When Anselme Lapointe helped design the world’s first sit-down personal watercraft in 1969 for Bombardier, it resembled a Ski-Doo snowmobile. Despite such advances as a jet pump and a seat for two, the water bike turned out to be too early for its time. The company discontinued the model soon after its introduction. When Bombardier launched its personal watercraft division 20 years later, however, Sea-Doo was an instant hit. By 1996, the company was selling more than 100,000 units a year, accounting for more than 50 percent of the global market share of all PWC.
By that point, Denys Lapointe, Anselme’s son, was in charge of designing the next generations of Sea-Doos with his team in Valcourt, Quebec. As the PWC market exploded in the 1990s, Sea-Doo faced serious competition from Yamaha, Kawasaki, Tiger-Shark, Polaris, Honda and, at one point, MasterCraft. Lapointe, keeping his father’s original style cues, stayed ahead by modernizing the Sea-Doo design.
“We still have the positive curves, directional wedges, cantilevered seats and what we call a ‘facial expression’ when you look at the watercraft from the bow,” Lapointe says. “The first designs were very organic, while the next generations became organic and edgy. But we have many elements that the designers have to respect.”
Specific design elements, in fact, are written into a guidebook for the Sea-Doo brand that every journeyman designer has to follow when creating new concepts. “As far as styling cues go, the designers can play a lot with the way they portray them on new models,” Lapointe says. “They might be more edgy and pronounced on certain models, or more subtle on others. But they have to be there. We see those elements as critical and part of the brand’s genetic code. Our design directors’ duties include making sure new designs conform to Sea-Doo’s DNA.”
The design process for new Sea-Doo watercraft has become much more scientific in the past 20 years, says Lapointe, who as BRP’s executive vice president of design and innovation oversees the final designs of its powersports product categories.
BRP’s plans for its Sea-Doo line extend five years ahead, but the design team also has specialists who look at possible designs as far out as 10 years. Most new watercraft, however, come to market following a 28- to 33-month design schedule (36 months when designed around new Rotax engines).
BRP has a “triangle” of designers, engineers and marketing specialists who collaborate on new designs, placing the consumer in the center of the triangle. “We find this way is most effective since we’re all advocating on behalf of the consumer,” Lapointe says. “Many times, we argue over specific design features, and the arguments can get very passionate. But it’s always with the consumer in mind.”
BRP’s design team is encouraged to spend “time in the field,” Lapointe says, to gauge consumer patterns. “Before we start creating a brief with our marketing and engineering peers, we need to diverge and look at all sorts of directions to see what’s possible — we want to find the best ideas and formalize them into technical packages. Then we come together to work on prototypes.”
The new Sea-Doo Fish Pro was born after designers visited South Africa, New Zealand and Scandinavia for ideas. “We saw people adding coolers to their personal watercraft but doing it in such a way that was not necessarily the most effective,” Lapointe says. “We knew we could do a much better job if we integrated all these features into a fishing boat — at the same time, giving the consumer a wow factor.”
Many concepts never make it past the idea phase. “We give our teams the sandboxes to be creative,” Lapointe says. “We see failure as a good thing at the beginning — you learn from the things that don’t work.”
The design process moves through what BRP calls Gate Zero to Full Production, with multiple prototypes in between. At Gate Zero, the company builds a “concept mule,” a very rough prototype with propulsion that looks nothing like the final product. The designers also make a full-scale clay model to see the watercraft’s aesthetics.
“Eventually we build Prototype 1,” Lapointe says. “It’s a start, but it’s not designed for full commercialization. We need to do preliminary validations to ensure the prototype is meeting the initial objectives. When we confirm that, we then go through a series of prototypes and start testing for quality, reliability and durability. We want it close to perfect when it reaches the consumer.”
By Gate 7, the watercraft is completely dissected to make sure everything is as close as possible to the original design. “At the beginning only a few individuals are involved, but near the end, there will be an army behind it to make sure there are no flaws,” Lapointe says. “The engineers, technicians and purchasing staff are working with quality-control people to make sure we’re optimizing everything to match all the objectives.”
The design team is based in Valcourt, but BRP has a team of hull designers and technicians at its test facility in Palm Bay, Fla. “That allows us to test the watercraft 365 days per year, and we can always look at hydrodynamics for improvements to existing and future designs,” Lapointe says.
Ergonomics are also key to the designs. Lapointe says BRP’s engine division, Rotax, is involved in the design process of new models. “Considering the very different sizes of male and female riders, we have to work hard together to come up with the right compromises and solutions,” he says. “It may involve moving the engine forward, or coming up with new muffler technology. We have to do all we can to make sure everyone can ride our products.”
If a consumer purchases a new model and finds it difficult to ride, Lapointe says, they will never buy another Sea-Doo. The team includes a designer with a doctorate in biomechanics for the ergonomics. “That person looks closely at the limiting factors of each new model,” Lapointe says. “It has to be comfortable and usable for riders from 5 feet, 3 inches to 6 feet, 3 inches.”
BRP displayed an electric Sea-Doo at its recent dealer meeting, but Lapointe says the battery technology is not advanced enough for a PWC. “Anything on the water requires quite a bit of energy to get on plane, and that’s where the main challenge lies,” he says. “Right now, the batteries are too expensive. Our Spark model costs only $5,000 and offers two hours of autonomy. It’d be impossible to match those prices with battery power.”
Electric watercraft are in Sea-Doo’s future. “Many industries are working hard on the batteries,” he says. “Once we get the autonomy and range at the right cost, it’ll be a viable solution for us. It’s all about meeting the consumers’ needs.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue.