San Diego lifeguards cracking down on illegal rentals of boats, Jet Skis on Mission Bay

Boaters enjoy Mission Bay near the De Anza Boat Launch during a crowded Labor Day weekend on Sunday, Sept. 1, 2019.
Boaters enjoy Mission Bay near the De Anza Boat Launch during a crowded Labor Day weekend on Sunday, Sept. 1, 2019.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Illegal operators, who typically focus less on safety, getting blamed for sharp increase in crashes, injuries


San Diego lifeguards are cracking down on illegal rentals of Jet Skis and other personal watercraft in Mission Bay to fight a sharp increase in crashes and injuries that began during the pandemic.

Lifeguards say crashes are more common when people rent from illegal operators because those operators typically focus less on explaining safety protocols and how to avoid hazards in the bay. They also often lack insurance.

The District Attorney’s Office is helping lifeguards cite illegal operators and lifeguards are carefully monitoring the bay’s boat launch locations, Lifeguard Chief James Gartland told the City Council’s Public Safety Committee this month.

Gartland said it’s important that the citations have been successfully holding up in court.

“If somebody gets off, they’re just going to show up the next day,” Gartland said.

He said the preventative efforts have also been crucial.

“We’re trying to catch people at the boat launches before they even start their embarkment,” Gartland said.

In addition, lifeguards are working with the city’s Department of Real Estate and Airport Management to make sure legal boat rental companies are following city regulations.

“We’re getting a good accounting of the legal operators and making sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing on safety,” Gartland said.

The new efforts were prompted by a record 43 boat and personal watercraft crashes during summer 2020, the first summer of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Greater vigilance by lifeguards the next summer reduced the number of crashes to three, but the number shot back up to 21 last summer, Gartland said. Data for 2023 was not yet available.

Gartland is scheduled Thursday to host a news conference at the bay’s Ski Beach boat launch to discuss continuing concerns about illegal boat rental companies, which often attract customers online through smartphone apps.

“People don’t know,” Gartland said. “They get on an app, they rent a vessel, they show up at a public boat launch, they get on it and they go 70 miles an hour within 2 to 3 minutes.”

Operating a personal watercraft without proper safety instructions before you begin is dangerous, he said.

“That’s where the accidents happen,” Gartland said. “That’s where the bad stuff happens.”

Gartland credited the U.S. Coast Guard with helping lifeguards prevent crashes. He said the San Diego Police Department has also begun helping with a new patrol vessel that was funded by a federal grant.

Councilmember Marni von Wilpert, chair of the Public Safety Committee, said the crackdown is good for local residents and tourism.

“I don’t ever want a resident or tourist coming here on vacation, getting on an illegal rental and not coming home,” she said.