Motorcycle riders know there's nothing as exhilarating as rolling on the power down a smooth straightaway or leaning their machine into a long, sweeping curve. Add sun and surf to either scenario and you'll understand why personal watercraft have become the fastest-growing segment of the marine industry. Unlike powerboats, these small, maneuverable machines let you interact with the water, dragging a knee as you carve tight turns, grabbing big air as you jump waves or cranking into a rooster-tail spin. What's more, they're propelled by a high-pressure jet pump that enables them to operate in shallow water. You can use your watercraft with a partner to explore secluded backwaters, intimate coves and other tight spots that larger boats can't reach. Factor in the freedom of the water (no yellow line on this highway) and you have the perfect summer fun machine. Here's what you need to know to get your feet wet.
A watery groove
Although personal watercraft have been around for 20 years, early models and current ones are as different as Model Ts and Ferraris. Kawasaki started the sport in 1973 with the first Jet Ski, a 26-horsepower stand-up machine that struggled to reach 30 miles per hour. In comparison, today's hottest models (listed in the box at center) crank out more than 70 hp and can top 50 mph. Not impressed? Take it from us: Fifty mph on a personal watercraft feels like 150 on the highway. And unlike pavement, water is an ever-changing surface that adds another dimension to the ride.
Speed aside, there are two types of watercraft: stand-up models, such as the original Jet Ski, and the more recent sit-down, or runabout, models. While stand-ups appeal mostly to athletic riders (mastering them requires good balance and coordination), runabouts are easy to ride. The hull is wider and more stable than a stand-up's, and you straddle the seat (like a motorcycle) with a foot in each foot-well. Runabouts now include three groups of specialized craft. Entry-level and sport models are easy to maneuver. They feature 35-hp to 50-hp engines and can reach speeds up to 45 mph. They have a seat that can carry one or two riders and contain moderate storage space.
High-performance "muscle-craft" runabouts pack more wallop. Powered by 70-hp engines, these machines reach 50 mph and can corner nearly as tight as you can hold on.
For a different dimension in performance, check out the Yamaha Wave Blaster, an exciting new model that combines the agility of a stand-up with the seat and controls of a run-about. Created by Yamaha's motorcycle and watercraft designers, the 63-hp Wave Blaster leans in turns like a bike and is highly responsive to throttle and body position. With practice, you'll find the Blaster able to take corners even with your knee and elbow hitting the water.
If you prefer comfort to speed, try one of the touring runabouts. Longer, wider and heavier than sport and performance models, touring craft have an extended seat that can carry two or three riders, a larger fuel tank and plenty of storage space. While these machines provide a smoother ride in rough water and more stability than standard models, they also can cruise at more than 40 mph. In many states, a three-passenger touring craft may even be used to pull a water skier or kneeboarder.
As with any sport, you'll better enjoy riding personal watercraft if you have the right accessories. Essential gear begins with a personal flotation device (or life jacket), required by law everywhere. Eye protection is also important. Flexible wraparound sport shields, such as Uvex' Snosun goggles ($30), are a smart choice because they're lightweight and come with a strap that keeps them from sinking.
The combination of spray and air can chill you in a hurry at 40 mph, so a wet suit makes a lot of sense even in warm climates. Plus, if you "biff" (fall off) at a high speed, a wet suit will reduce the sting when you hit the water. In terms of styles, there are neoprene trunks or "shorty" suits ($80 to $100), full-length, one-piece suits ($150 to $250) and two-piece suits with separate tops and shorts ($185 to $350). The key is to choose a style that combines heavier material in the body with lighter, more flexible neoprene or spandex in the arms, knees and shoulders. Runabout riders should check out Jet Pilot's two-piece Freerider suits ($236), which come pre-bent in the rear and the knees for added comfort in the seated position. Other leading manufacturers include Ronny, Mobby's and Slippery When Wet.
As long as you're springing for a wet suit, you should also pick up a pair of gloves ($20 to $50), as well as a pair of aqua socks or watercraft shoes ($30 to $100) to protect your feet.
If you want to witness watercraft racing's top dogs in action, take an October road trip to Lake Havasu, Arizona for the annual International Jet Sports Boating Association's Skat-Trak World Finals. The Daytona Speed Week of watercraft racing, this event draws more than 30,000 spectators and 600 amateur and pro riders from around the world to compete in slalom, closed-course and freestyle events. But there's more than racing at Havasu. New watercraft and accessories are on display in the midway, as are bikini contests. And the parties are legendary. Check it out.
Cream of the craft
Stand-up models: Kawasaki 750SX ($5049), Yamaha Super Jet ($4949), Laser Jet Thunder Jet F-15 ($6495).
Sport runabouts: Yamaha Wave Blaster ($5999), Arctic Cat Tigershark ($5399), Sea-Doo SPX ($5499).
High-performance runabouts: Sea-Doo XP ($6199), Polaris SL750 ($6099), Kawasaki 750Xi ($6199).
Touring runabouts: Sea-Doo GTX ($6399), Kawasaki 750ST ($6399), Yamaha Wave Runner III ($5899).