DESTIN — In the wake of the season's first personal watercraft fatality, those in the business say renters' lack of attention to instruction are to blame for many collisions on the water.
On a recent weekday afternoon, hundreds of thrill-seekers lined the docks on HarborWalk Village in search for the best way to beat the heat.
Commonly called Jet Skis and WaveRunners (which are registered trademarks), personal watercraft are popular on the Panhandle's waters. Ridden like a motorcycles, only on water, they can hold up to three passengers.
"WaverRunners are a great way to see the area," said Johnny Parker, general manager of Boogies Watersports. "People enjoy searching for dolphins and seeing their hotels from the water."
However, Parker said one of the most challenging parts of the rental business is convincing the renters to pay attention during the 10-minute safety course.
"It's always a constant battle trying to make sure they are paying attention and comprehending the video and what we teach them," he said. "Some customers forget what they learn as soon as they get out of the water and start hauling butt in the no-wake zones."
Parker said when renters disobey the pre-ride instructions, employees immediately wave the riders back to shore and make them go through the course again.
Renters at Boogie's last week were no different, as four of the six taking the safety course turned away from the TV screen to watch a pirate ship pass.
On June 30, a 19-year-old Texas woman died in the water they were about to enter when the personal watercraft she was on collided with a 30-foot boat.
This season, there have been 14 additional major personal watercraft accidents in the Destin area, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Lt. Keith Clark. Of those accidents, he said, at least half required sending PWC riders to the hospital.
“Several of them resulted in broken lower limbs or upper limbs,” he said.
Florida law requires that renters born on or after Jan. 1, 1988 obtain a Florida valid boater’s license before operating the vessels. Boogies, as well as most personal watercraft rental businesses, offer the test on site. Those born before the date do not need a license.
At any given time, according to Clark, there are approximately 80 to 100 personal watercraft being operated in the vicinity of the Destin Harbor.
In an effort to “create safer boating” for the PWC renters, Destin City Council adopted an ordinance in February requiring all owners of businesses that rent pontoon boats, motorized personal watercraft and other livery vessels to file new permits and pay a $75-per-vessel annual fee to the city.
Among the stipulations, the ordinance requires each livery vessel rental business owner to give the city a copy of a document that renters sign, attesting to have received pre-ride instructions.
Clark said even with the instructions, monitoring personal watercraft on the water is difficult because there are so many inexperienced riders breaking the laws at once.
“Those going over the idle speed zones, or no wake zones, are such a constant occurrence that we could easily write 60 tickets at a time,” he said. “We don’t do that. We usually just cite for the biggest violations. So, during the weekend, we probably cite 10 per day.”
Frank Clemens, deckhand at La Dolce Vita Beach Service, said the same struggles are true for every personal watercraft rental business in Destin.
“The reason for accidents is simple," Clemens said. "People just don't pay attention to instruction.”
Although accidents will probably never end, Clemens, Clark and Parker agreed the city, Florida Fish and Wildlife and the rental businesses are doing all they can to keep the Destin waters safe for tourists and citizens alike.
"It's working for now," Clemens said.