Death of young girl prompts calls for aggressive crackdown on illegal Jet Ski rentals

An aerial photo of a bay and islands with beaches.
(John Gibbins/San Diego Union-Tribune)

Neighborhood leaders, Mission Bay businesses praise lifeguard efforts but express support for undercover operations, higher fines


Community leaders are calling for more aggressive efforts to crack down on illegal rentals in Mission Bay of recreational water vehicles commonly known by the brand name Jet Ski, after a 12-year-old girl on a paddle board was run over and killed three weeks ago by a person driving one.

Those efforts could include undercover sting operations, stiffer fines and having police join ongoing efforts by San Diego lifeguards to cite reckless riders and impound Jet Skis rented from unlicensed companies or individuals.

Lifeguards say they are open to new strategies, but plan for now to stick with their current efforts. In addition to citations and impounds, those include warning people about the dangers of using websites to rent from unlicensed operators.

In contrast to rental companies licensed by the city, unlicensed operators aren’t required to explain safety protocols or how to avoid hazards in the bay. They also often lack the insurance required for licensed operators and don’t have rescue boats.

Neighborhood leaders and owners of Mission Bay businesses say lifeguards and police have dramatically reduced illegal JetSki activity since it ramped up during the pandemic, but they also say more aggressive efforts would be welcome.

Part of the problem is that some local owners of the water vehicles, many of them unlicensed, have begun renting them through the AirBnB-style website, said Jim McCoy, owner of Adventure Water Sports near De Anza Cove.

McCoy said he and the owners of other licensed boat rental companies would welcome undercover operations to ensure people renting on those websites are licensed. He also said there should be higher fines and impound fees when unlicensed operators are caught.

Val Streif, a spokesperson for, said the site requires all participants to have the licenses and insurance needed in their city or county. She said the company has around-the-clock customer service for any users confused about those requirements.

Lifeguard chief James Gartland said last month that people renting from smartphone apps, instead of brick-and-mortar rental businesses, is a major concern.

“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.”

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

June 28, 2023

Lifeguards have stepped up efforts to cite and impound illegally rented water vehicles, he said.

Through Thursday, 139 vessels had been impounded this year, and eight citations had been issued for illegal sales or rental of merchandise on Mission Bay, according to statistics provided by the city. Of the 139 impounds, 53 were for failure to have proper documentation and 20 were for illegal rentals.

Lifeguards and police have declined to comment on whether the driver who killed the 12-year-old girl on July 31 owned the Jet Ski, rented it from a licensed operator or rented it from a unlicensed operator.

San Diego police said the collision happened just before 2 p.m. Saturday in the De Anza Cove area of the bay

July 31, 2023

“The San Diego Fire Department’s Lifeguard Division is not providing any information or updates on the vessel accident because it is an open and active investigation with the Police Department,” spokesperson Monica Munoz said.

She said the city continues to focus on illegal rentals.

“The city continues to recommend the public only rent from city of San Diego licensed businesses,” she said. “There are a significant number of nefarious individuals that conduct illegal boat rental activity on Mission Bay.”

Scott Chipman, a member of the Pacific Beach Community Planning Group, said the city should use the money from impound fines to fund undercover operations. He said the July 31 crash should prompt police to play a key role in a more aggressive crackdown.

“The lifeguards don’t have the resources to prevent things like this,” he said.

McCoy stressed that lifeguards have had remarkable success reducing the number of unlicensed rentals since the height of the pandemic. He estimates that about 70 percent of watercraft rentals were illegal earlier in the pandemic, but that only about 20 percent are today.

Stephanie Saatoff, leader of the Mission Bay Lessees Association, also praised city lifeguards and said the association fully supports their ongoing efforts. But she also said the association would be open to something more aggressive.

“We’re always open to more resources — there will never be enough,” she said.

Saatoff said the protocols set up by lifeguards make sense.

“We’ve had productive meetings reminding everyone to report bad activity,” she said. “We know where to report it when we see something, there are lots of eyes on the bay and the information is getting to the right people.”