The personal watercraft (or 'PW', also widely known as the ‘Jet Ski’ on account of the original Kawasaki brand name) is basically a small boat propelled by a jet drive and controlled by means of motorbike-style handlebars. They have developed enormously in recent years, becoming larger, more powerful and more heavily featured, but there are still very few boats in the world that can give you the same degree of pleasure for such modest money.
In general terms, a standard, three-man, entry-level personal watercraft tends to come with 130 to 150hp, weigh in the region of 350kg and cost about £8,000; the mid-range craft, with more sophisticated cruising features and increased power, push on towards £12,000; and the top-end cruisers and race skis often feature 250hp or more and cost in the region of £14,000 to £17,000. However, while the uninitiated continue to imagine that the modern ski is just a compact hull with a big wedge of power, there is a great deal more to them than that.
The pleasures of jet power
Jet power is essentially about sucking large quantities of a substance through an intake and squeezing it back out through a smaller outlet under very high pressure. That is what provides the thrust, and while a jet aircraft uses air, a jet-propelled boat uses water. It is a very simple concept and it brings with it plenty of benefits. For a start, the absence of any working parts beneath the planing surface makes it safer for those in the water, as well as far better suited to shallow water running than a craft with a fragile and exposed propeller.
It also tends to give the engine a much easier life, because instead of a reverse gear, it uses a ‘bucket’ (basically a thrust deflector) over a jet outlet (or nozzle), which removes the need for a gearbox and means that going from forward to ‘astern’ no longer involves the frantic loading and unloading of the engine. And the manoeuvrability is another major plus – because whether you use the mechanical adjustments of the budget models or more sophisticated electronic controls, a modern PW enables you to make very intuitive adjustments, taking a great deal of the stress out of close-quarters operation, even for a complete beginner.
Practical considerations aside, however, the greatest benefit of a personal watercraft user consists in its eye-widening accessibility of performance. In addition to a ferocity of pick-up on the more sporting models that is far more immediate than even the world’s most radical family powerboats, the handling is also a major thrill. Once you learn to shift your weight and manipulate the hull and throttle, you can pull outrageous, frothing 180s at tremendous pace, spinning the craft and launching back into your own wake in a great flurry of spray and adrenaline. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that lightweight building techniques, compact but powerful engines, efficient hulls and your own very intimate proximity to the water, combine to make the PW more fun for your money than any other marine conveyance in the world.
As you might expect, it’s not all good news. In shallow or brackish water, the intake filter can become clogged with debris or the impeller can suck up a load of grit and stones – but fixing such issues is rarely a big deal and it can often be done in seconds. It is also true that a jet (which works indirectly by pushing water against water) is inherently less efficient than a well-rigged prop, which generates its thrust by virtue of direct contact with its medium. However, such are the abilities of the modern ski, not to mention the improvements in construction, efficiency and refinement, that the leisure user is very unlikely to care about such modest downsides.
Sophisticated or simplistic?
The personal watercraft market is the best it’s been in years - and the reason for that is the fact that the wholesale crusade for more power and pace has been rationalised and brought up to date with some far more modern and valuable considerations. On the one hand, we’re benefitting from more sophisticated features to make PWs more comfortable, more efficient, more refined, easier to use and more socially appropriate. However, on the other hand, we’re also seeing a far greater degree of thought lavished on the bottom end of the market, with PWs that are cheaper to buy, but which continue to offer the best elements of the PW experience. That means you can now buy anything from a £5,000 two-man 60hp craft to a £17,000 three-man 300hp craft – or you can pick something in between, with exactly the blend of price, power and features that best match your needs.
You can get fuel flow data, eco and sport modes (for frugal or ferocious helming), cruise control, adjustable sponsons, easy-manoeuvre ‘neutral’ settings and a trim switch, which actively tweaks the angle of the nozzle when underway. You can also get handlebar and mirror adjustability, dry storage compartments and even suspension systems to help mitigate the worst of the impacts when the seas get lumpy. In short, the modern PW is not the simple, blunt-headed, point-and-squeeze thrash machine of yesteryear, but a surprisingly versatile, potent and useable little boat.
Personal watercraft buyer’s top tips
(1) Assess whether a personal watercraft is for you by taking the RYA’s PW Proficiency Course or heading out on a guided PW trip.
(2) In general terms, short, narrow skis are more manoeuvrable but less composed, while larger craft tend to be more stable but less agile.
(3) Make sure you factor in training and insurance as part of your basic budget.
(4) Think about the logistics - the trailer, the storage, ski-friendly venues within easy reach and opportunities for cruises in company, race meetings and family days out.
(5) Look for simple user-friendly features, like a secure, supportive seat, an adjustable helm, decent dry storage and intuitive aids for low-speed manoeuvering.
(6) Investigate the variety, availability and price of after-market gear and upgrade routes before committing to a brand.
(7) Don’t simply opt for the most powerful or the cheapest personal watercraft. Think instead about whether it’s equipped to keep you entertained beyond the novelty of the initial season.
For a selection of the best new PWs, see Ten best personal watercraft.