Clayton Jacobson II, a California inventor credited as the inventor of the personal watercraft, died August 18th at his home in Byron Bay, Australia from complications of advanced skin cancer. Jacobson was 88 years old.
A one-time banker and avid dirt-bike racer, Jacobson reportedly grew tired of crashing into dirt and turned his attention to producing a “motorcycle for the water,” starting work on a craft with a stand-on platform, jet pump propulsion and handlebar control. Both Jacobson’s and the industry’s first production personal watercraft, however, would ultimately be a sit-down model. Approached by Bombardier with a similar mission — to create a snowmobile for the water — he shifted gears to a design more akin to Bombardier’s Ski-Doo. The first model to make it into production in 1968, tweaked by Bombardier, featured a mere 18 horsepower, decidedly rounded profile and minimal deadrise, the latter resulting in a ride far looser than today’s precision models. Interestingly, it also briefly featured a pull-cord start and air-cooled engine, both decisions that were quickly revisited. The Bombardier Sea-Doo (a craft we had the unique opportunity to ride and compare to the latest generation in 2016) lasted only a few short years but would return in 1988 as part of the first wave of sit-down-style runabouts that would ultimately come to dominate the industry and account for a large part of the recreational boating market.
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With the Sea-Doo out of the picture, Jacobson reclaimed his patent from Bombardier in 1971 and promptly made a deal with Kawasaki to produce his standup model, now in its seventh iteration from . In 1973 the company brought the first “Jet Ski” to market in two different designs, a V-hulled model and the flat-hull design that consumers ultimately preferred. Mass production started in 1976. Over the years the craft would evolve into numerous models with increasingly aggressive designs and higher horsepower.
Though Jacobson and Kawasaki’s relationship would ultimately end in court (a Federal District Court jury in Los Angeles would award Jacobson $21.5-million in a 1991 lawsuit), standup-style models with handlepole/handlebar control would ultimately be produced by manufacturers including Kawasaki, Yamaha, Polaris and Sea-Doo. Sit-down models have been produced over the years by mainstream manufacturers including Sea-Doo, Yamaha, Kawasaki, Honda, Polaris, Arctic Cat and MasterCraft.