The long Independence Day holiday got off to a tragic start July 3 on Maryland’s Western Shore.
An early-morning incident that claimed the lives of a Virginia couple riding a personal watercraft (popularly referred to as a jet ski) on South River in Southern Anne Arundel County illustrates the dangers of operating such a vessel during the overnight hours.
“It has been frustrating,” Lt. Robert Ford, commander of the Maryland Natural Resources Police safety education division, said of the recent spate of boating accidents, including several fatalities, on Maryland waterways since the arrival of summer.
According to Julie Brown, the NRP’s boating safety coordinator, Maryland law is clear when a personal watercraft may be operated on the water — it is strictly a daytime vessel.
A personal watercraft may not be operated on the water between “sunset and sunrise” because it does not have nighttime navigation equipment. “They are very difficult to see in the evening due to their speed and maneuverability,” she said.
Several personal watercraft models have the capacity to seat as many as three people.
“Nowadays, more people are purchasing three-seaters,” said Brown. “It’s important to know your craft’s capacity.”
Speed limits for personal watercraft — which are capable of traveling at speeds of 75 mph — are the same as for other motorized vessels.
Brown said personal watercraft operators traveling Maryland’s waterways must adhere to the state’s 100-foot distance rule — operators are to maintain a speed of six knots or lower within 100 feet or more of another personal watercraft, vessel, shore, pier, pylon, bridge, waterfowl or person. Beyond the 100-foot buffer zone, the operator may move the throttle above six knots.
According to an online report from the Anne Arundel County Fire Department, crews were dispatched around 2:30 a.m. on July 3 after authorities received a 911 call from an Edgewater resident who reported the man and woman missing.
The couple — identified by Maryland Natural Resources Police as Jeffrey Sessions, 53, and Elizabeth Howle, 48, both of Reston, Va. — were last seen alive around 1:30 a.m.
The fire department stated that a neighbor “reported hearing the sound of a collision around 1:45 a.m.” responders found the partially submerged 12-foot, BRP Queretaro Sea-Doo near a damaged pylon, which serves as a navigational aid to boaters.
The bodies of both Sessions and Howle were located around 5:15 a.m. Neither one was wearing a life jacket.
Brown explained the science of the personal watercraft — the vessel is powered by an “impeller,” located under its seat that squirts jets of water backward which in turn pushes the craft forward.
The water being impelled is also what gives operators the capability of steering the craft. Brown said personal watercraft manufacturers realize that this is a problem for some operators and some newer models are now equipped with power steering.
According to Brown, the 100-foot or farther away buffer requirement has been researched, and collisions are avoidable if that distance is maintained.
Other state personal watercraft regulations include an age requirement — operators must be at least 16 years of age — and anyone riding on a craft must be wearing a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket.
Anyone born on or after July 1, 1972, must carry a certificate of boater safety certification. Boater safety courses are available statewide.
Some courses are offered online, and Brown said that some are even free.
“There’s no excuse for not getting boater educated,” she said.
As for learning how to specifically operate a personal watercraft, Brown did at one time offer such classes in Annapolis but no longer does.
Brown had no hard data on how many personal watercraft operators are cited for violations, but added there are a lot of these types of personal vessels on Maryland’s waterways during boating season, and the issuance of citations is not an uncommon occurrence.
The biggest problem, Brown said, seems to be personal watercraft operators throttling up too close to shore. Surprisingly, the campaign to get personal watercraft operators and riders to wear lifejackets as been quite successful.
“If people would just follow those regulations it would be a lot better,” said Brown, who ride riding a personal watercraft is “a lot of fun. We are not trying to make it not fun. Our regulations are not random; they’ve been researched.”
For more information on boating safety courses in Maryland, visit www.boat-ed.com/maryland.