After three fatalities, parents are in despair over jet ski dangers

The speed boats bringing death to Britain’s shores: Jet skis can be raced at 60mph by 12-year-olds with no training or licence… but after three fatalities just this summer, heartbroken parents are in despair

  • Mother of 25-year-old killed in jet ski accident speaks out about the dangers
  • Woman who survived crash which killed her husband raises £20,000 for RNLI 
  • Reports of jet skis ‘taking over’ the waters off beaches in Cornwall and Devon
  • A campaign has been launched to change local policies on jet skis in Cornwall

Three years ago, doctors gently advised Therese Lupton that her son Jordan’s life-support machine should be switched off. His brain damage was too severe to sustain life.

Sitting by his bedside at King’s College Hospital in London and holding his warm, limp hand, Therese told him how much she loved him, whispered her last goodbyes — and vowed she would do everything she could to stop others losing their lives in the same way he had.

The sports-mad 25-year-old was killed in an accident involving a jet ski ridden by a friend near the family home in Herne Bay, Kent, in May 2017.

While Jordan, a plumber, had been on jet skis before and, says his mother, understood the dangers involved, it was his friend’s first time on the high-powered watercraft.

Travelling at up to 60mph, he was unable to avoid hitting Jordan, who was being towed on an inflatable ring behind another jet ski and was pushed into his friend’s path by a freak wave.

Joran Lupton was killed in a jet ski crash in 2017 while his friend was riding for the first time

The jet ski hit Jordan, causing head injuries, breaking ribs and puncturing his lungs.

In recent months, Therese has been forced to relive the events of her heart-breaking loss with three deaths linked to jet skis in British coastal waters.

Last week, a 49-year-old off-duty police officer (who was also an RNLI crew member) at the seaside resort of Pwllheli in North Wales fell off a jet ski and died.

Earlier this month, a 52-year-old woman was killed in a collision between a jet ski and a powerboat in the Menai Strait, North Wales, while in May, a 22-year-old man from Torquay was pulled from the water after falling off a jet ski he had bought that morning. He died in hospital.

Inexperience isn’t always a factor. In 2015, a proficient jet ski rider, Beki Hellens, 22, died on a lake in Cambridgeshire after crashing into another rider. The impact tore the main artery from her heart, causing massive blood loss.

As for accidents involving jet skis, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents reports six deaths from 2009 to 2019, with no data available on the number of injuries.

The RNLI recommends everyone wears a lifejacket while using a jet ski and, if possible, a kill cord — which stops the engine if a person is thrown out of their seat.

A spokesperson from the RNLI’s water safety team said they would welcome changes in the law to improve jet ski safety.

This summer is a particular cause for concern, with more Britons opting for staycations because of Covid-19.

Anecdotally there are reports of jet skis ‘taking over’ the waters off beaches in Cornwall and Devon, making it almost impossible for swimmers, surfers and other water sport devotees to stay in the water.

In fact, anyone who has spent time on a busy British beach this year — especially along the South Coast — will probably tell you about the incessant irritating drone, like a swarm of angry bees, which punctuates the peace of the seaside as scores of jet skis race up and down the coast.

While some beaches have swimming areas marked out with buoys, others do not — which puts swimmers in potential danger.

In popular recreational areas such as Poole Harbour, dozens of jet skis can be seen in marinas waiting to be taken out on the water.

Therese Lupton says she has seen more jet skis near beaches in Kent this year than ever before.

‘Every single day from my house, a few minutes from the sea, I hear the jet skis revving their engines and going at breakneck speeds, knowing full well most of the riders will have had no training, with no insurance requirements either.’

Jordan knew to take precautions, she adds, but concedes that on the day he died he wasn’t wearing a helmet or any other protection, save for a life jacket.

After her son’s death, Therese was horrified to discover the dearth of regulatory control over these potentially dangerous machines after a Portuguese friend told her how surprised she was at the UK’s lax approach. Anyone who rides a jet ski in Portugal without a licence can incur a fine of over £2,000.

Here, there is no training requirement or licensing system governing jet skis and the minimum age to use one is just 12.

‘If his friend had been given some basic training before he got on the jet ski, Jordan might still be here today,’ Therese says.

‘You need to complete Compulsory Basic Training in the UK before you can drive a 50cc moped and there is an age limit of 16.

‘But go to many beaches or lakes and you can hire a jet ski with an engine as big as 1800cc with no experience.

During the pandemic, reports of jet skis crowding the country’s coasts have soared as Britons seek out recreational activities during their staycations instead of heading abroad (file photo)

‘These aren’t toys, they’re dangerous and unregulated. Add in that you’re not required to wear a helmet as you are on a moped or motorbike, then it’s a recipe for disaster.’

Jet skis typically cost from £8,000 to buy new, or from around £3,000 second hand, with engine sizes varying from 700cc up to 1800cc.

While newer models are limited to 65mph, older models can travel at up to 70mph. The most powerful jet skis can go from a standing start to 30mph in less than two seconds.

So with some 12,000 jet skis in use in the UK, how has this state of affairs has been allowed to prevail?

According to campaigners, the problem is that jet skis are classified as PWCs — personal watercraft — not ‘vessels’, which would make them subject to at least the very few maritime laws (compared with driving on roads) which govern those in speed boats.

It is left to local bodies, councils and harbour authorities, to regulate jet ski use, but in the absence of any legal imperative, few have taken action.

What is true is that some recreational waters have a speed limit for all vessels in the whole area, such as Chichester Harbour at 8 knots (about 9mph), so you rarely see jet skis there as this deters them.

Debbie Hales feels as strongly as Therese. Some years ago she was on the back of a jet ski with her husband Ian when they crashed into Blackpool’s North Pier.

They were retrieved unconscious from the water by the RNLI, but Ian died on the way to hospital.

Debbie, now 64, from Bolton, Lancashire, can’t remember the crash, relying on her sons’ memory of the day as they watched from the seafront. The Hales had bought the jet ski just two months beforehand.

‘We never thought how dangerous they could be,’ she recalls. ‘We were offered some optional and basic safety training, which we did, but because it was such a nice day we weren’t wearing the helmets we’d bought.’

Debbie suffered head injuries, a broken jaw and spent two weeks in intensive care.

‘To give a 12-year-old access to one of these incredibly powerful machines is insane — and to let an adult out on one without any training is simply asking for trouble,’ she says.

Since Ian’s death Debbie has raised over £20,000 for the RNLI in gratitude for saving her life.

Ian Hale was killed after crashing the family jet ski into Blackpool’s North Pier back in 2003

Catherine West, Labour MP for Hornsey and Wood Green and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Swimming, is only too aware of the dangers after being contacted by a constituent who lost her 14-year-old son in a jet ski accident in 2014.

It’s not just the safety of those riding them, she says, there is the safety of others in the water.

Having spent a week near Sandown on the Isle of Wight this summer, she says, she saw first-hand how jet skiers put others off venturing into the water.

‘We really don’t want to ban these vehicles, but we need to give them the care and respect they deserve so unnecessary accidents don’t happen …

‘We need specially demarcated areas away from all bathers and other, slower water craft like paddle boards, as well as a formal training system,’ she says.

Some sellers and renters of jet skis do offer training, as does the Royal Yachting Association, but it is up to the user whether to take advantage of such guidance. 

‘Some jet ski hire companies or clubs insist on a training course and a competency certification, but others are just interested in taking the money and give the hirer a quick talk through the controls and then they let them go,’ says Dorset-based Noel Hutchinson, an instructor at Get Lost Power Boat Training.

‘It’s a very irresponsible attitude but unfortunately it’s allowed. In EU countries, training is mandatory.

‘The bottom line is that it’s like anything else. Training makes the user safe. Jet skis are great fun and very safe when managed by a trained rider.’

In the absence of official intervention, it is left to local campaigners to seek change.

Two years ago, the Reverend Jo Thomas, 53, an avid sea-swimmer from Penzance, Cornwall, joined other local swimmers to log incidents involving jet skis.

Now she has launched a campaign to change local policies on jet skis in the area, and has gathered 6,000 signatures on a petition.

She says she is sent video footage on a daily basis of near misses. To date approximately 200 incidents have been logged by 35 campaigners in the town.

‘I’ve been outdoor swimming since I was a child and the effect jet skis are having on the huge number of us who want to enjoy the water in safety and peace is nothing short of criminal,’ she says. ‘We have to wear bright coloured hats in the water and swim towing small buoys with us or the jet skis drivers won’t see us.’

Everyone is ‘passing the buck’, she claims.

‘The Government has passed the whole issue of jet ski usage to local authorities, who then pass it onto the local police,’ she says. ‘But if you call the police and say there’s someone on a jet ski causing havoc, they say it’s on water, so not in their jurisdiction.

‘The coastguard says it’s not a vessel, so they’re powerless. Everyone agrees something needs to change, but right now, nobody can do anything.

‘If someone drove through a shopping mall on a motorbike there would be outrage. If someone is reckless on a jet ski, there need to be rules in place which mean they are fined or have their jet ski confiscated.’

Jo Thomas is working with Chris Jones, a maritime manager in charge of local authority harbours in Cornwall.

‘This is an increasing trend,’ he says. ‘Sadly, alongside all those jet ski users who are considerate and respectful of other sea and beach users, there is a small element who behave anti-socially, even dangerously.’

Jo claims one way of limiting the use of jet skis in Penzance’s harbour, near the swimmers, is to raise launch fees. While there are many places users can launch free of charge, accessing beaches with a jet ski and a trailer can be problematic, and so many jet ski users choose to use slipways and harbours for which there may be a charge.

In Penzance, for example, it is £10 per launch, £40 per week or £150 annually for jet skis.

‘We really don’t want to stop jet skiers enjoying themselves,’ says Jo. ‘They just need proper training and specific, allocated areas where they won’t risk their and others’ lives.

‘It’s like child protection or Surfers Against Sewage,’ she adds. ‘We need a joined-up, UK-wide, multi-agency approach, or jet skiers will just go to the next place that’s cheap and doesn’t have regulations.’

The Department for Transport says it will be consulting on further legislation ‘to tackle the dangerous use of jet skis’ shortly.

However, that is little immediate comfort to Therese Lupton. ‘For too long, the Government has said it is taking this seriously but nothing changes.’

Therese also started a petition to demand the introduction of a law on the use of jet skis in Britain, but didn’t have the resources or time to drum-up the 100,000 signatures needed to take it to Parliament.

‘I wanted it to be called Jordan’s Law: to require training and a licence to use a jet ski, to raise the minimum age to 18, and to require marshals and lifeguards to be present in areas where they are used,’ she explains.

‘Every time I hear about another jet-ski death or accident in the UK I’m appalled at how nothing has changed.

‘How many more deaths will it take before people sit and take notice? We’re behind virtually every other country in the world when it comes to jet ski safety, and that has to change.

‘Holding my son’s hand while he passed away is a memory that will never leave me.’

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