Should You Get A Jet Ski? We Rode A Cheap One And A Fast One To Find Out

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Personal watercrafting is an expensive niche hobby loved by lake-dwelling rednecks and largely under-appreciated by the rest of us. Now that Yamaha has just released two new PWCs, a cheap one and a high-performance one, it seemed like a good opportunity to find out what this sport is all about.

(Full disclosure: Yamaha flew me to Georgia, put me up in a Ritz resort, bought me food and cut me loose with a whole bunch of their boats and watercraft to make this post possible. That makes me feel a little bad calling them “jet skis,” which I know Yamaha will hate. But how else is anybody going to know what we’re talking about?)

You may have heard PWCs called jet skis or boatercycles. (Ok, probably just “jet skis,” but I’m really trying to get that other one to catch on.) Some people get agitated when you call a jet ski a Jet Ski because that’s technically a brand, Kawasaki’s brand, not a generic vehicle classification.

Tough barnacles, Yamaha and Bombardier. “Jet ski” is what everybody thinks when they see one of these little water-vacuums ripping a hole in the calm of a smooth lake. “Jet ski” is what we’re going to call them.

According to boat industry historians, “personal watercraft” as we know them (pretty much) have been around since the late 1960's when Bombardier decided to make a little boat (the Sea Doo) about the size of their Ski Doo snowmobile.

Kawasaki coined the phrase and trademark Jet Ski in the ’70's, and in 1996 WaveRace 64 introduced me and probably a few of you reading this to the wacky little stunt-boats. Polaris and Honda were in the PWC market for a while now, but now it’s pretty much down to Kawasaki, Bombardier (Sea Doo) and Yamaha.

Yamaha is starting a fresh push to hook new buyers with an entry-level $6,599 PWC called the EX and a $13,999 powerhouse performance ’ski called the GP1800, which is what brought us to Georgia this summer.

We’ll break down the differences and explain where these two Yamahas fit in the world of powersports. But first let’s talk about the PWC experience in general.

So it’s a boat-motorcycle, right?

If you have the assumption that jet skis are “like motorcycles for the water,” I understand. But no, “boat:car::watercraft:motorcycle” is only valid in terms of relative size. The similarities in driving and riding experience pretty much end with the fact that both bikes and ’skis have handlebars.

Motorcycles are captivating experiences that double as viable transportation. Riding them is meditative. Cerebral, even. Throw your leg over a motorcycle and you just might go anywhere. Or nowhere. But ride long enough and your mind will process deep thoughts, decisions you’ve struggled with will get made, and eventually you’ll arrive at wherever you were going.

A jet ski is a mechanized bull, on water. Ineffectual when the throttle’s anywhere but wide open, it demands to be ridden in a wild tantrum to be entertaining and can’t exist in a space without displacing every sliver of serenity within earshot. This is as true on the humble EX as it is on the wake-noshing supercharged GP, the only difference is the GP stays scarier longer.

Riding watercraft feels more similar to riding a snowmobile than any other machine. On both you do surprisingly little steering with your body, and speed feels very directly proportionate to throttle input since there’s so much drag on the vehicle. That means there’s no “coasting,” and not much turning without putting on power.

A jet ski moves through the water like a motorcycle goes through deep sand, letting its weight dictate a directional carve. But when you lean on a ’ski without turning the handlebars, nothing happens. Steer without leaning at speed though, and boy, you’re going to get skipped like a flat rock at summer camp.

In two days of riding I found the most effective steering strategy was a heavy lean into the direction I wanted to turn along with bar-input proportionate to forward speed. Lean more when you’re going faster. Both the basic and high-performance Yamahas were very good at communicating when you were going too fast to make the turn your were asking of it. You’ll learn pretty fast what it feels like when you’re about to be thrown off.

Sitting down while riding aggressively felt awkward at best, with consistent and merciless slaps from the seat to my ass at worst. As per one of Yamaha’s engineer’s suggestions, I found the optimal fast-riding position was a low crouch-squat with my bodyweight pretty much pinning the throttle. Which by the way is a pull-trigger on the right side, like a bicycle’s front brake.

Some watercraft do have a reverse-trigger/throttle on the other side, which is effectively a brake. Yamaha calls this system “RiDE” which stands for something I can’t remember, and other makes have their own term for it.

The cheap EX doesn’t have reverse at all, mid-level Yamahas have a bulky lever you pull out of the center console to go backwards (this can not be used as a “brake.”)

I’m still not sure if that sounds fun?

Going from stopped-to-sprint (about 50 mph) on the EX is fun. Doing the same (to about 70 mph) on the GP is a fucking riot that will plaster your face into a centrifugal smile and then suck all the moisture out of your gaping mouth until you stop and catch your breath. Or fly over the handlebars.

Turning a watercraft is fun too; it sort of drifts over halcyon water and bumps around in waves.

And speaking of waves, that is where the watercraft really shines. “I hate when jet skiers follow my boat jumping the wake,” another journalist at the Yamaha event confided. “So annoying.” For science, I jumped back on the high-horsepower GP and started stalking powerboats on the lake.

A few weeks later, I had the chance to try another (also Yamaha) watercraft in the ocean. Holy shit. It’s like a motocross course that goes on forever in every direction. Sure the salt water is harder on equipment, and you can’t go quite as fast, but the waves demand the kind of constant-attention that fresh water lulls you out of.

In contrast, Georgia’s Lake Oconee (where we rode the EX and GP) was about as bumpy as a basketball court when you weren’t floating directly next to a boat making churn.

In a pinch, you can create your own wake by pinning the throttle and locking the handlebar to one side. It’s really more of a whirlpool but it’s pretty fun to pop out, and then you get the chop to turn around into and attack again. (I probably spent a solid hour doing this.)

The up-and-down was so much fun that I re-aggravated my damaged AC joint, which hasn’t bothered me since I broke it splitting a kangaroo in half with a dirt bike in 2011.

Conversely to all that, riding a jet ski in a straight line at full power is only fun for the amount of time it took you to read this sentence.

The problem is that on a body of water, like a large lake, you don’t really have a point of visual reference and the sensation of speed melts away as soon as you get acclimated. Alright, it takes a little longer at 60+ MPH. But even there the dominant sensation becomes “it’s windy” over “excitement” eventually.

Back to the boats. What are the real differences between the EX and the GP?

Yamaha’s EX and GP are completely different boats in hull design, engine and mission designation.

The EX runs a four-stroke, three-cylinder 1049cc engine making about 100 horsepower. The hull is 123.2 inches long with a beam (widest point at the waterline) of 43.3 inches.

The GP is a little bigger, at 131.9 inches long and 48 inches in beam. But what’s inside is more exciting– a supercharged four-cylinder 1812cc four-stroke engine belching out closer to 265 horsepower according to Watercraft Journal.

You can absolutely feel the size disparity between the platforms; the EX feels like a bicycle and the GP feels like mounting a horse in comparison. Both feel stable underway, but the GP’s comfort zone for turning is a lot higher. Jumping off the GP and back onto the EX made it seem like you could put the smaller machine in the palm of your hand, which was great for giving me the exaggerated confidence you really need to wring the most out of a PWC.

The EX is meant to get you into jet skiing. Sorry, again, watercrafting. It’s simplistically set up with no reverse, essential gauges only and one color choice. The only real “feature” you get is a little storage cubby. Other models add things like rear-view mirrors, and Yamaha’s proprietary control system we discussed earlier, with the throttle on the right and a reverse-throttle on the left, which is effectively also a brake.

But even without the add-ons the EX is a lot of fun. It will still smoke plenty of uncle’s speedboats with its one-liter engine and it’s so light you can just swim out and push it if you really need “reverse.”

That said, GP isn’t just “appreciably faster.” It feels like it could suck the EX into its impeller and consume it for fuel. The ferocity of its acceleration is nothing short of overwhelming, even on the tenth and twentieth time you lean into the gas and let it rip.

Where the EX feels like a compact wave-cutter, the GP feels like a bigger vessel. It just trucks through chop, gains and scrubs speed so aggressively, and has so much weight to throw into a turn that it really feels planted.

That said, superior power and stability doesn’t necessarily make the GP the “better” boat. I mean, objectively, it does, but since the jet ski experience is all about violence and getting wet I’d appreciate the argument that the smaller ’ski could be more fun. Well, maybe if the GP didn’t have so much more horsepower.

Are they worth the money?

Boats are tough value propositions because even if you can get a good deal on the vehicle, the ancillary costs are always substantial. You need a trailer and something that can tow it and a place to use it and friends to burn gas with you.

I’ll put it this way: if gasoline prices at a marina seem scary, just stay away from the nautical scene altogether. (And definitely don’t get into recreational flying.) That said, the EX and GP do seem to represent a relatively decent value in their markets. $7,000 gets you a lot of fun on the EX. And the GP, at twice the price, actually does feel twice as fun.

Of course the same argument we always bring up for cars exists in the boat world too– used ones are way, way cheaper. It was hilarious hearing the Yamaha executives lament this in their sales pitch PowerPoint to us before our ride. Sorry guys, depreciation is a hell of a drug and I am addicted. (How else are we cheapskates supposed to afford a whole stable of vehicles?)

The Verdict

Watercraft are a lot of fun. They’re also very expensive, not particularly practical and fairly obnoxious. If you live on or near a boat-friendly body of water and have $10,000 to spend on a toy (more like $20,000 for two because who wants to ride alone?) you could do a lot worse.

I will stick to motorcycles and vintage cars for my own toy box, but I’m happy to bring beer and gas money if any jet ski owners want to invite me over to go riding theirs.