For the past five years, personal watercraft sales have grown annually, and it’s estimated that total sales will top 60,000 units this year for the first time since 2008.
Perhaps the most promising sign of those continuing strong numbers is that many of the buyers are new to boating. They are drawn to the sportier, affordable models that PWC manufacturers have focused on in the past few years.
“We feel like we’re in kind of a perfect storm,” says Tim McKercher, media relations representative for Sea-Doo. “The economy is doing well. The launch of the Sea-Doo Spark model in 2014 and the marketing campaign that went with that were all designed to go after the next generation of boaters.”
With the Spark, Sea-Doo identified its target and went after that buyer aggressively, designing the machine with fluorescent colors, sport lines and raised handlebars. For those familiar with the youth-targeted X Games on ESPN, the Spark resembles the snowmobile competitors’ ride.
Before the Spark was introduced, the average Sea-Doo owner was 48 years old. The company, which is owned by Canadian parent BRP Inc., designed and marketed the Spark for the 25- to 35-year-old crowd.
“It worked very well,” says McKercher. “The product itself was very different. It addressed the issues that a customer base has in that age range and the barriers [to ownership], including sufficient tow vehicle, space to store it and ease of use.”
$5,299 starting price
The in-house acronym for the Spark when it was being designed was CAFE, which stood for clean, affordable, fun and ease. Those were the marching orders.
“If it didn’t deliver on all of those, it was off-target,” says McKercher.
To keep the craft affordable, Sea-Doo built it light so it wouldn’t need as much power. The manufacturer makes the hull from a polytec material made up of polypropylene and long-strand glass fibers. It’s similar to plastic and saves weight. The Rotax Ace 900 engine is also designed specifically for the Spark, and there’s a similar version for Ski-Doo snowmobiles. The standard version of the three-cylinder engine makes 60 hp, while the HO is 90 hp and displacement is 899cc.
The two-person version of the Spark weighs 410 pounds and the three-up model weighs 420, giving both machines a good power-to-weight ratio. In normal use, McKercher says, the two-person Spark gets 2.7 gph.
Once the Spark was introduced, Sea-Doo focused its marketing on its target audience, depicting riders using the craft in the way a young, aggressive athletic person would.
“It wasn’t just beauty shots running left and running right,” explains McKercher. “All of that attracted a lot of attention from people who may not have walked into a dealership.”
Of course, an attractive price tag counts, and the Spark’s MSRP starts at $5,299. Move up to the three-up model with the ACE 90 HO and Sea-Doo’s IBR braking system and a convenience package, and the number goes up to $6,499.
For riders who want to play and are willing to pay a little more, Sea-Doo offers the Tricks upgrade package for the Spark. For $7,299, buyers get three main features — an adjustable handlebar riser that when raised increases the rider’s leverage, extended range on the Variable Trim System that gives the jet pump three times the trim range, compared with a stock model, and foot wedges on the back of the riding trays. Raise the handlebars, trim up the jet pump to its full 18 degrees, and brace against the tail wedges and you’re doing a wheelie that can be controlled even at no-wake speeds.
‘Gateway to ownership’
Carl Blackwell, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of the National Marine Manufacturers Association and the president of Grow Boating, says the continued growth of PWC sales is important. “I certainly think they are a gateway to boat ownership,” he says. “They are appealing to a younger demographic. We need to get younger people experiencing boating, and this is another channel to getting on the water.”
In 2008 60,385 PWC were sold in the United States. That was a 26 percent drop from the previous year’s total of 81,039 units. For 2017, Ryan Kloppe, sales director at Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Statistical Surveys, says PWC sales could top 60,000 for the first time since 2008.
Yamaha’s answer to the Spark came out last summer and is called the EX series. It is built of fiberglass and is a little bit bigger and more substantial, at 577 pounds dry weight with a 1049cc engine. It comes in three trim levels — the base EX without reverse for $6,599, the EX Sport at $7,599, which has mechanical reverse, and the EX Deluxe. For $8,599 it comes with Yamaha’s RiDE system, which includes reverse and Yamaha’s deceleration system. Kawasaki’s least expensive Jet Ski, the STX-15F, starts at $9,699.
“We’re seeing a lot of strength in the new EX model,” says Andrew Cullen, marketing and communications manager for the Yamaha Watercraft Group, which is based in Kennesaw, Ga. As is the case with Sea-Doo, Yamaha is seeing a lot of interest from buyers new to boating. In addition to marketing the EX series to a younger audience, Yamaha is emphasizing that its machines are built in the United States.
In addition to the EX series, Cullen says Yamaha’s GP1800 has been a big seller among those who want speed. It runs just under 70 mph right out of the box and is priced at $13,999 with a supercharged engine and Yamaha’s NanoCel2 lightweight fiberglass hull.
McKercher and Cullen say many of the new watercraft purchases are “fleet additions” to buyers who either own an older machine or two, or even a base boat, such as a pontoon. “It’s a combination of all these different factors contributing to a really strong market,” says Cullen.
“If they buy it as a complement to their other boat and it keeps them on the water, that’s good for us,” says Grow Boating’s Blackwell. “We want them to have fun and we want them to have more experience on the water.”
The PWC market has shown signs of a steady recovery since 2013, with sales jumping from 39,576 nationwide in that year to 48,251 in 2014, according to Statistical Surveys. The following year the industry saw a strong jump to 55,217 units domestically, and that number increased to 59,610 in 2016.
To help boost those numbers during boat-show season, Yamaha offered incentives such as $99 a month for the EX series or 5.5 percent for 96 months on a pair of WaveRunners. Four of five Yamaha PWC buyers did not trade in machines this year, and a third of the buyers purchased more than one watercraft, Cullen says.
McKercher says Sea-Doo added as much as four years of extra warranty to entice buyers during show season.
Sea-Doo, Yamaha and Kawasaki offer full lineups of machines in five categories. The Spark and EX models are considered Rec Lite. Step up to the Recreation category, and Sea-Doo offers five GTI models; Yamaha answers with its own quintet of the VX line. The VX Cruiser HO starts at $11,199, and Sea-Doo’s GTI Limited 155 is listed at $12,399.
Kawasaki’s Jet Ski Ultra LX has an MSRP of $11,999. In the Luxury class, Sea-Doo has five boats in the GTX Series, and Yamaha has five in the FX class. The Yamaha FX Limited SVHO has a retail price of $16,899 and the Sea-Doo GTX Limited 300 sports a sticker of $15,999.
Kawasaki’s Ultra 310 comes in four models. The Ultra 310X checks in at $15,299, the Ultra 310X SE starts at $15,799 and the Ultra 310R has a sticker of $16,299. In the Performance category, Sea-Doo offers five models, including the 300-hp RXT-X 300 for $15,499, and we already mentioned Yamaha’s performance flagship, the GP1800.
Kawasaki’s Ultra 310LX is the most powerful Jet Ski watercraft, with a 1,498cc engine and a retail price of $17,999. Sea-Doo stands alone with two tow sports models — the Wake 155 and Wake Pro 230, which retails for $14,499.
“Our goal is for a customer to walk into a Sea-Doo dealership and, no matter what they want to do on the water, we have the right watercraft,” McKercher says.
Control systems offer quicker deceleration
Regardless of the brand, each personal watercraft manufacturer has developed its own on-board system that enhances rider control and helps the machine decelerate quickly.
With Sea-Doo’s Intelligent Brake and Reverse (iBR), launched in 2009, the machine is actually in neutral when the engine is started. This lets a rider stow a dockline or put away his car keys without worrying about the watercraft moving forward.
The braking system consists of a “brake gate” on the jet pump that resembles a spoiler on a sports car. It’s activated by a lever on the port handlebar that looks just like a bicycle brake. When deployed, the brake overrides the throttle and the gate deploys beneath the hull, grabbing the water and diverting it straight up behind the rider.
The flume of water is intended to alert a boat or rider behind that the Sea-Doo is slowing quickly. Sea-Doo media relations representative Tim McKercher says iBR will stop a full-size watercraft running at 50 mph 100 feet sooner than a watercraft without iBR.
Yamaha’s RiDE stands for Reverse with Intuitive Deceleration Electronics. It’s designed more as a total control system than a brake. It also uses a lever on the left handlebar that the rider squeezes to slow the craft. The bucket on the jet pump lowers and diverts the water to help slow the craft. Keep squeezing the lever, and the engine will shift into reverse.
Kawasaki’s Smart Steering also assists the watercraft when the throttle is quickly released at high speed.
All three manufacturers also offer a version of a programmable key that limits the top speed and power that the engine delivers. These are attractive features for families that have riders with different experience levels. When the children are learning, the parents can program the top speed so they don’t have to worry about the youngsters losing control.
Taking a stand
Kawasaki introduced the first stand-up personal watercraft in 1973. For 2017 the company responded to increased interest in the more physically challenging machines by introducing the latest stand-up model, the Jet Ski SX-R.
The machine is priced at $9,999 and is powered by a 1,498cc, 4-stroke, 4-cylinder water-cooled engine with direct fuel injection. It makes 957 pounds of thrust and has a 6.1-gallon fuel capacity.
Yamaha still makes its Superjet stand-up with a 2-cylinder, 2-stroke engine and a 4.8-gallon fuel capacity. Riders must have a closed-course competition license to get one.
This article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue.