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.
The green one is the nasty one; the one that will have you clinging to the handgrips as if your life depends upon it (because it does). The yellow one initiates what they call SLO mode, and it tells the engine's management computer to reduce the power by about 30 percent. The thing will still get up and go, but it's not life threatening like the full power mode.
Being a jet ski newbie, I took some time to get acquainted with the 310 on the yellow key before reaching for the green one. I thought I had the thing down pat, but when I popped that verdant computerized plastic tab into the appropriate slot and went for the throttle control, I knew immediately that it was going to be a different kind of ride. Under full power, it takes off like, well, like an actual jet. Except you aren't harnessed into your seat like in a jet airplane, you're just sitting out there like a hapless moron about to be swept away as if slapped by a giant fly swatter. If you're going 30 miles per hour and jack the throttle wide open all of a sudden, you will fall off the back of this thing. Somehow, I managed not to. I had enough respect for the machine not to tempt it to destroy me, apparently.
The 310 series jet skis also have a 22.5-degree deep-V hull that cuts through choppy water better than you would ever think a 10-foot-long jet ski could. Although heavy rain and a 10- to 15-knot northeast wind had roiled the ocean's surface into what surfers call "victory at sea" conditions, the skis were still able to do 50 miles per hour without any problem. That V-shaped hull also means you can lay the 310 into some pretty deep turns at speeds that would have seemed ludicrous on something with a flatter bottom. The hull slows the ski down pretty quickly when you back off the throttle, so at lower speeds, you can turn the handlebars really hard, give it some throttle, and watch the nose dig in as the tail whips around. Want to get out of that and go straight in a hurry? No problem. The supercharger and jet pump do all the work as the thing explodes out of the water in a straight line.
At higher speeds – closer to 70, by the reckoning of a digital speedometer I could scarcely see because of the wind and stinging raindrops buffeting my face and causing my lips to ripple and my sunglasses to make a rattling sound – the 310 still cut straight through the slop, feeling a lot less sketchy than I thought it should have. The catch at that speed is to make all of your inputs gradual ones, no matter what happens. Just as jamming the throttle open will throw you off the back of a 310, letting it snap shut at 65 mph will make you slow down awfully fast. As I bounded across whitecaps and little swells, I kept wondering what my teeth would look like scattered across the bow in front of the handlebars. It seemed a feasible scenario.
Being a truly modern conveyance, the 310 series skis also have electronic fuel injection, cruise control and an eco mode you can flip on for long cruises. I'm not sure how it works, because myself and the other throttle jockeys around me were more intent upon open throttle death rides than thrifty eco-cruising, and all of us had drained the skis' 20.6-gallon tanks in about 50 miles. But the Kawasaki folks told me that if you cruised at a reasonable speed in eco mode, you could probably go a lot further than 50 miles.
We were only about 100 miles from Cuba in that part of the Keys, so I thought that perhaps the 310 could make it there and I could go check out some awesome Soviet tractor engine-powered '50s Chevys and suck down a couple of rum cocktails. But since I can't think of many worse places to be than stranded than on an out-of-fuel jet ski in the middle of open ocean, particularly in the nearshore waters of a mildly hostile Communist country, I decided I'd keep close to land, just in case.
Kawasaki has been building jet skis since 1973, so a supercharged 310-hp version that weighs nearly 1,000 pounds seems a natural point to have reached after four decades of development and evolution. You may wonder what the hell you would ever do with so powerful a machine, but Kawasaki tells me that not only is the 310 good for racing – they even had a real, live jet ski racing champion, Minoru Kanamori, on hand to show us a few things – but it can also be outfitted with towers and tanks for catching big fish offshore, or it can carry three passengers.
I have a sneaking suspicion that these would be great as the aquatic version of fighter jets. The Coast Guard could mount M249 machine guns on the noses of a handful of 310s and deploy them from cutters in pursuit of fleeing cocaine barons.
But if those uses don't seem fetching to you, what can I tell you other than that goes in the water and it's really, really fast. What could ever make anyone happier than that?
As the great Kanamori, who is shown in these pictures, told me: "I will say key word is Adrenaline rush."
That about sums it up.
(Photo credit: Adam Campbell/Kawasaki Motors Corp USA)