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This Is Not Your Father's Jet Ski

BoatUS Magazine - March 2006

jetski1Gathering every weekend in the summer, the members of this riding club travel as a group to their favorite watering holes and restaurants, much like a Harley Davidson owner’s club might. Typically in their 40s and 50s, they ride as couples, sometimes with their adult children beside them. But these riders aren’t sporting leather jackets and helmets; they’re wearing life jackets and sunscreen.

Personal watercraft (PWC) rider clubs such as the Space Coast Jet Riders, or the Tampa Bay Jet Ski Club, reflect a shift in PWC ownership that along with new cleaner, quieter models, is changing the face of this segment of boating. Once derided by other boaters as loud, smelly nuisances, and their riders as reckless non-boaters courting danger, personal watercraft and their owners have both grown up. New models are dramatically cleaner and quieter than those of just five years ago. And as the noise levels and emissions have fallen, the average age of a PWC owner has risen. The typical PWC buyer is now in their 40s, only two-thirds are male, and most have families.

While some people still cling to the old views of PWC, that perception is 10 to 12 years old, says Maureen Healy, executive director of the Personal Watercraft Industry Association. "We have today environmentally friendly vessels that are 70% quieter and 75% cleaner." The move to four-stroke engines is largely responsible for these changes. More than half of new PWC sold today are four-strokes. And perhaps because the four-stroke technology increased the cost of newer PWC, the average age of a buyer increased as well, as the average purchase price reached over $9,000 in 2004.

jetski2"The market has matured," says John Donaldson of Kawasaki. "Boats that require more athletic ability and stand-ups probably only account for about 1% of the market." For Kawasaki, four-stroke models became their best sellers in 2002. "Over the years, both the size of the boats has increased as well as their performance," he adds.

Performance means different things to different people, but it’s clear that manufacturers have responded to riders concerns by putting in larger gas tanks and more storage spaces to accommodate longer cruises. With gas tanks now averaging around 13 gallons, riders can expect to cruise for upwards of five hours. And manufacturers have tackled another criticism of PWC by adding off-throttle steering to more than 80% of all models.

Off-throttle steering means you can still control the vessel with the handle bars even if you let off the gas. Most PWC rely on the directed thrust of the water jet that propels the craft to change the heading of the boat — and nothing else. On early models this meant that if you let off the throttle and then turned the hand bars hard over, nothing happened. This phenomenon, known as Off-Throttle Steering Loss, is blamed for many PWC collisions. An inexperienced rider, faced with a potential collision, instinctively tries to slow and steer away from the other object. But letting off the gas completely, as many do in a panic stop situation, renders the steering useless.

To combat this, Kawasaki Smart Steering was introduced in 2001. The system uses sensors to detect when a rider has dropped off the throttle and turned the handle bars hard over. If this occurs the sensors then direct the engine to throttle back up for a short period of time, which should provide the necessary thrust to change heading. This feature is disabled at low speeds to facilitate docking.

Sea Doo chose a different approach with its Off Power Assisted Steering (OPAS) system which uses retracting rudders, which remain up out of the flow of water at speed, but then deploy as the throttle is released. This serves two purposes: the deployed rudders increase drag helping to slow the PWC and allows the rider to maintain control with no throttle input. By 2006 off-throttle steering should be a standard feature in nearly all models.

Increased maneuverability doesn’t just make newer PWC safer, it also makes them a more useful workhorse, says Shawn Alladio, founder of K38 Water Safety. The changeover to four-stroke models has made her job much easier training fire departments, swift water rescue teams, lifeguards and law enforcement personnel how to rescue people using PWC.

"It’s like a whole new type of boat," says Alladio. "Two strokes are like a long-forgotten nightmare. There is less noise, less vibration and better handling. They really have become a very viable rescue tool." Alladio and others proved PWC’s worth as rescue vessels in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

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Several Urban Search and Rescue groups from California were dispatched by FEMA to New Orleans. Alladio, who has trained many of the swift water rescue teams in California, accompanied a team that ended up in Baton Rouge. Load limit restrictions kept much of their necessary gear in California, but Kawasaki and Yamaha both mobilized dealerships near the affected area to provide Jet Skis and WaveRunners to rescue personnel.

"This was a heroic effort on the part of Kawasaki and Yamaha," says Alladio. Randy and Mary Cooksey’s Friendly Yamaha dealership in Baton Rouge became the supply point for the team Alladio accompanied, providing among other things, 12 WaveRunners from Yamaha. "All of the boats, trailers, generators, everything in that dealership went to the rescue effort," says Alladio. The team took everything forward to the New Orleans Saints’ practice facility, where they would launch countless rescues, over more than two weeks.

"These personal watercraft were great for getting around the flooded city," says Alladio. "PWC could get right up on to the steps of the houses." Many of the homes in New Orleans have metal gates on the path that leads to the front door. Jet Skis and WaveRunners could carefully ride over these gates, a practice that propeller driven boats had to avoid. Inflatable boats would get punctured by the pointed, wrought-iron fencing, but the fiberglass hulls of PWC were less vulnerable.

"We never lost a PWC to mechanical failure," reported Alladio. What started out as a house-to-house search, removing a single victim at a time, evolved into ferrying people to military transport trucks that were able to drive down the streets in the receding waters. Rescuers on PWC rescued thousands of people after Katrina, as many as 200 people per team, per day, according to Alladio.

Meanwhile, PWC have come to the rescue of marine mammals too. Mote Marine Laboratory researchers in Sarasota, Florida used two Aqua Trax PWC provided by Honda to shadow Placida, a young injured Atlantic bottlenose dolphin. Using the PWC, the researchers could quietly and safely follow Placida and her mother into the shallows to assess her injuries and determine whether or not they would heal on their own. Eventually, the researchers decided to capture Placida, clean her wounds, and release her back to her mother. They continued to monitor her using the PWC.

Although PWC have become cleaner, quieter and more useful, many riders still feel the need to give their image a boost. For the Tampa Bay Jet Ski Club, providing a positive image of PWC riders for other boaters is a big part of the club’s mission. Jason Esterline, club secretary and one of the four founders of the club says they started the club because of the negative image of PWC riders.

"We thought we could do some good by providing a positive image as responsible boaters," says Esterline. "We don’t tolerate any drinking while we are out on the water."

The club of about 25 people, mostly families, holds a monthly ride. Frequently they head somewhere to picnic or arrange to have lunch together. Recently the club started a weekend ride on the East side of Tampa Bay and rode 80 miles a day for two days, down to the Manatee River and back. The next ride could be even longer.

And while not every rider is as responsible as other boaters might like, groups such as the Tampa Bay Jet Ski Club are becoming more common, simply because they still get together each month for one reason.

"I have never had as much fun on the water as with our club," says Esterline.

By Michael Vatalaro

©BoatUS Magazine, March 2006