They’re definitely fast, they’re also great fun, but jet skis and other similar watercraft all too often lead to accidents, some fatal. Such personal watercraft have become ubiquitous on the world’s resort beaches, and each holiday season brings its crop of prominently reported accidents related to their use. Robin Gauldie investigates the travel insurance industry’s approach to covering these ever-popular activities.
In many destinations, it's all too easy for young, inexperienced users to rent high-powered water craft, risking injury to themselves and others. As the accident toll rises, some insurers are excluding some watersports from their standard policies, thus shifting the burden of responsibility to those partaking in such activities. Such a move can potentially create confusion among insurance customers over which water-based activities are covered as standard, and which require extra cover.
Safety campaigners and insurers broadly agree that key causes of claims arising from incidents involving powered watersports include lack of safety information, poor regulation in many destinations, low awareness among insureds of potential risk and, above all, lack of experience and adequate training. Fatal accidents involving personal watercraft (PWCs) such as Kawasaki's Jet Ski™ and Yamaha's WaveRunner™ make headlines in source and destination countries each year. Such accidents almost automatically go viral across new and traditional media, and not without reason. Personal watercraft (often referred to generically as ‘jet skis’), appear in many ways to carry unique risks.
According to the Netherlands-based European Child Safety Alliance (ECSA), PWCs are the only recreational watercraft for which blunt trauma is the leading cause of death rather than drowning. Most crash victims have less than 20 hours’ experience operating a PWC, and studies indicate that nearly 24 per cent of injury events involved users with less than one hour’s experience. According to ECSA, which cites a three-year American study, 22 per cent of injured PWC drivers and 38 per cent of injured passengers were less than 15 years of age.
In the US, where more than 1.3 million personal watercraft are privately owned, there are, on average, more than 40 fatal accidents annually. According to statistics from Australia’s National Coronal Information System (NCIS), more than 20 fatal accidents involving personal watercraft were reported to Australian coroners between 2000 and 2012. It’s worth noting that a disproportionate number – more than one in four – of those deaths involved visitors to Australia or took place in a country other than Australia, according to NCIS. That seems to indicate that holidaymakers constitute a higher risk category than owners using their personal watercraft mainly in home waters, probably because they are less likely to be experienced PWC drivers.
The same person who wouldn’t dream of lending a motorcycle to someone who has never ridden one will toss the keys of a fire-breathing PWC to a neophyte without a second thought
Safety measures vary
Since the late 1990s, maritime authorities and coast guard officials in many of Europe’s most popular Mediterranean destinations have tightened up on the hire and use of PWCs. However, regulation and enforcement worldwide is patchy. “Unfortunately, there is no European-wide legislation regarding the proper operation and management of beach watersports operations or the private use of beach watersports equipment or watercraft,” says David Walker, leisure safety manager at RoSPA, Britain's Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. “Individual countries have their own legislation, beach regulations, standards and guidance, but these are not consistent and are often only enforced in the aftermath of an accident.”
New legislation has proven to have some effect, according to RoSPA. Walker explained: “For example, in 2002 Spain introduced quite stringent legislation to control high-speed watercraft. This has had a significant effect on individual use and hire operations.” Spain now requires PWC users to have a licence and to be over 16 (and have a letter of authorisation from a parent or guardian until they are 18). They must also have public liability insurance. Other popular European holiday destinations, including France, Greece, Italy, Malta, and Croatia, also require riders to hold a licence. Personal watercraft are prohibited by several Caribbean destinations. In 2016, the government of South Australia declared a permanent ban on personal watercraft on the state's most popular beaches during summer. But in many popular holiday destinations, legislation and enforcement of safety rules are more relaxed. Any Florida resident aged over 14 can rent a PWC after completing a basic safety education course. Even that requirement is waived for foreign or out-of-state visitors, who can buy a temporary certificate allowing them to rent a PWC or powerboat. The certificates are sold by watercraft rental companies. California, another popular beach destination, requires only that watercraft operators should be more than 16 years old. “The same person who wouldn’t dream of lending a motorcycle to someone who has never ridden one will toss the keys of a fire-breathing PWC to a neophyte without a second thought,” says a spokesperson for the Boat Owners Association of the United States. “Because of its small size, many people consider a PWC to be more of a dinghy than a real boat, but the fact is that a PWC is a vessel as defined by the US Coast Guard and subject to all the same rules and regulations as a 40-foot power cruiser. It could be that due to its quirky handling characteristics a PWC might require more experience.”
There are no age restrictions or requirements for PWC riders to be licensed in Turkey or Egypt, and in many destinations, local or national authorities show little appetite for tighter control. In Goa, India’s most popular beach destination, the state government has twice (in 2014 and 2016) imposed a temporary ban on speedboats or personal watercraft rental following fatal accidents, only to lift the ban after a few days.
The onus is on the holidaymaker and this could be quite considerable as travel insurance will not cover personal liability for motorised waterborne craft
Understanding the risks
Richard Warburton, chief operating officer of 1Cover Travel Insurance, a Sydney-based insurer, notes that Indonesia, particularly Bali, has a high incidence of water activity-based claims, along with the islands of Thailand, popular scuba diving destinations. Personal watercraft and speedboats can, of course, be a hazard not only to their riders but also to third parties, such as passengers, swimmers and divers. In some cases, that may raise liability issues for insurers – and for insureds, who may not be aware that their policy does not cover them against claims for injured third parties. “If a policyholder were to be injured on a motorised watercraft, we would cover their medical expenses within policy provisions. However, we would not offer liability cover for accidents involving motorised watercraft,” says Richard Warburton.
“Most people are expected to sign a personal liability waiver document to indemnify the private hire companies that supply equipment. This means they are personally liable if they have an accident or even kill someone while in a boat or a jet ski. The onus is on the holidaymaker and this could be quite considerable as travel insurance will not cover personal liability for motorised waterborne craft,” noted Steve Scott, head of business development at UK-based TIFGroup.
Most destinations try to limit risks to swimmers from motorboats and PWCs by operating exclusion zones and speed limits. But these may simply be ignored by irresponsible operators and users, and indeed by swimmers themselves. According to the UK travel industry association ABTA, more than one in 10 holidaymakers fail to check safety information or take local advice on zoned areas for boats or PWCs.
Other, seemingly less risky beach activities also carry risks – and insureds may not be aware that their standard policy may not cover them for such popular and seemingly relatively risk-free activities. In a report published in October 2016 (in consumer magazine Which?) the UK Consumers Association said a quarter (26 per cent) of British travel insurers offered no cover for sea kayaking under standard policies, categorising it as a sport that requires special cover. That may come as no surprise to those in the industry, but many holidaymakers may be unpleasantly surprised to discover that their standard policy does not cover them for popular beach sports such as 'banana boating'. According to Which?, 20 per cent of British travel insurers categorise banana boating as an extreme sport and refuse to cover banana boat accidents under standard policies. “Travel insurers have been stripping out or reducing cover levels on policies, including activities such as watersports and waterborne activities in order to keep premium costs low. Insurers are now reluctant to include areas of cover where the modern beach holidaymaker might believe they are automatically covered,” says Steve Scott.
Travel insurers have been stripping out or reducing cover levels on policies, including activities such as watersports and waterborne activities in order to keep premium costs low
He went on to say: “A typical beach holiday on the Costa del Sol or Florida will now include a variety of activities that people regard as standard. TIFGroup covers as standard activities such as banana boats, ringos, jet skis and snorkeling which are all popular on these beaches, but many policies will not cover them. Hiring yachts, sailing boats and other waterborne vessels are also not always covered. Neither is scuba diving, an activity many try for the first time when on holiday.”
What, you might ask, could be less risky than gently floating downriver aboard an inflated truck tire? Yet ‘tubing’ on the Nam Song River, which made the riverside town of Vang Vieng a magnet for young visitors to Laos, accounted for more than 30 deaths in 2011 to 2012, prompting authorities to crack down on tubing and the accompanying party culture, closing dozens of bars. Some tubing outfits remain, but they are now reportedly outnumbered by operators offering better-organised kayak trips to older, more upscale visitors.
“White water rafting, kayaking, tubing and other water-based activities, including swimming in the Mekong, are dangerous and incidents of drowning and serious injuries have been reported. Laos does not have the same health and safety expectations as in the UK,” notes the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office in its country advice for Laos. River accidents are not unique to developing countries. In 2014 to 2015, twelve people died during commercial guided rafting trips in Colorado, the US's most popular white water vacation destination. Rafting experts blamed higher-than-average water flow that made river rapids more hazardous than usual.1
Education is key
There is broad agreement across the travel insurance sector and other concerned parties that education is key to making sure holidaymakers are covered, managing claims and promoting safety.
RoSPA says it believes holiday companies – and, by extension, travel insurers – could do more to help their clients to choose safe watersports activities.
“Hiring equipment from sites on the beach can be potentially problematic, as we have seen with a few incidents in the past, such as providers not checking the ages of those looking to hire the equipment,” says RoSPA’s David Walker. “This is not just confined to jet skis – other watersports such as rafting, when provided by third parties, have proved to be problems. The issue is compounded when you consider that the level of perceived risk is much lower than the actual risk faced by the user. The best approach to accident prevention abroad is informed consent. In terms of insurers, they should be clear to the customer on the extent and limitation of their cover, using plain English.”
education is key to making sure holidaymakers are covered, managing claims and promoting safety
Richard Warburton agrees that educating potential clients is essential: “Insurance documentation can be overwhelming for many. At 1Cover, we focus on ensuring people have all the information they need to make the right decisions regarding travel insurance, and helping to ensure they get the right cover for their trip. We don’t just focus on why travel insurance is important, we work to ensure people fully understand the policies and are aware of the exclusions and the different conditions.” Part of this effort includes the provision of a support team, whose job it is to explain policies to potential buyers in plain language. Warburton added: “We want to take the stress out of this, all the while maintaining transparency about the cover we offer.”
More than 40 per cent of water-activity based claims submitted to 1Cover in the last 12 months related to surfing, with 25 per cent related to general swimming (including minor injuries and loss of personal possessions) nine per cent relating to scuba and snorkelling incidents and seven per cent relating to kayaking and rafting, Warburton says.
Many bars in Laos offer their fun-seeking guests an array of intoxicants ranging from whisky-based cocktails to opium, marijuana and psilocybe, and drug and alcohol intoxication were associated with many of the fatal river accidents around Vang Vieng. “1Cover automatically covers a wide range of activities, but people still need to be aware of the general policy exclusions. For example, 1Cover covers water tubing, but if the insured was under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time then they would not be able to make a claim.”
Areas of responsibility
TIFGroup launched a campaign last year to raise consumer awareness of cover limitations and exclusions, and has also produced a hazardous activities package that covers many watersports as standard. Insureds can bolt on seven additional options, including water skiing, parascending over water, windsurfing and sailboarding. “Today’s traveller will know what they want to do on holiday and the responsibility to get the right cover should be theirs from the outset,” Scott concluded. ⬛