Back in the 1960s, when a one-man speed boat kind of thingy first splashed into the recreation world's consciousness, nobody quite knew what to think. It was loud. It guzzled gasoline. It spit water everywhere. It even looked a little...ungainly. Was it even safe?

Coming up on 50 years later, personal watercraft (PWC) can be seen zipping all over our lakes, streams and coastlines, especially this time of year. Annual sales of PWCs peaked at about 200,000 a decade ago, but more than five times that many are in use now; close to 1.3 million, which rivals an all-time high.

PWCs are not nearly as environmentally unfriendly as they used to be. They're quieter and more fuel-efficient. They're sleeker and faster, too.

PWCs still account for a disproportionate number of overall boating accidents. Yet, according to U.S. Department of Transportation statistics, there were just 954 accidents involving personal watercraft in 2013. That's the fewest in any year since 1989, when only about 64,000 PWCs were in use.

Still, PWCs — with brand names like Jet Ski (by Kawasaki), WaveRunner (by Yamaha) and Sea-Doo (from Canadian firm Bombardier Recreational Products) — are not toys. Think of them as finely tuned water motorcycles. Kawasaki is marketing a model this year that has 310 horsepower and reaches speeds exceeding 70 mph.

So, before you find yourself as captain of your own personal watercraft at the next company picnic at the lake, or the next family reunion at the beach, it might be a good idea to know what to expect.

First...can you legally drive one?

Probably. Rules and regulations vary state to state. To be safe, check with your state's boating authority. And here's a chart from the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators that lays out which states require some sort of education. (Usually it's a short course, and often it can be taken online.)

Remember, they don't stop on a dime

A few years ago, Sea-Doo introduced the first on-water brake system, iBR. That stands for intelligent brake and reverse. It does pretty much what the name says. A "bucket" near the jet in the back drops down, slowing the boat and redirecting the water forward. It slows you down quicker than PWCs without brakes, which have to coast to a stop. But on a dime? No. So slow down.

A man does a trick on a Jet SkiDon't try this, OK? A man does trick on a personal watercraft. (Photo: Ross Elliott/flickr)

To steer, keep the throttle on

Simply, PWCs are controlled by pointing a jet of water in the back of the machine in the direction you want to go. Once you release the throttle — once the jet stream stops — you will continue in the direction that jet was last pointed, no matter how much you jerk around the handlebars. Knowing this is important because steering — to avoid another boat, the dock, your Aunt Mary who just went overboard — is kind of important. Even if your instincts tell you to lay off the gas, remember: do that and you give up control.

Yeah, you can be thrown off

Modern PWCs are much more stable than they used to be. If you're a conservative type riding on calm waters on a newer PWC, it's actually hard to get dunked. But choppy water, riding through another vessel's wake, sharp moves, inattentive driving — running into another PWC or, worse, something bigger — all can lead to you being separated from your ride. Make sure the engine shut-off clip is attached to your wrist, so if you go flying, your PWC sticks around.

Follow basic boating rules

Know who has the right-of-way. If you're behind another boat, know when you can pass, and how to do it safely. Obey posted speed limits and no-wake zones. Here are Riding Rules from the Personal Watercraft Industry Association.

The most important boating rules to follow are safety rules. There's an excellent video here for anyone going out to rent a PWC for the first time.

That includes, first, always wearing a life vest. It also means scanning right and left at all times and paying attention to your passengers (many of these craft now seat three people) and objects in the water around you.

Lay off the beer, too. And wear a tight-fitting bottom, like a wet suit. There are some disturbing stories about jet-propelled water being forced into human body cavities. Many PWCs even carry warning signs.

A warning label on a personal water craftThat's one uncomfortable warning label. (Photo: Coolcaesar/Wikimedia Commons)

It's important to note that the leading causes of boating accidents in 2014, according to the U.S. Coast Guard, were operator inattention, improper lookout, operator inexperience, excessive speed and alcohol use.

So pay attention. Slow down. Know the rules of the water. And know your limits. That way, captain, you'll have a fun and memorable voyage.

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