WASHINGTON – When personal watercraft rental businesses open for the season, their stock will include 5,000 quiz books.
Passing a safety quiz is just one of the requirements for customers who wish to rent a Jet Ski-like personal watercraft, since state and industry officials instituted strict safety measures after a rash of accidents in 1995, some fatal. A customer can be turned away if safety is not taken seriously.
Rental businesses are now required to post personal watercraft safety rules and give every customer a written quiz on those rules. A customer who gets more than one answer wrong cannot rent a personal watercraft.
Customers who pass the quiz go down to the water where the vessels are docked and meet with Jet Ski “guides,” usually 16- to 25-year-old summer employees who are certified by the Maryland Natural Resources Police.
The guides give a 10-minute presentation on how to operate a personal watercraft, how to steer and how to get back on the vessel if a rider falls off. Renters are warned to stay 100 feet away from everything before trying to go full speed.
While a guide will be out on the water, “he’s definitely not out there to take you on a tour,” said Julie Hofmann, boating and personal watercraft safety coordinator for the Natural Resources Police. The guides are there to keep an eye on things and can end a renter’s session early if they misbehave.
Hofmann has worked with Ocean City personal watercraft businesses since 1996 to promote safety and reduce accidents.
She formed a partnership between businesses and the Natural Resources Police. Before then, Hofmann said, the rental operators had their own informal organization to discuss the accident problem, but little was accomplished or enforced.
“I focused on the personal watercraft rentals more heavily and working with them directly, making sure they understand the importance of the safety initiatives we’re asking them to do,” she said.
Now she travels to Ocean City from her Annapolis office twice a week to check on the businesses.
“I hang out, watch the guides, listen to them, see what they are telling people,” she said. She even stops by when she is on vacation.
Hofmann said safety education is the most important issue when it comes to reducing the number of personal watercraft accidents. She recently gave about 5,000 copies of the safety quiz to the 15 Ocean City rental companies for the coming season.
Rental owners expect a busy season since hotels have reported a lot of pre-bookings.
While most boat accidents in Ocean City involve personal watercraft, Hofmann said, “It’s not about the boat.” It’s also about the drivers.
“The boat’s an awesome, fun form of boating. It just requires a bit more knowledge then sitting down and starting it up,” she said.