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This briefing paper explains the law governing the use of personal watercraft (PWC), which is the technical description of what are often colloquially known as jet skis. “Jet ski” is the trade name for one particular brand of motorised personal watercraft manufactured by Kawasaki. 

Issues with PWC

There have been periodic reports of accidents involving PWC in British coastal waters in recent years. Most accidents are due to collisions with other PWC or watercraft, crashing into jetties, piers or rocks or failing to avoid more vulnerable water users. In some cases there have been fatalities, as well as reports of lower-level nuisance, including antisocial behaviour and the piloting of PWC close to other water users.

Legal definition of PWC

PWC are not covered by the same legislation as ships or small boats taking passengers, as there is a legal precedent for saying that PWC are not defined as ships. They are therefore not subject to the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 nor the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, 1972 (COLREGS). That legal precedent emerged from a 2005 court case where the Court of Appeal ruled that PWC were not ships because they are not “used in navigation”. The case prompted a change in guidance and a consultation on changes to legislation in 2009. That consultation considered bringing PWC within the definition of a “ship” in Merchant Shipping legislation pertaining to safety.

However, substantive legislative changes did not immediately follow. The view of successive UK governments was that it is the responsibility of local authorities and harbour authorities to regulate personal watercraft using local bye-law powers to, for instance, restrict the times and places that PWC can be used.

Government Consultation 2021

More recently, some MPs, industry groups and journalists have continued to raise the issues about PWCs and their perceived danger and nuisance to other members of the public. Some have called for the Government to regulate PWC (e.g. by introducing licences and age-restrictions) and introduce greater enforcement powers. In September 2021, the Government consulted on how to bring PWC within the scope of the Merchants Shipping Act 1995 in order to provide a way for their misuse to be prosecuted.

Information on other shipping and ports-related matters can be found on the Transport pages of the Parliament website.


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