Jeff Hemmel, On Crossing The Gulf Stream Via A Personal Watercraft
Somewhere out on the Atlantic, sandwiched between leaving Miami and landfall in Bimini, between the buzzer that alerted me my fuel level was perilously
low and the relentless waves that sent my
sunglasses into the depths below, a positively delightful, wacky, absolutely thrilling
thought crosses my mind. I’m smack dab
in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle, a
literal spec crossing the vast Gulf Stream…
and my vessel of choice is not some hardened battlewagon or comfy cruiser, but
nothing more than a pint-sized personal
watercraft. Just about the tiniest, most
exposed vessel known to man.
I must be having one of the coolest
adventures of all time…or have a seriously
twisted take on pleasure boating.
Turns out I’ve got company in the
asylum. Dotting the waters around me
are 20 more water-pistol pilots who, like
me, are fast discovering that a Sea-Doo,
WaveRunner, or Jet Ski actually makes a
pretty good cruiser on the open ocean.
Sure, we’re taking a healthy dose of spray
once in a while, and yes, our lower backs,
arms, legs (and the random, more delicate
part) may be feeling the journey later this
evening, but the shared sense of doing
something this outrageous has overridden
any concerns about such practical mat-
ters. We’re setting that course for adven-
ture, for some maybe even checking off
an item on that bucket list.
Battle For The (Bargain) Buck
High-horsepower and big-budget amenities may steal the attention in the showroom, but
it’s the PWC market’s most inexpensive, recreational categories where the true battle for
the consumer rages. Yamaha’s popular VX line, introduced in 2005 as the first “affordable”
four-stroke model, has included the #1 best-selling watercraft every year since its introduction. The successful formula is surprisingly simple. The VX’s 1052 cc engine is reliable, yet
no barnburner. Estimates put numbers at a mere 110 horsepower, the lowest in the industry. Still, the craft makes the most of it, delivering enough acceleration for towing duties
and a top speed just shy of 55 mph to put it right on par with its closest competition. The
responsive hull compliments that power, providing a fun, stable platform for beginners and
experienced riders alike.
A little “sprucing up” of the VX line for 2012, however, indicates two things. One, the
craft are appealing to far more than entry-level buyers. And two, the company just may be
feeling some heat from Sea-Doo. The latter’s retooled GTI model leapfrogged its predecessor in style last year, and backed up that new form with function. Ergonomics are better,
fit and finish has improved, and the overall feel is far more upscale. Most notable, however,
is what Sea-Doo is offering at this price point. GTI models feature the same electronic
brake-and-reverse system featured on flagship models, meaning riders can slow the boat
rapidly to avoid a collision, but also that the craft now starts in a neutral mode and can
be switched intuitively into forward or reverse via a handlebar-mounted lever. That alone
will save many a beginner trouble around the dock or launch ramp. Electronic throttle also
enables features like cruise control, along with ECO and no-wake modes.
In short, this battle just got a little more interesting.
to navigate, use a GPS, it’s a great adven-
ture. The bolstered, touring saddles really
are comfortable and offer good back sup-
port, and the hulls ride a lot higher in the
water and are drier than the flatter bot-
tom hulls of years ago.”
Of course, on this particular trip it
helps that a pair of Formula cruisers are
paving the road. Chaperones on an annual
event that has become known as the
Bimini Road Rally, they’re knocking down
a little of that chop while serving as our
escort vehicles should any real problems
arise. Once in Bimini they’ll kick back with
our crew as we explore area highlights like
the Sapona shipwreck (it’s concrete), Alice
Town, a plane wreck (or two) and the infa-
mous Bimini Road.
In fact, PWC touring is arguably a
concept on the rise. All three major
manufacturers make craft specifically tailored toward long-distance comfort. Tour
operator Discovery River Tours has been
leading multiple-day touring rides through
rivers of the south since 1993. My fellow
Bimini participant Ray Valladares is even
jumping into the touring business himself,
with plans for several organized group-touring rides in 2013.
“The trips are the ultimate adventure
experience,” suggests Valladares. “You’re
not trapped in a tour bus or waiting in
lines. You’re in control of the experience,
right at your fingertips. You’re not a spec-
tator, you’re a participant.”
As for this participant, after 50 miles
of angry, open water, Bimini has just
appeared on the horizon. We’ll see how
everyone’s feeling about the return trip
after a few Bahamian staples, like conch
chowder and a Kalik, the local brew.
Heck, since we all just might be a little
crazy, better make that several.