Comedian Bill Hicks once said, "Money can't buy happiness, but it can buy a jet ski, and you never see an unhappy person riding a jet ski." Mr. Hicks, and most of those who have copied his quote since, never saw someone ride Kawasaki's new 310-horsepower jet ski, the Ultra 310. The rider of this brutish machine may be having fun, but that person, particularly if he or she is a rookie personal water craft pilot, will also be terrified.
(Full disclosure: Kawasaki wanted me to try their jet ski so bad, they flew me down to the Florida Keys, wined and dined me, and tried not to laugh too hard as I flew by on an Ultra 310R, grim-faced and hanging on for dear life with a white-knuckled death grip, at nearly 70 miles per hour.)
Kawasaki had two different types of jet skis on hand in Duck Key, Fla. last week – the Ultra 310LX and the Ultra 310R. The LX had cool things like adjustable handlebars, a stereo system with a waterproof memory stick tube in the console and a seat made from special material that doesn't get insanely hot when the ski is sitting out in the sun on a blazing summer day. The R model is set up for racing, and has dirt bike handlebars that Kawasaki says provide tighter steering control. It doesn't have a stereo, but when you're going faster than about 40 mph, it's impossible to hear the speakers anyway.
Before last week, I had never driven or even ridden on a jet ski. Sure, I used to pilot small boats for a living, but the most robust among them was 21 feet long and had a pair of 110-horsepower Mercury outboards to propel the boat, two or three people, and a bunch of depth-sounding equipment. Kawasaki's 310 series jet skis are the maritime equivalent of wearing a rocket pack on a pair of roller skates; also similar to buying a 750 cc Honda as your first motorcycle (which I foolishly did).
As a surfer, veteran ocean lifeguard and all-around beach guy, I'm pretty well acquainted with the ocean and its characteristics. But before hopping on the back of a 310, my experience had thus far been limited to the speed my arms could make me travel. Add a liquid-cooled 310-horsepower supercharged 1.5-liter DOHC 4-cylinder engine into the mix – which is good for a motorcycle, but would also serve most mid-size cars just fine – and the amount of time required to respond to those conditions compresses into an interval much more brief than most peoples' brains are equipped to process, mine included.
Luckily, Kawasaki thought ahead and figured that someone with $16,000 to spend, but little in the way of either sense or experience, might want to pick up one of its 310 series models. So the company's engineers came up with an ingenious way to protect those people from the awesome power of these machines, and from themselves. Much like that creepy Super Bowl commercial starring Lawrence Fishburne, where he offered Kia shoppers a pair of keys – one sorta blah one and one supposed mind-blower – Kawasaki offers two keys for its most powerful jet ski.