With employment at an all-time high and sales of its jet-powered boats strong, Hinckley launched its 1,000th jetboat June 15 at the company’s Southwest Harbor, Maine, headquarters.
Hinckley’s first jetboat was the now-iconic Picnic Boat, launched in 1994. The 1,000th jetboat is a Talaria 48 Flybridge built for a Texas couple who plan to cruise to the Florida Gulf — the type of boating that the company says lends itself to waterjet propulsion.
Hinckley, known for innovation and for developing the first marine joystick control with its Jetstick, had decided to go with jet propulsion on the Picnic Boat to offer customers technological advancement, says Hinckley marketing director Roe O’Brien.
“Henry Hinckley set this company on a course of innovation very early in the game,” O’Brien says, speaking from Maine just after the milestone launch. “He was one of the first guys to adopt fiberglass, and he was an inventive guy himself. I think when Hinckley developed the Picnic Boat it was a stated goal that they wanted to incorporate some innovation. Plus in Maine, a jetboat made so much sense. It made a lot of sense to this company because it was consistent with the company’s mission and vision.
“If you were going to create a gentleman’s lobster boat, you had to differentiate it from all the lobster boats hanging around in Maine that were difficult to drive and handle because they were not really cut out for pleasure boating,” O’Brien adds. “So how do you differentiate this boat? You put modern technology in it and make it that much more pleasurable.”
In those early days, the company was hedging its bets with jets. As a result it decided to launch the first Picnic Boat with jet propulsion but built two others with conventional drive systems, O’Brien says. “Apparently they had a hard time selling the other two because jets became so popular,” she says.
All of the company’s powerboats are sold standard with waterjet propulsion, although Volvo Penta IPS drives are an option. “It’s an option, but unlike most options it lowers the price of the boat rather than increasing it,” O’Brien says. “That’s because the jets are more expensive for us to purchase. But in essence they are less expensive to install and maintain because it’s a very simple system.”
Waterjet propulsion has caught on within a niche of boaters, O’Brien says, because it tends to give operators more control. “The control is very precise, and the boat handles very predictably.”
People like the fact that, combined with the Joystick, it makes close-quarters docking more predictable, she says. “You know how sometimes you try to dock a conventional boat and you shift, and it kind of lurches a little bit? That’s kind of unnerving when you’re in close quarters. Jets don’t do that. There’s more control, and frankly once you get accustomed to it they’re much easier to operate.”
After initially launching the system on Picnic Boats, it quickly became apparent that “jets make so much sense for any place where there is shoal water or for anyone who likes to get in close to the beach,” says Phil Bennett, vice president of sales, who took part in shaping the first Picnic Boat. “The concept just really took off.”
The early jetboats also incorporated new materials to make the boats lighter, stronger and better-suited to the propulsion system.
The system allows operators to explore shallower waters than most boats of similar size can access, O’Brien says. Along Florida’s Gulf Coast there is a lot of skinny water, which makes the area difficult to navigate in a prop boat.
“They’re perfect in Maine because you don’t have to worry about [snagging] lobster pots. They’re great for families, too, because you can navigate almost to shore and hop off,” she says. “It gives you a lot of freedom to go where a lot of people can’t go in that size boat.”
People are typically attracted to Hinckley’s boats and then become familiar with jet propulsion, she says. “It’s fair to say it has been a phenomenal success in that they’re expensive and they’re very different. We build them all by hand, one at a time, basically, so the 1,000-boat marker is a big accomplishment.”
Hinckley builds about 50 boats a year, and the Talaria 48 that represents the 1,000th jetboat was in production for about eight months. “It took us 23 model years to get to 1,000 boats,” O’Brien says. “Of those, about 170 were 29-footers. The 29Rs were very popular. Then we built the 55S also, and there were maybe 20 of those.”
And of course, the company has built “a whole ton of Picnic Boats,” O’Brien says. Hinckley is on its third iteration of that model and has put twin jets where the original had a single. The first Picnic Boat was designed by Bruce King and Shep McKenney, who went on to develop Seakeeper gyro stabilizers. “Now we’re installing Seakeepers in a few of the larger Hinckleys,” O’Brien says.
McKenney is credited with developing Hinckley’s Jetstick, which helped smooth out some of the kinks in jet propulsion. In an interview in November 2015 he explained the process of helping to create the marine joystick, which is now taken for granted in all types of boats.
“Because it had a jet to create small draft, I quickly realized that it needed a different control mechanism,” McKenney says. “Jets allow wonderful control authority because you can convert that stream like a fire hose in 360 degrees, but harnessing that authority is another matter. Not least because when you back up — there’s reverse sensing on boats and cars — but jets are actually correct sensing. That is, when you turn the boat clockwise, the boat turns clockwise when you back up. In a car or conventional-propulsion boat, if you back up and turn the wheel right, the boat goes left. It was a difficult problem to solve, and I decided the only way out of it was to do a fly-by-wire joystick control system. So at Hinckley I developed, and we sold and it continues to this day, the first recreational boat joystick control system.”
“The Hinckley Jetstick brought joystick operation to boating and allowed the person at the helm to have a degree of easy control that meant even novices could dock a boat with confidence,” Bennett says.
After the successful introduction of the Picnic Boat, Hinckley introduced larger and smaller models, growing the line to its present offerings from 29 to 55 feet, including the current iteration of the Picnic Boat, now 37 feet with twin jets. Hinckley also integrated the company vertically with the addition of its seven service operations, which provide service and storage for not only Hinckleys but all makes and models.
Since it rolled out the first jetboat, Hinckley has built very few boats with varying types of propulsion. The company just launched the Talaria 34 Runabout, a “very sexy-looking boat,” at the Palm Beach International Boat Show, O’Brien says.
The 1,000th jetboat, the Talaria 48 Flybridge, is called Lucky Woman, and the company has plans to restyle that and make a Talaria 48 Mach 2, a new release likely to roll out next spring.
This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue.