Death of 10-Year-Old Jet Skier Raises Questions About Safety

Times Staff Writer

A 10-year-old boy was riding a Jet Ski on Mission Bay last Sunday when he cut between a water skier and the skier’s tow-boat. The boy hit the tow rope and broke his neck. He died later at a hospital.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, questions are being raised about the safety of these fast-moving water scooters--to some the aquatic version of off-road vehicles.

Manufacturers, boating officials and users of the increasingly popular craft said the accident shows the need for more education, more enforceable laws, and strict regulations aimed at separating crowds of mixed boats and water scooters.

For example, the owner of the Jet Ski involved in the accident that led to the death of Thomas M. Ready was violating a new state law when he allowed the boy to use the water scooter alone, according to officials.


Capt. Chris Brewster, chief of city lifeguards, said a California Harbors and Navigation Code law in force since Jan. 1 prohibits anyone under 12 from operating a motorboat designed to carry only one person.

Can Turn Deadly

Both officials and manufacturers claim Jet Skis are not inherently dangerous but can turn deadly in the wrong hands.

Ben Benites, boating administrator for the state Department of Boating and Waterways, said carelessness and inexperience are the usual causes of water scooter accidents.


“There are people riding water scooters who start having so much fun they stop paying attention to their surroundings, and that’s when people get into trouble,” he said.

But that is only part of the problem. As water scooter sales grow, there are worries that more Jet Skis are being added to waters already crowded with sailboats, motorboats, windsurfers and swimmers.

And more scooters are being sold to rental operators, raising fears that novices are taking to the water with little safety instruction.

“Whenever you have motor boats, sail boats and water scooters mixed, you are going to experience problems. Those different types of boats cannot coexist in large numbers because of the different capabilities and speeds involved with the machines,” Benites said.


San Diegan Kathy Teemer, a water-scooter enthusiast for three years, knows firsthand what Benites is talking about.

When she first began riding a water scooter, she spent most of her weekends at the beach and along the bays riding a scooter or water skiing.

Just Too Crowded

But now, she said, there are so many water scooters and other boats in the water that she tries to only use a scooter or water ski during the week when it is less crowded.


“It just gets too crowded and sometimes I get scared because there’s not much room to maneuver,” Teemer said.

Lifeguard Capt. Brewster said the water conflicts now seen on Mission Bay are going to be clearly evident in other areas along the coast and across the nation in a few years. “As more and more people start using the waterways, skill levels are going to have to meet some minimum standard like states’ now require for driving a car,” he said.

There are an estimated 500,000 water scooters in the United States with 46,000 of them registered in California, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles. About 4,000 of those are in San Diego County.

A significant number of those water scooters were purchased within the last two years by rental operators.


Katherine Martin, a spokeswoman for Kawasaki Motors Corp. USA, leading manufacturer of water scooters, said her company has an extensive program to ensure that dealers work to educate Jet Ski buyers. The problem, she said, is that manufacturers have little control over companies that rent water scooters.

“Most of the time people renting the scooters are going to ride for their first time, and only after about 15 minutes of riding instruction,” she said. “That’s not at all a smart thing to do.”

Accidents on Increase

No data about the overall number of accidents involving water scooters was available Wednesday, but vehicles made by Kawasaki were involved in 330 accidents during 1987, according to U. S. Coast Guard reports. That’s double the 1983 figure, when 115 such mishaps were reported.


Since 1983, eight deaths--including the one last Sunday--have been reported to the Coast Guard. The accident involving the boy was the state’s second water scooter fatality this year, according to the Department of Boating and Waterways.

One week before that accident, two other people were injured in separate water scooter accidents near Fiesta Island, officials said.

Water scooters are designed to go anywhere a small boat can. They usually are about 8 feet long and are powered by engines that can take them to 40 m.p.h.

Some are designed to be ridden by two people, but the single-rider scooter is most popular in the San Diego area. Water scooters caught on quickly in San Diego, and the first professional race of the craft was held near Fiesta Island in 1977.


California, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Michigan, New Hampshire, Oregon and Pennsylvania have placed some regulations on water scooters. While restrictions vary, they generally include a minimum operating age and curbs on where the craft can be used.

In last Sunday’s Mission Bay accident, the Jet Ski being ridden by the 10-year-old was owned by a family friend who was with the boy and his mother at Fiesta Island, according to a police spokesman.

Police will turn over the results of their investigation to the district attorney’s office. It will be up to the district attorney to decide whether to file charges in connection with the boy’s death, spokesman Dave Cohen said.