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Personal Watercraft

As a personal watercraft owner, you should become familiar with how to operate your boat and the laws around safe operation. Your personal watercraft is a powerboat. So, you must follow the same operation and equipment laws as other boaters. 

Picture of a young woman enjoying a PWC ride

Jet Drive Basics

The thrust of a jet pump propels a personal watercraft. The pump draws water into the housing ahead of the impeller. The impeller forces the water in a stream out through the nozzle at the back of the personal watercraft. There's a steerable nozzle at the rear of the pump housing. When you turn the handlebars, the nozzle directs the stream from side to side turning the craft. If the engine is not pushing the jet of water, there will be no thrust to steer the craft. Without throttle, you have no steering and no way to avoid obstacles!


Personal watercraft are small, fast, maneuverable, and can operate in many locations. For these reasons, operators need to be familiar with:

  • boating laws
  • rules of the road
  • waterway restrictions,
  • boating courtesies in mixed-use areas.

Youth 12-15 may operate a PWC if accompanied by an adult 18 or older who also has a boater education card.

A person 16 or older will need a boater education card to operate a PWC.

Even after you've completed an approved boater education course, do the following:

  • You must carry your boater education card (and any accompanying adult). You must also carry the Certificate of Number (registration) for the PWC.
  • Read the owner's manual.
  • Practice starting and stopping the engine. Some personal watercraft are unstable at slow speeds, so practice slow-speed operation.
  • Beginners should use extreme caution.
  • Learn the local boat operating rules and the rules of the road before climbing aboard your watercraft.
  • Move around – avoid “buzzing" around the same location for long periods. 
  • If you enjoy sharing the sport with family and friends, ensure they are taught safe operation and carry their boater education card, too. Teaching new riders is the owner's responsibility.

Personal Watercraft Access

Lakes and reservoir impoundments on Oregon rivers are open to PWC subject to local operating rules in OAR Chapter 250, Division 20. For closures and other restrictions on PWC use, see specific rivers in the Boat Oregon Online Map.

The following table lists which rivers and river sections are open to personal watercraft use. All other rivers not listed are closed to PWC (OAR 250-021-0040):

Rivers and sections where PWC operations are allowed

Age RestrictionsImage of a professional PWC youth competitor

It is against the law for anyone under 16 years of age to operate a personal watercraft without being accompanied on the watercraft by someone 18 or older. The 16-year-old must also have a boater education card carried aboard when operating. No person shall rent a personal watercraft to anyone under the age of 18. 

Speed Restrictions

  • You must slow to 10 MPH when approaching within 100 feet of another motorized boat or a sailboat underway. You are not required to slow if they are approaching you.
  • Operate slow no-wake speed within 100 feet of anchored vessels or non-motorized craft.
  • Except for safe take-offs and landings, you must also operate at slow no-wake speed within 200 feet of a lake, bay, or reservoir shoreline.
  • State law also requires a maximum slow-no-wake speed within 200 feet of a swimmer, surfer, shoreline angler, diving flag, or location with people working at the water level. That speed limit also applies within 200 feet of a dock, launch ramp, marina or moorage, floating home or boathouse, pier, or swim float.
  • You may not operate a personal watercraft within 200 feet behind a water skier, wakeboard, tube, or similar towed device.

Noise RestrictionsStand up PWC two stroke on Detroit Lake

Operators should reduce speed while heading out or returning to shore to reduce noise. Some personal watercraft owners have modified their exhaust systems, resulting in increased noise. This annoys fellow boaters, and the increased noise may keep you from hearing horn signals or approaching boats. Citations will be issued when noise exceeds 90 dBA on a personal watercraft manufactured before January 1, 1993, and 88 dBA on personal watercraft built after January 1, 1993. In addition, personal watercraft must be mechanically muffled. Please operate your craft with consideration for others by avoiding swim areas and shoreline residences. Required and Recommended Equipment Under Oregon law, each person on a personal watercraft must wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved Type I, II, or III personal flotation device (PFD). A ski-type PFD is desirable due to its high impact rating. An engine shut-off lanyard, if equipped by the manufacturer, must be attached to the person operating the boat, to their clothing, or to their PFD.

Other items that you must have onboard include:

  • A U.S. Coast Guard-approved fire extinguisher
  • Lights, if operating at night (sunset to sunrise)
  • Sound-producing device (horn or whistle, etc.)
  • Recommended items include protective eyewear, a wetsuit, gloves, and footwear.

Operating your Personal WatercraftImage of several PWCs on the bank of a lake

Protective gear, common sense, and courtesy will enhance your experience on the water. Tips for operating your personal watercraft:

  • Check your equipment, fuel level, and weather before starting.
  • Don't drink alcohol or ingest other drugs and operate any boat.
  • Observe all speed limits and no-wake zones.
  • Watch for hazards, floating and submerged obstructions.
  • Never operate between a skier and the ski boat; a moving tow line can cut like a knife. The display of an orange flag by boaters indicates a skier or equipment in the water nearby.
  • Go slowly near shore and operate with caution in rocky areas.
  • Drive cautiously, especially near swim areas and launch ramps. Watch for traffic and swimmers before making turns.
  • Avoid sudden course changes in congested waters.
  • When pulling a skier, the craft must have seating capacity for the operator, observer, and skier.
  • Avoid overexposure to the sun and cold water.
  • A wetsuit can help protect you from hypothermia, which is a dangerous lowering of the body's core temperature. Quit before fatigue sets in.
  • Avoid operating your personal watercraft near big ships. A personal watercraft is very difficult for a ship's pilot to see.
  • Never chase or harass wildlife.

Coastal Water Operation

Safe boating along the coast requires proper preparation, good boat-handling skills, and knowledge of coastal waters. Stay well away from the beach. Other persons who enjoy the quiet of the ocean and waves don't enjoy personal watercraft noise. Federal law requires boats operating under certain circumstances to carry U.S. Coast Guard-approved visual distress signals such as flares, strobe lights, or a distress flag. Check the U.S. Coast Guard publication Visual Distress Signals for requirements.

Owner Liability 

Most personal watercraft accidents involve an operator other than the owner. Owners may be held liable if they let someone operate their craft and it is involved in an accident. Be sure that all operators of your craft understand its operation and know the rules of the road. Although liability insurance is not required, it is strongly recommended. Protect yourself! 

Causes of Accidents

Operator InattentionPWC rider's view of the surrounding environment

  • Operator inexperience or inattention is the primary cause of accidents involving personal watercraft. The craft can speed up quickly and are very maneuverable. To avoid collisions:
  • Maintain a proper lookout by watching ahead and to the sides and behind your personal watercraft at all times.
  • Always look before turning.
  • Keep a reasonable distance between yourself, other boats, the shoreline, and swimmers.
  • Become familiar with the safe boating rules

Alcohol and Other Drugs 

Alcohol is a factor in nearly a third of all motorboat fatalities. It is against the law to operate a boat while under the influence. Alcohol and drugs impair judgment, coordination, and concentration. Sun, wind, and waves increase the effect of alcohol and other drugs.

Report Required

Operators involved in boating accidents must provide assistance and exchange information including name, address, and boat registration number. A written report to the Marine Board is required when a person dies, is injured, or property damage exceeds $2,000. 

Unsafe/Reckless Operation

Oregon law considers maneuvers that endanger people or property as unsafe or reckless operations. Citations carry fines up to $6,250 and/or a penalty of up to one year in jail. Some exemptions apply for participants in officially sanctioned or professional events.

Reckless Operation includes:

  • Weaving through congested traffic.
  • Jumping wakes close to the boat that creates them, or in situations when visibility around the boat is obstructed.
  • Buzzing or spraying others.
  • Operating near or between a boat being towed and its tow craft.


Personal watercraft used mainly in Oregon must be titled and registered according to Oregon law. Contact the Marine Board. The Board will issue a Certificate of Number (registration number), a Certificate of Title, and a set of registration stickers. The registration number begins with OR (shown on the certificate.) The Certificate of Number must be available for inspection when the vessel is on the water. Any time the personal watercraft hull is replaced due to damage, a new title must be issued. If the damaged hull is sold, the title for the hull must go to the buyer. Contact the Marine Board for details.

Display of Numbers and DecalsPicture of an operator and rider enjoying the ride

Fasten or paint the OR number on each side of the forward half of the boat above the waterline. Numbers must be read from left to right.

  • Use bold, block letters at least 3" high in color contrasting to the hull.
  • Place the validation decal 3 inches aft (toward the back), in line with your registration numbers.
  • Place your numbers on the most vertical surface above the bumper line for legal visibility. 



Personal Watercraft Bilingual Rack Cards:

Personal Watercraft - Chinese

Personal Watercraft - Russian

Personal Watercraft - Spanish

Personal Watercraft - Vietnamese

Image of a sign about life jacket wear when operating a PWC All persons on board a PWC must wear an inherently buoyant life jacket approved by the US Coast Guard. Do not wear inflatable-style life jackets.