moves through the water by water-jet propulsion. The vessel scoops water from one side and courses it through an impeller and the engine. The water comes out of the other end with tremendous energy to propel the PWC.

Are there age restrictions for operating a personal watercraft?

Age-related restrictions for operating a personal watercraft vary across states.

For example, teens must be at least 14 years old to operate a PWC in Michigan. Moreover, adolescents between 14 and 15 must have a competent adult (at least 21 years) onboard the PWC. 16-year-olds, meanwhile, can run PWCs with no supervision whatsoever.

It’s a different story in Florida, where the minimum age requirement for operating a PWC unsupervised is only 14. Additionally, you must be at least 18 to rent a PWC. If you allow your below-14-year-old teen to drive a PWC, you could be liable for a second-degree misdemeanor.

How fast can personal watercraft go?

Heavily modified PWCs (those built for extreme performance) can reach top speeds exceeding 120 miles per hour or 104 knots. However, stock PWCs can only go 40 to 70 MPH or 35 to 61 knots.


You no longer have to ask personal watercraft are considered what type of vessel after reading this article. The federal government classifies PWCs as boats, specifically Class A motor vessels.

These watercraft are subject to the same boating rules and regulations and a few specific ones. PWCs have registration and licensing requirements and safety guidelines to observe.

Although PWCs are boats, they differ in the propulsion system, length, rider position, and passenger capacity from conventional vessels.

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