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Types and Capacities of PWC

A very important point to remember is that PWC are powerboats, not toys.

Over 90 percent of all recreational boats in use today are less than 20 feet in length. More than half of those are less than 16 feet long. Most PWC are 7 to 12 feet long and are regarded simply as boats less than 16 feet, making them subject to the same laws and requirements as all other powerboats of that size. In addition, PWCs are often prohibited from night operation and a PWC operator must have a lanyard attached at all times. Even in states where nighttime operation is not prohibited, the USPS, Personal Watercraft manufacturers, the Coast Guard, and strongly recommend against it.

Stand-up Model Sit-down Model
Stand-up Jetski Sit-down Jetski

Personal watercraft, or PWC, are boats that use an inboard motor to power a water jet pump, the primary source of motive power. They are designed to be operated by someone sitting, standing, or kneeling on the vessel, rather than sitting or standing inside it. States may have adopted other definitions of PWC. Be aware of your state's definition and laws relating to them. PWCs are boats and therefore subject to the same rules.

There are several types of personal watercraft and they differ in performance, stability, and the amount of skill necessary to operate them. Some have the capacity for one person while others can carry up to four people. Boats have a capacity plate on them. Check your owner's manual and on the PWCs onboard label to determine the load capacity of your PWC. Vessel capacity is critical, especially when dealing with stability and PWCs. Do not exceed the recommended capacity. Doing so is unsafe. Exceeding the recommended limits will change the operating characteristics of your PWC and may put you in danger. In addition, many states have laws stating that no person is to operate a vessel beyond the maximum weight, person capacity or horsepower capacity as identified on the vessel's capacity label.

On motorized boats less than 20 feet in length, federal law requires boat builders to place a capacity plate in sight of the helm (steering area). Usually capacity plates are found on the port or starboard side of the helm or at the stern. The capacity plate must cover three important items: the maximum weight of persons on board in pounds, the maximum carrying weight of the vessel in pounds and the maximum horsepower recommended for the boat. The information is also available in the owner's manual. Don't exceed these limits.

Capacity Plate Detail Capacity Plate Placement
This picture is a capacity plate most commonly seen on personal watercraft. This picture shows where a capacity plate is usually located on a PWC.

Capacity Plate

Always check the capacity plate (like the ones above) to make sure you are not overloading or over-powering the vessel. Too many people (and/or gear) will also cause the boat to become unstable. Always balance the load so that your vessel maintains proper trim. Remember that the capacity plate limits are suitable for normal operating conditions. In rough seas, bad weather or when operating in congested areas you will want to carry a lighter load.

The carrying capacity of a vessel is determined using a formula which takes into account the maximum displacement of the hull, the weight of the hull and any permanent fixtures such as fuel tanks. This formula can vary with the type and design of the boat hull. The following United States Coast Guard web site contains information needed to determine the capacity of a vessel:

PWC Characteristics

One thing that all personal watercraft have in common is that they are designed to allow you to fall overboard and safely re-board the boat with little risk if you follow safety and manufacturer guidelines. This reduced risk is because the jet propulsion system in personal watercraft replaces the usual rudder and propeller on the outside of a boat's hull.

Vessels are generally classified by length:

  • Less than 16 feet

  • 16 to less than 26 feet

  • 26 to less than 40 feet

  • 40 feet to less than 65 feet

A PWC is in a separate class of its own because of its unique power and hull configuration.

Vessels have different hull designs depending on their intended use.

Four of the main hull configurations are shown below:


The multihull configuration offers stability, with the speed of the v-hull boat. These are most often seen as catamaran or trimaran sailboats, some high speed passenger ferries etc. They do require a longer turning radius and do turn flat rather than lean into a turn.
Round Bottom HullRound Bottom Hull

The round bottom hull design allows the boat to travel through the water with less wake and power. They don't ride on top of the water like v-hull boats do but rather go through the water thus they are referred to as "displacement hulls". These hulls are often seen on some slower powerboat hulls, ships lifeboats, and some sailboats. They usually require a keel or a stabilizer board if used on a sailboat. A boat with this hull design can be "tippy" when broadside to a strong wind or waves. This design will also tend to roll in a turn.
V-HullDeep Vee Hull

This is the most popular hull type for both small and large power vessels. It offers a smooth ride and speed. It rides on top of the water under power, and is referred to as a "Planing hull". It is used on most powerboats. It does tend to lean to the inside on a turn. PWC's use this design.
Flat Bottom HullFlat Bottom Hull

This hull type is usually found on small jon boats, hunting skiffs, and boats that are used for fishing in shallow water. Since the hull is wide and flat they are very stable, and require less water depth to operate. The ride is smooth when traveling across smooth water and requires less power. The ride is very rough when crossing waves because the bottom pounds down onto the water rather than cut though as the other hull designs do. This hull will tend to stay flat in turns.
Many manufactures use modifications and variations of these hull designs. Many times they will place a hull in a tank with moving water to test and modify the hull design to obtain the desired result.

Documented Vessels

A PWC can not be a documented vessel.

Recreational boats 5 net tons and over and owned by a U. S. citizen may be documented by the U. S. Coast Guard. This includes, but is not limited to, vessels used exclusively for recreational purposes and vessels used in foreign trade. A vessel of less than five net tons is excluded from documentation.

Upon application for any Certificate of Documentation the owner of a vessel must designate a hailing port to be marked upon the vessel. The hailing port must be a place in the United States included in the U.S. Department of Commerce's Federal Information Processing Standards Publication 55DC. The hailing port must include the state, territory, or possession in which it is located. The Director, of the National Vessel Documentation Center has final authority to settle disputes as to the propriety of the hailing port designated.

The hailing port of the vessel must be marked on some clearly visible exterior part of the stern of the vessel. The official number of the vessel must be marked in block-type Arabic numerals not less than three inches in height on some clearly visible interior structural part of the hull. The number must be permanently affixed to the vessel so that alteration, removal, or replacement would be obvious.

For vessels documented exclusively for recreation, the name and hailing port must be marked together on some clearly visible exterior part of the hull.

Contact the U. S. Coast Guard Documentation Center at 1-800-799-8362 for more information.

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