Centre for Maritime Safety


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Towing from a PWC

PWC can be great fun and when used responsibly they provide an exhilarating way to enjoy our waterways. A PWC is a ‘vessel’ and, like other powercraft, the operator is responsible for the safe use of the craft and the safety of those onboard or being towed.

While a PWC may be limited in general towing capabilities when compared with dedicated tow vessels such as wakeboard boats, a PWC does however provide a unique ability to operate in surf zones and that is why they are used for tow-in surfing. Regardless of where a PWC is used, it is necessary to observe the rules and regulations for safety navigation, and to apply care, courtesy and common sense.

There are a number of aspects to towing from a PWC that you should consider before you head out on the water:

Rules and regulations

Knowing your PWC and how to look after it

Be proficient at rescue operations

Tow-in surfing



Rules and regulations

If you’re skippering a PWC and you’re towing someone, be it one or more people, you must:

  • hold a current PWC Licence
  • make sure your PWC registration is current
  • have an observer on board who is either 16 years of age or older, or the holder of a Young Adult licence.

As the operator of the PWC, you are responsible for the safety of both the PWC and people being towed. You must also be sure to maintain the appropriate ‘distances off’ with the PWC and your skier or skiers

If you’re an observer, you must:

  • not suffer hearing, sight or other disabilities, which could affect the performance of your observation duties
  • not be under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • observe the people being towed and report all matters affecting them to the operator
  • tell the operator about all vessels approaching from behind
  • be familiar with the standard hand signals.

Knowing your PWC and how to look after it

  • Make sure you service your PWC regularly.
  • Ask your mechanic questions - understand what things are and what they do in case something goes wrong and you need to know how to fix it.
  • Set your PWC up for the hard running that tow-in surfing puts it through.
  • Add water separators to your fuel system, and both check and empty it regularly.
  • Make sure you pre and post check your PWC every time you use it.
  • Make sure your prop and drive shafts are in good order.
  • Make sure your water intake is clear or debris such as seaweed, discarded net or rope.

Be proficient at rescue operations

It’s a good idea to take a course or research rescue techniques. When you know how to get someone on your PWC, you have a better chance of keeping each other safe. When you leave a launching area it’s likely to be in a safe area. You should practice a few rescues each on the way to the break to make sure that you are both aware of the methods.

Tow-in surfing

Tow-in surfing is a technique where a PWC tows a surfer onto a wave. If you’re doing tow-in surfing in NSW, you must follow a number of conditions:

  • You are only allowed to do tow-in surfing on open waters at surf breaks where there are no paddle surfboard riders present.
  • Whether you’re the operator of the PWC or the surfboard rider, you must have a current PWC licence, current First Aid certificate, wear an appropriate lifejacket when you’re doing the tow-in surfing, and have attended any course or passed any examination required by NSW Maritime.
  • You can only use a PWC for tow-in surfing. You dont have to have an observer on the PWC as long as you follow the above conditions at all times.

As the operator of the PWC, you must:

  • not tow more than one person at a time
  • yield right of way to all other boating or ocean recreation activities.
  • maintain a distance of at least 200 metres from all vessels and people in the water.
  • carry dive fins and a safety knife.

Your PWC must be equipped with a:

  • rescue sled
  • second kill switch lanyard wrapped around the handlebars
  • two-way communication device
  • toolkit
  • torch
  • quick release floating tow rope with a minimum length of 7 metres
  • bow tow-line with a minimum length of 7 metres.

The dangers of tow-in surfing

Tow-in surfing can be considered extremely dangerous and there are some serious risks involved. So before heading out in serious conditions, be sure to think about the following:

  • If a surfer falls, where will they end up?
  • Where is a 'safe zone' for all PWC and surfers?
  • Set an approximate line to both approach and exit a surf zone.
  • If your PWC breaks down, where can you reach shore safely?


Characteristics needed for a tow-in surfing lifejacket:

  • Lifejacket Level 50 (PWC driver)
  • Lifejacket Level 50 or 50S for the surfer
  • Tight fitting with zip and importantly clips/straps
  • Comfortable and enough room to move arms freely.

Rescue sled

When you’re doing tow-in surfing, a rescue sled gives you the ability to make a quick and easy pick-up when you’re in the impact zone. It can literally save a life and a PWC. Having a rescue sled also reduces the risk of sucking up the tow-rope through the PWC's intake grate, which has happened in a number of tow-in surfing related incidents. You can even use the sled as a great pack horse for all your boards, when you’re travelling to and from your surf break.

You can get rescue sleds all over NSW at leading marine dealers.

Two kill switch lanyards

Having a kill switch on your PWC is one thing. Operating it properly is another. If you don’t, you can cause some serious damage.

It’s a good idea to wear one on your right wrist or attached to your lifejacket, with the second attached to the handlebars, close to the kill switch mechanism. Why the right wrist? So you can have your left hand free to rescue your surfer while you keep control of the throttle.

A two-way communication device

You must remember that a PWC is a small craft on a large ocean. This makes it difficult to see from any distance. Most tow-in surfing is done in remote locations, which makes it difficult to notify anyone if something goes wrong. If you have a two-way communication device, you can raise the alarm if the need arises and it’s more reliable than a mobile phone. You should use a waterproof VHF device and make sure you also use it to log into rescue services such as Marine Rescue NSW



You receive a basic tool kit with your PWC when you buy it. It’s a good idea that you carry the following as a minimum:

  • waterproof carry case
  • 2-way screwdriver
  • spark Plug Socket
  • bolt socket
  • pliers
  • wrench
  • flush kit nozzle
  • spare spark plugs (2)

To help you clear the intake grate, you should carry the following tools in your tool kit:

  • 7" blade 'filleting' knife
  • 12" screwdriver
  • 12" needle nose pliers

Note: These must fit between intake screen bars.


You should always carry a torch. Make sure it’s waterproof, floating, easy to operate and bright to attract attention. You can also use Cylume (glow sticks) as a back-up.

You should use a quick-release floating tow rope with a minimum length of 7m.


You can also use ski rope but you might like to check out a tow-in surfing designed, thick floating ski rope. It helps to stop it being sucked into the intake grate.

A bow tow-line with a minimum length of 7m

If your PWC gets swamped or cuts out, a bow tow-line can be used to tow you.

Swim fins (on a fin belt)

If you become separated from your PWC, swim fins can be a great help to get yourself back to safety. Using a fin belt, lets you have your fins secured at your hips. The belt stays on when you take your fins off as needed.

Mask and snorkel

It’s a good idea to have a mask and snorkel in case you need to clear the intake grate.

Hatch and seat kits

The hatch and seat strap kits on your PWC help stop both the front hatch and seat being torn away and either letting water into the engine bay or sinking your PWC.