At high noon on Lake Okeechobee we called out four jet boatbuilders. With steely eyes and a confident swagger, they gathered for the duel. When the smoke had cleared, every competitor was standing tall and we were slack-jawed at the results.
Ten years ago, everyone thought the jet boat business was the hot ticket to capturing entry-level boaters. Slide them into a price-is-right, easy-riding jet and when they outgrow it, they'll trade up to a more sophisticated boat. That's the ticket!
Boatbuilders -- and boaters -- were quickly disappointed. The early boats were weak in horsepower, lacking in tracking and built more like watercraft than boats. They couldn't cut the mustard for an eager family with lots of expectations. Boaters outgrew jetboats quickly, but the trouble was, entry-level buyers had low down payments and looonng terms that left them "upside down" at trade-in time. Soon, nearly everyone dropped out of the biz.
In fact, the universe of jet boat makers dropped from dozens to only a few. But there's been a rebound recently, though the current retail market is still a compact 5,000-odd units -- depending on whose numbers you accept. The bulk of that market is carved up between Yamaha and Sea-Doo. What raised our eyebrows, though, was the entry of Polaris into the field with a brand-new 21-foot fully featured family boat. And a small North Dakota builder called SugarSand rose up to carve a few percentage points from that niche, too.What was nudging this market forward again?
"The peak of the jet-drive business was 1997, and 30 builders were in it," said Tim Wilkinson, sales manager for Sea-Doo boats."But most dropped out. Now many are rumored to be coming back in.What are people buying? Besides the fun factors of acceleration and maneuverability, they want the easy handling, the safety of a concealed drive system and the peace of mind of the shallow draft."
New boaters find one of the most appealing features is the completely concealed drive -- there are no exposed propellers.
"If you're teaching kids to ski, why do you have to have a prop in the water?" Wilkinson asks.
But there's more to the growth than that. "We'd done a lot of R&D to support U.S. Marine's Bayliner Jazz with the 90 horsepower. Back then Sea Ray, Baja, Regal, Whaler and others were in this -- and then dropped out," said Tom Mielke of MercuryMarine.
Mercury makes jet drives for everyone but Yamaha, which makes its own. In the early days a modest 115 ponies was the limiting issue. Early jets were 14 to 15 feet long, and couldn't ski with a family onboard.
"Now they can haul a family and pull skiers, too," Mielke said."It's a carefree package. Boaters never have to wonder if the prop is right. They're a kick to drive. There's no trim issues or running gear to tear up,"
Are these new jets were real boats or oversized watercraft? We set a four-pronged challenge to see.
First, we selected Shaune Stoskopf and Jeff Schmick,professional show skiers with a lifetime invested in the sport.Former Cypress Gardens water-ski pros, these athletes are more than hired guns. The smiles on their faces when at the end of their rope spell joy, and these two have it for skiing. We wanted to see how the jets yanked them out.
Second, we wanted to see if these boats could hold a ski course and maintain steady speed under load, and how much effort it took us to keep them straight -- and if we could. We were impressed with the results.
Third, a race course would test their acceleration, tracking and turning. It brought the most smiles in the showdown, but perhaps most fraught with human error. Our driver reactions speak more than the stopwatch.
Finally, we wanted to know how these boats performed in terms of speed and acceleration, so we did our standard running tests for your review.
The results showed us all jet boats are serious contenders for the family boater. They carry more passengers, more horsepower and more creature comforts than the early models. They give a ton more in return for modest package prices that include a trailer.
So, that's how we staged this OK Corral, and then we let the bullets fly!
Sea-Doo Utopia: This boat's deep-V hull tracked well in skiing tests, requiring little steering correction from any of the drivers. Thanks to the 250-hp OptiMax, it had plenty of oomph for yanking skiers up in seconds.
Sea-Doo 4-TEC Sportster: The tower on this rig gave greatlift and centered the skier's pull on the boat. This gave us a true ride with little required correction. But an extra 25 horses would be better for larger skiers -- say over 200 pounds.
Sugar Sand Tango 4+2: This boat took more course correction than most, sometimes requiring a quarter-turn of the wheel to keep lined up on the buoys. But no one had difficulty keeping it in line and we weren't surprised, since we also scored this one tops as a great show-off boat for doing spins and spraying the riders.
Sugar Sand Sole: The Sole is equipped with a screw-in pylon that's only deployed when you need it. Its location right over the front of the power plant puts it in the center of gravity-- a plus for good ski tracking. It's a good puller with the Mercury EFI 240, and holds its course as expected for a 20-footer with a deep-V.
Polaris EX 2100: Our skiers thought this boat had a great hole shot for skiers and held its course fine. Drivers didn't argue one bit either. In fact, there was very little noticeable pull on the boat as the skier maneuvered back and forth -- albeit the skier was a hefty 90 pounds.
Yamaha AR210: The twin engines give this boat extra punch at the hole shot, and our skiers liked that. So did the drivers. For heavy skiers, drivers can pull off a bit of throttle on one engine and regulate power with the other for steadiest speeds. The platform was the best of any, suited in size for booting up. The tower added looks, lift for easy starts and board storage.
Sea-Doo Utopia: This was equipped with the 250-hp OptiMax and is the hot boat in our maneuverability tests of boats over 19 feet. It turned crisply, accelerated smoothly and, thanks to the 20-degree deadrise hull, it tracked smoothly in turns. It darn near beat the much smaller, lighter Tango 4+2 on our buoy course. Average time: 31.0 sec.
Sea-Doo 4-TEC Sportster: The Bimini got stuck "up" during our test and the extra drag held us back. But the boat still turned well and gave superior fuel efficiency and quiet runability thanks to the Rotax four-stroke engine. The tower held us back, too, but gave it an edge in the ski-tracking test. Average time: 36.6sec.
Sugar Sand Tango 4+2: This was the undeniable rocket, with flaming acceleration in the straightaway. You could easily spin this pup on the buoys, but with practice, we learned to countersteer with quick left turns when making a right turn to keep the boat on track. For hot-dog spins and a cooling wet ride, this boat is your deal. Average time: 29.0 sec.
Sugar Sand Sole: Impressive speed in the straightaway and good tracking in the turns surprised us in this solid, full-size boat. It didn't win the race, but with all the creature comforts onboard, we knew it was built for all-around family fun and comfort,not race course supremacy. Average time: 34.1 sec.
Polaris EX 2100: We didn't give this rig a fair shot. The editor took two trials and his time was a quick 34.5 seconds on trial two. Other drivers were a couple of seconds slower but only got one shot at the course. We're not letting this skew our positive feelings about a performance boat built by Baja and powered by Mercury. It's awesome. Average time: 35.7 sec.
Yamaha AR210: The AR210's quickest time on the course was 29.8 seconds by the editor who used extra throttle on the outside engine in turns. Had our other drivers known that little trick, this boat would have taken the trophy in both under and over 19-foot categories. Average time: 32.3 sec.
Sea-Doo Utopia: The performance surprised us, as did the quiet runability. It's designed to be a fun family boat and just happens to use jet power. You wouldn't expect it to be so quick after you notice the great interior features like forward seating that rotates back to form a conversation pit with the aft seating.Liner hull, ski pylon and sun pad are great family features.
Sea-Doo 4-TEC Sportster: The 4-TEC is one of our favorite boats thanks to the efficient four-stroke engine. It comes standard with a ski pylon, but we'd spring for the tower for the looks,board storage and Bimini. It's a good value with plenty of power to pull all but the largest skiers out on one stick. It's maneuverable enough to spin, too.
Sugar Sand Tango 4+2: This was the fastest jet in our shootout, but we wanted a quieter ride -- engineers were tweaking sound suppression strategies on test day, so look for lower sound in 2004. This is an awesome hull design with great fit and finish.It's a spinner, though, so practice in open water before making aggressive turns in closer quarters.
Sugar Sand Sole: Another impressive hull design, the Sole appears larger than the specs indicate. We liked the wide beam,roomy cockpit and comfortable seating. It wasn't as quick as the Sea-Doo Utopia or the Yamaha AR210, but it was a great ride and a sporty boat for big families. Want more oomph? Opt for the 250-hp OptiMax engine.
Polaris EX 2100: This boat was most like a stern-drive in our tests. Great performance came from a hefty 250-hp OptiMax, and careful engineering gives a true-tracking hull that's solid,overbuilt but not overweight. Top speed is exciting and handling in rough water is great. A jet boat 21 feet long? Whodathunkit?
Yamaha AR210: You can't beat twin engines forget-you-home reliability and speed. It was our fastest big boat and a blast to drive, thanks to dual throttle controls and a separate gearshift. This is Yamaha's third model year for this hull and engine arrangement, and its record of reliability is supporting the Yamaha reputation.