I am here to say something nice about jet skis. That isn't the
same as saying, "I am here to say something nice about
diarrhea," but it's close. Times are tough for the million or so
of us owners of jet skis. "We're being treated like the unwanted
stepchild," says Keith Bush, an editor of Personal Watercraft
Illustrated. It's true. I can't haul my jet skis anywhere
without someone ambling over and gleefully telling me, "You
know, I hear they're trying to ban those damn things."
That hasn't happened yet, but many states have passed or are
considering overly restrictive laws governing the use of jet
skis. They include New Hampshire, where only the larger and
quieter three-person models are allowed on most lakes, and
Maine, where one proposal would prohibit jet skis on lakes
smaller in area than 200 acres. There are even restrictions on
jet skiers in anything-goes Hawaii, where tourists are
encouraged to eat roast pig on the beach. And they say jet
skiing is a frightening activity.
A few weeks ago the fear and loathing went prime time when
Barbara Walters and Hugh Downs tsk-tsked about personal
watercraft (the industry term for jet skis, often abbreviated to
PWC) in the lead segment of 20/20, whose producers chose the
obligatory Born to Be Wild background music when the first jet
ski flashed into view. I am here to testify that many PWC owners
are, like the members of Steppenwolf, nearing or past the age of
50, born-to-be-mild types with steady jobs and unwavering
insurance premiums, as disinclined to risk life and limb as the
most sedate sailboat captain.
There are several reasons we are despised, one of the principal
ones being that jet skiers have not bought into the boating
thing. By and large, we don't consult navigational charts and
keep our radios tuned to the marine weather channel. We don't
have stories about battling the elements, being at one with the
tides and knowing where the fluke are biting.
I have neither the knowledge nor the inclination to spend a lot
of time on a dock, up to my elbows in grease and greenheads,
changing the fuse in the bilge pump. Boat people aren't happy
unless they're tinkering. My tinkering is limited to filling my
tank with gas. I'm also impatient. I like to get my jet skis in
the water, wrap the lanyard around my wrist, push the start
button, squeeze the throttle and take off. Clearly my marine
sensibility is at odds with that of sailboaters, folks with
Job-like patience who seem to enjoy dilemmas. A few weeks ago I
was jet skiing when I came upon a drifting sailboat.
Me: "How's it going?"
Sailboat guy: "Well, the roller furling assembly in my jib is
Me: "You don't say."
Sailboat guy: "Yeah, the halyard's wrapped around the head stay
or the furling line has popped out of the drum."
The other principal reason we are despised, obviously, is the
formidable yahoo factor in jet skiing, which I am not about to
deny. Though statistics show that the average PWC owner is a
relatively responsible, safety-minded, 41-year-old adult, the
majority of operators (including renters and young family
members and friends of owners) are much younger, 21 to 30, and
they're involved in most of the accidents. There's no doubt that
the accident rate on jet skis is way too high and must be
addressed. According to the 20/20 report, personal watercraft
last year made up only 8% of registered boats yet accounted for
nearly half of all boating injuries in the U.S. The PWC industry
people gnashed their teeth at that ratio and protested that it
did not take into account "hours of usage" and "secondary
users"--but they didn't deny it, and, more important, they're
doing something about it.
The Personal Watercraft Industry Association, as well as
virtually every other jet ski advocacy group, favors some kind
of state certification or education program. To operate my jet
skis legally in New Jersey this summer, I had to take an
eight-hour course and pass a 40-question test. It was a pain in
the neck, but it taught me some basics that every boater should
know, and I'm glad I took it.
I hope that because of my state certification I'll be treated
more like "one of the boys" on New Jersey waterways. But I
probably won't, and I'm resigned to my outsider status. I'll
stay away from swimmers and snorkelers, revere the hearty spirit
of sailors as they fix their jib furlers, respect other
powerboatmen and their bilge pumps and even pretend to be
interested in where the fluke are the most frisky. Just let me
push my start button and feel the wind in my face. Please don't
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: EVANGELOS VIGLIS [Drawing of jet skier pursued by sword-wielding captain and crew on ship]