Like all our greatest debates, this one raged during those sunset hours on the docks when the drinks flow freer and the fish stories get grandiose. The topic, naturally, was boats, this time which was the most versatile. Family Guy argued for the deck boat; Fish Head pegged the center console. Gold Chain? He was certain his go-fast could produce more thrills than any of our lame choices — and, well, let’s just say prove a little more versatile with the ladies.
That’s when I pronounced them all wrong. “The world’s most versatile boat?” I asked with just a hint of swagger. “Easy. It’s a personal watercraft.”
They mocked me, of course. So as all brave men do in the face of adversity, I threw out a dare. Give me five days on the Sea-Doo Wake 155, and I’d prove it.
“Time’s wasting,” said Gold Chain, throwing a Benjamin onto the table. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”
I had five days to do just that.
Like riding Harleys — the most fuel-efficient way to tour by boat.
I’m enjoying the sun’s first rays as I head down Florida’s west coast, swapping stages in the Gulf with periods on the Intracoastal Waterway. Truth be told, this is a pleasure cruise. Several years back I crossed from Miami to Bimini at the helm of a PWC, surviving the open Atlantic, the Gulf Stream and all the eeriness the Bermuda Triangle could muster. Pushing my luck? Nope, my craft had proved both seaworthy and comfortable, even when Mother Nature decided to kick things up a notch.
Though its pint-size stature may tempt you to think otherwise, a PWC makes a fine touring machine. Many models are designed for this purpose. It usually starts with a touring-specific seat that’s forgiving under the behind but offers bolstered support that will save your lower back. To save my throttle finger from the agony of holding speed for hours on end, an electronic throttle makes it possible for me to set a speed and then forget it. A no-wake mode makes it even easier in those pesky slow-speed zones. Low on gas, without a marina in sight? Eco mode plots the most efficient speed and keeps me there.
Today’s three-passenger PWCs are bigger, and more big-water-worthy, than ever before. Hulls slice through waves, spray-deflecting chines knock down the water, and steering tracks straight and true. My Wake has more than 30 gallons of storage for necessities; flagship models offer as much as 60 gallons. On previous trips I’ve managed to fit in everything from a gear bag to a small tent with room to spare.
Full scuba’s out, but snorkeling and hookah diving are in.
Fun on a personal watercraft is usually limited to activities that happen above the surface. But today I’m using a PWC to explore what’s below as well.
I’ve snorkeled from a PWC. After all, it’s easy to toss a mask and fins into a PWC’s stowage compartments. Highlights have been the Florida Keys, Bimini’s Sapona shipwreck and California’s Catalina Island. I dropped anchor, or floated with a friend who stayed on top, geared up on the aft swim platform and then slipped below the surface to experience a whole other world.
Today, I’ve got a cool gadget called a Brownie’s Third Lung ($1,400 to $3,200, browniedive.com). A portable dive system, it eliminates the hassle of trying to haul traditional scuba equipment aboard the PWC. It’s a compact, hookah-style compressor that provides surface air to its dual regulators. It mounts in a stainless-steel rack that securely fits on the aft platform and attaches to the craft via a series of web straps. The battery-powered compressor features a variable-speed motor that kicks on when a demand is placed on the respirator.
Below, I can stay down and marvel at a school of rays passing to my left and a pair of dolphin in the distance. The latter are pretty sleek and quick in the water. But as you’ll see by tomorrow’s agenda, so am I.
Instant acceleration plus an open craft close to the water equal thrill ride.
Time to spice things up with some old-school drag racing. But no, I’m not talking about some informal grudge match with a friend. I’m at the Hydro Drag nationals, an event that pits racers side by side in a battle for actual fame and glory.
You can’t find a more average-guy-friendly form of competition than drag racing. I don’t need expensive modifications; there’s actually a class for my stock watercraft. I also don’t have to worry about cracking up my boat, or worse, me. Side by side with my competition, I simply squeeze the throttle, point it straight and hold on for the ride. It’s mano a mano but without the fear of “fiberglasso a fiberglasso.” As a guy who at one time used to routinely feel the pucker factor of motocross-style PWC racing, I could learn to like this.
In a past event, a racer from Puerto Rico eclipsed the 100 mph mark on his modified craft. Today, I’m happy flirting with 60, a speed that seems deceptively low as I scream out of the starting gate. Hurtling across the glass of a narrow, wind-protected Florida canal, I’m literally inches above the water’s surface. It’s precisely this attribute that make a PWC so thrilling as a racer. Acceleration is intense. Even on my relatively tame 155 hp craft, I squeeze the throttle and literally feel a stretch of the arms as the craft rockets to 30 mph. The most powerful stock machines get there in as little as 1.8 seconds; modified ones are considerably faster.
The time is just as scant en route to the craft’s top speed as I tuck into a crouch and stretch my arms forward the way the real racers do it. Feeling the need for speed? Trust me, until you’ve ridden a PWC you haven’t felt an intoxicating rush like this. The exposure and closeness to the water amplify the thrill tenfold.
Sadly, my skills don’t get me past the first round. I ease my troubled mind the way men have done for centuries. I go fish.
No fish boxes but you can get super skinny.
Balancing atop the saddle of my Sea-Doo, I stand and scan the pass for movement. Suddenly there it is, a school of tarpon, surfacing right near me on the move. Calming my novice nerves, I cast out my line and hope for the best. In short order a fish shows interest, toys with my emotions … and then leaves me at the altar.
Evidently fishing requires patience. Lots of it.
My friends argued that serious fishing would be the furthest stretch for my PWC, but once again I’m making them eat their words. In the flats, my craft’s jet drive and minimal draft enable me to get into the skinniest of waters without tangling a prop or scarring sea grass. Today’s quiet, clean four-strokes also won’t tick off my fellow anglers or spook the fish. Prefer bigger waters, like the pass I’m fishing today? With a four-foot beam, my hull remains exceptionally stable.
Rigging a PWC for fishing is relatively simple. I have a fish finder temporarily installed at the console, but my main addition sits aft: a multipurpose contraption of aluminum bars fabricated by a T-top manufacturer that houses a cooler-turned-baitwell and twin rod holders, and can even serve as an elevated viewing or poling platform. But I can stand atop the seat of this 11-foot-long behemoth and survey the water. Standing in the footwells or on the generous aft platform, the stability is such that, when I do hook into a fish, I can fight it without tipping my ride or going into the drink. Sure, something big might tow me around a little should it take my bait, but hey, that’s half the thrill.
Sea-Doo specifically designs PWCs for tow sports like wakeskating and boarding.
Cutting across the wake on my wakeboard, I make the most of my Sea-Doo Wake’s vertically challenged launch ramp, tossing in a low-elevation 360 before playing around with a few surface slides. While any three-seat PWC is capable of being a good tow vehicle, my Wake 155 is uniquely suited to the task. Aft, a clever tow pylon lifts the tow rope up and out of the jet wash, while simultaneously providing a pair of handgrips for my rear-facing spotter. A convenient board rack mounts to the gunwale. And then there’s the speed control that came in so handy while cruising. In Ski mode, I can opt for one of five progressively stronger acceleration profiles, depending on whom I’m pulling and what they’re riding. Once up, I can lock in their preferred speed and avoid fluctuations from my twitchy throttle finger.
Virtually any tow sport can be accomplished behind a PWC. Wake-skaters, in fact, prefer its maneuverability and minimal wakes to get them up close and personal with sliders, ramps and other obstacles. The craft are also a fraction of the price of the typical wake or ski boat, and they stretch out the fuel budget.
I’d also argue that a PWC is the best tow choice for teaching a child. For starters, it’s open. The child in the water sees a parent or friendly adult spotter facing him or her, not an intimidating transom. If driven properly, acceleration is gentle and forgiving, not an arm-wrenching yank. Once the child is up, the wakes are more manageable. And after a fall, a PWC’s responsiveness allows its driver and passenger to quickly offer assistance.
So there you have it. In five days I cruised, dove, raced, fished and wakeboarded — all on the same boat, an inexpensive one that can be towed behind a car and sips fuel. Best of all, when I wasn’t doing all of these, I still had one heck of a fun boat.
So go ahead and laugh, Family Guy and Fish Head. But don’t try to convince me your boat is more versatile. I know what a PWC can do — and I’ve got Gold Chain’s money to prove it.
One more thing that a PWC is uniquely suited to perform? Try towing and slingshotting a surfer into monstrous ocean waves.
It was surf legends Laird Hamilton, Buzzy Kerbox and Dave Kalama who, with a crew of Hawaiian island friends, originally pioneered the idea. Using PWCs, they rode offshore and targeted fast-moving waves previously considered unreachable by traditional paddling, using the PWCs’ speed and agility to get into position and then hurtle their rider, wakeboard-style, onto the wave’s face.
In this way, PWCs opened up a whole new world of surf to those with the skills — and let’s face it, the cojones — to try it.