Personal watercraft are fun, but can be dangerous


Maryland's first fatal accident involving personal watercraft prompted state officials to issue a warning yesterday: These immensely popular boats may look fun, but a rider can be maimed or killed in the blink of an eye.

The boats, known by the brand names Jet Ski and Waverunner and costing an average of $5,700, maneuver well but can't be stopped quickly, especially when operated at the top speed of about 50 mph. They do not have any warning device such as a horn.

"We have a hell of a problem," said Bob Graham, a spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources. "They are like motorcycles without brakes."

No charges have been filed in Saturday's accident in which Janet Ewing, 35, of Rising Sun died. The accident occurred off the Port Deposit public boat landing in Cecil County, near the mouth of the Susquehanna River, said Officer Donald Jacobs of Maryland Natural Resources Police.

But investigators have determined that Mrs. Ewing and her husband, Richard, were allowing their 12-year-old son to operate one of the boats in violation of state law; operators must be at least 14. The Ewing boy was riding on a separate craft at the time of Saturday's accident.

Officer Jacobs said Mr. and Mrs. Ewing were operating their Jet Skis too fast and too close to one another. State law also says operators must stay at least 100 feet from other craft, people or objects when traveling more than about 7 mph.

The accident occurred when Mrs. Ewing and a friend, Ronald Roy King, were riding next to one another in one direction, while Mr. Ewing was coming at them from the opposite direction. Mr. King swerved, but Mrs. Ewing did not, Officer Jacobs said. Mrs. Ewing was struck nearly head-on by her husband's boat, Officer Jacobs said. She died of massive internal injuries.

Accidents involving personal watercraft are becoming more common, state officials said. "They are tremendous fun to operate," said Bob Gaudette, director of DNR's Waterway Services Program. If not careful, he said, "you may not get a second chance." DNR officials said injuries of personal watercraft operators or riders have more than doubled in recent years, from 21 in 1992 to 48 in 1994. Citations issued to operators increased by 1,000 during the same period, from about 1,100 in 1992 to 2,100 last year, the officials said.

About 3,700 personal watercraft were registered in the state in 1992, DNR officials said. Now, they said, nearly 7,100 are registered in Maryland.

One-third of the all boats that have been sold in Maryland and in the United States this year are personal watercraft.

Many owners of larger, more traditional boats feel harassed by reckless operators of personal watercraft.

Doreen Bury, 31, frequently joins her husband, Richard, 34, in their 17-foot powerboat on Gunpowder River. They like to anchor off Maxwell Point to enjoy the solitude and swim in the sandy-bottomed water.

"I often see 10 to 15 . . . doing tricks, jumping wakes. That's cool, but let them get off shore a little and do that out in the bay," Mrs. Bury said. "Too many jet skiers go ripping in and out of the boats and they can't know when a child swimming near the boat may surface in front of them."

Although state officials stressed that the boats are safe if operated properly, they were worried about manufacturers' plans to sell more powerful models reportedly capable of hitting top speeds of 70 mph or more.

"It's safe to say we'll be having discussions with the industry," Mr. Gaudette said.

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