Does the Law Always Consider PWCs and Water Toys as Vessels?

I took a harbor cruise with my family in Long Beach Harbor a couple of weeks ago on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon. The afternoon breeze picked up — and before long, we were surrounded by personal watercraft, windsurfers and kitesurfers, all of whom were running back and forth at very high speeds with no real concern for the traffic around them. Since these water toys are not conventional “boats,” I was wondering if they are subject to the same rules of the road that govern vessel operation for the rest of us.
The short answer is “yes.” PWC operators, windsurfers and kitesurfers are all subject to the same rules of the road that govern the operation of a conventional vessel.

Most responsible boaters are familiar with the basic provisions of the Rules of the Road (otherwise known, in navigable ocean waters, as the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, or COLREGS). These rules control the interaction at sea between vessels of every description, to provide for the safe and orderly navigation of those vessels. To determine whether these rules govern the operation of PWCs, windsurfers, kitesurfers and other “unconventional” vessels, we simply need to look in the COLREGS for the definition of “vessel.”

According to Rule 3(a) of the COLREGS, “the word ‘vessel’ includes every description of watercraft, including non-displacement craft, WIG craft and seaplanes, used or capable of being used as a means of transportation on water.” This is a very broad definition, as is apparent by the specific inclusion of WIG craft and seaplanes in the definition. (A WIG craft, by the way, is a type of winged vessel that skims the surface, similar to a hovercraft.)

Under this broad definition, the water toys described by our reader clearly fall within the definition of a “vessel” — and, as such, they are clearly subject to the same Rules of the Road that govern other types of boats. The problem is that these “vessels” are often operated by boys and girls who are too young to understand the Rules, and who are not always aware of the other boat traffic around them. This can lead to some interesting — and, in some cases, tragic — consequences.

For example, a collision between a PWC and a windsurfer occurred in Puerto Rico in 1995. A lawsuit was filed by the injured windsurfer, who claimed that the accident was caused by the negligence of the 13-year-old operator of the PWC. The court agreed, finding that since the PWC was a power-driven vessel and the windsurfer was a sailboat, the PWC was at fault for failing to yield the right of way to the windsurfer.

The characterization of the PWC as a “vessel” in that case also led to a finding that the parents of the 13-year-old PWC operator were negligent, since the law in Puerto Rico prohibited the operation of a motor-driven vessel by anyone younger than 14 years of age.

Interestingly, since windsurfers and kitesurfers are deemed to be sailing vessels, the collision rules that are applicable to sailing vessels also apply to windsurfers. A windsurfer on a port tack must therefore yield to another windsurfer on a starboard tack, and a windsurfer to windward must yield to an approaching windsurfer to leeward. And since a kitesurfer cannot be on a starboard or port tack, its rights as to other kitesurfers, windsurfers and other sailing vessels are determined solely by whether the kitesurfer is windward or leeward of the other vessels.

The COLREGS also govern the interaction between these water toys and conventional boats. A large sailing vessel on a port tack must therefore yield to a windsurfer on a starboard tack, but the windsurfer under that scenario must maintain its course to allow the other vessel to stay clear.

The characterization of a water toy as a “vessel” requires every operator of these toys to have a good working knowledge of the Rules of the Road. And it requires the parents of minor children who operate these devices to ensure that their kids know the rules. Responsible operation of these toys can spell the difference between having an accident and having a fun day on the water.

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