Just about everyone who loves the wide world of watersports also loves jumping wakes, carving hair-pin turns, and splashing across the water on a personal watercraft (PWC), which is often also called a “Jet Ski” even though that’s a brand name belonging to Kawasaki. Still, Kawasaki deserves the credit for popularizing this genre of tiny boats, which has probably accounted for more wide grins than all the family portrait studios in America put together.
What is a PWC, and What is a Jet Ski?
The term PWC describes a type of boat, while Jet Ski is a brand name that’s often (and errantly) used by people to describe PWCs as a whole. But the word “personal” in “personal watercraft,” is a bit misleading. While it’s true that PWCs began as watercraft intended for a single rider, they soon grew large and powerful enough to accommodate multiple riders as well as being capable of pulling water-toys like wakeboards and tow-tubes.
The original PWC mini one-person jet boats were designed for the rider to sit on in a motorcycle-like, seated position. Rather than being inside of a boat, essentially, they sat on top of it. Riding on one was akin to riding a bicycle or motorcycle on land, hence the nickname “waterbike.” The earliest version was patented in 1968 by Clayton Jacobson, licensed to Bombardier and sold as the Sea Doo 320, built with a hand-laid fiberglass hull and powered by an 18 hp two-stroke engine. It sparked a lot of interest at the time, but was plagued by corrosion and mechanical issues, cost $1,300 (close to $10,000 in today’s dollars) and was soon discontinued.
Five years later Kawasaki introduced the first Jet Ski, on which the rider started in a prone position and then stood up as the boat gained speed, and thus stability. Although the Jet Ski wasn’t the original PWC, it was the first to capture the hearts and minds of the boating public and their popularity skyrocketed. In the 1980’s several companies began introducing sit-down PWC which required significantly less skill to operate, and offered expanded capabilities including more power and seating for up to three people.
In the late 1990s EPA emissions standard applied to marine engines began ratcheting down on PWCs, among other watercraft and boats powered two-stroke engines. Larger multi-passenger models had little problem shifting to more environmentally-friendly four-stroke engines, but stand-up models, which had been consistently losing popularity as compared to sit-down PWCs, were a tougher problem. Thanks to mixed-fleet averages they continued to be produced but by 2010 the last two stand-up two-stroke PWCs being built, the Kawasaki Jet Ski 800 SX-R and the Yamaha Super Jet, accounted for less than three percent of the overall PWC market share. Stand-ups were relegated to competition use only, until the 2017 introduction of the new Kawasaki Jet Ski SXR.
Today, PWCs are available in all shapes and sizes ranging from single-rider stand-ups to three-person “touring” PWCs with the size and fuel capacity for extended trips. The one remaining defining factor that distinguishes them from pleasure boats is the fact that the riders sit or stand on top of the craft, instead of inside it.
Due to a combination of environmental laws, the need for bigger powerplants, and consumer demand for a quieter and smoother ride, PWC propulsion has undergone a steady evolution. Compare that original 18 HP Sea Doo engine to Sea Doo’s 2002 introduction of the 4-TEC engine, and then the all new 2017 GTX, RTX, and Wake Pro models which have up to 300 super-charged horses that can propel a rider from zero to 60 MPH in under four seconds.
Kawasaki’s current offerings are similarly powerful, with supercharged engines as large as 1,998cc and close to 2000 pounds of thrust. Same goes for Yamaha, which also utilizes potent four-cylinder four-strokes to power its premier models. None of these, however, can get much beyond 70 MPH. The reasons have nothing to do with raw power. In fact, PWC manufacturers have what’s been called a “handshake” agreement with the Coast Guard to limit top-end speeds to 65 to 70 MPH on all PWCs marketed in the United States. Electronic governors prevent you from going any faster, so much of the “race” between manufacturers has more to do with their speed of acceleration and how quickly they can get to that 70 MPH mark than it has to do with actual top-end speeds.
How fast might these PWCs go, were it not for the governing systems? When boats.com visited the Southampton Boat Show in the UK, we saw a Benelli B3R which tops out at over 80 MPH. The exact top speed will vary with conditions and the weight of the rider, but this blazing-fast boatercycle packs 315 turbocharged horsepower, and the manufacturer claims it’s the most powerful PWC in the world.
Modern PWC Styles and Sizes: Budget Waterbikes
Today, although there are only three major PWC manufacturers (Sea Doo, Yamaha, and Kawasaki), there are still plenty of styles and sizes to choose from. Along with the stand-up models, there are two-seat and three-seat PWCs. These can be divided into starter, sport, watersports, and luxury models.
Starter PWCs have smaller powerplants and aren’t quite as zippy as their bigger brothers and sisters, but they still have plenty of pep. The Sea Doo Spark is one of the most popular, and is the only PWC currently manufactured with polyethylene plastic (Sea Doo calls their version “Polytec”), rather than being built of fiberglass. It’s equipped with a 60 HP base engine that gets the Spark up over the 40 MPH mark and can be upgraded to a 90 HP HO version, which brings top end up to 50 MPH and allows for pulling tow-toys. Initially marketed in 2014 with a $4,999 starting price, Sea Doo has managed to keep cost in check and currently MSRPs the base Spark at $5,399.
See Sea Doo Spark listings.
Yamaha’s starter PWC, the WaverRunner EX, is a bit more expensive at $6,699 but offers fiberglass construction and the three-cylinder TR-1 engine. This is one of the most modern PWC powerplants on the water, which our engine expert Charles Pluddemen took a close look at in New Yamaha WaveRunner TR-1 HO Engine Ushers in Era of Compact Performance.
See Yamaha WaveRunner EX listings.
Kawasaki doesn’t currently offer a low-cost PWC, but instead begins the Jet Ski line-up in the mid-range, with the STX-15F. This is a level most manufacturers would call “sport” or “recreation,” and at a hair under $10,000 it has a mid-sized 1,498cc four-cylinder four-stroke engine hitched to a 148mm axial-flow jet pump. Whatever you do, don’t call this waterbike “entry-level.” It has the capacity for three riders, and the ability to clip the 60 MPH mark.
See Kawasaki STX-15F listings.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, you have boats like the Sea Doo GTX Limited, a decked-out touring machine that has a faux-teak aft deck, a BlueTooth audio system, a waterproof phone compartment with USB outlet, and can be decked out with Sea Doo’s LinQ accessory attachment system. This lets you haul a cooler, additional water-tight stowage, or a spare fuel tank. Or leave all that stuff at home, and you can drop a ski plyon into the receiver. Yes, the GTX can even be rigged with board racks. Of course, when it comes to luxury machines like this you have to pay to play, and the GTX Limited starts at almost $13,000.
See Sea Doo GTX Limited Listings.
Not to be out-done, Yamaha has a top-shelf touring PWC of its own. The $16,899 FX Limited SVHO is a 11’8” long, 836-pound WaveRunner which is designed to carry its own tow-tube, has over 33 gallons of dry stowage aboard, and has teched-out perks like Cruise Assist cruise control, a digital multifunction information center, and electric trim control. It also has Yamaha’s beefy 1,812cc supercharged engine, so despite its large size it has the get-up-and-go of many sportier models.
See Yamaha FX Limited SVHO listings.
Kawasaki’s top-of-the-line Ultra 310R is just as impressive (and almost as expensive, listing at over $16,000), and is outfitted with Kawasaki’s 1,498cc supercharged, intercooled in-line-four engine coupled with a 160mm axial-flow jet pump. This model boasts the most stowage of any with room for 56 gallons under the hood, plus cruising comfort-boosters like an adjustable handlebar with 18 different positions and Kawasaki’s Sport Seat. At 1,047 pounds this one of the heaviest PWCs around, which gives it as smooth a ride as you’ll find on this type of watercraft.
See Kawasaki Jet Ski Ultra 310R listings.
With what you know now, you should have no trouble deciding which type of PWC is right for you. There are of course, a number of other things you’ll need to know about before you can call yourself a PWC sharpie. There articles should help:
- Personal Watercraft (PWC) and Jet Ski Buyer's Guide
- How to Drive a PWC or Jet Ski
- Getting Your PWC Ready for the Season
- How to Choose the Right Lifejacket for PWC Use
Also see our picks for the Best PWCs of 2017 and the Top 5 PWCs of 2016.
See all the PWC listings on boats.com.