Those #!*! Jet Skis Roar Up The Potomac

Personal watercraft makers take their case to Congress

On Aug. 25, the Beltway buzz turned into the mosquito-like whine of engines on the Potomac River. Congressional staffers and agency officials happily carved turns astride a fleet of so-called personal watercraft, better known by their Kawasaki trade name--jet skis. "I'd never ridden one before. It was a lot of fun," enthused one legislative aide.

Free ride? Not exactly. The jet-ski manufacturers that hosted the outing want something from these aides' bosses: protection from a federal agency. This month, the National Park Service will seek comment on a proposed regulation to ban the use of jet skis in some national parks and potentially limit the noisy craft in others. The manufacturers hope to persuade Congress to press the Park Service to water down the restrictions. And that's not the only trouble the watercraft manufacturers are in. The Park Service will join a range of bodies--from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to the North Carolina Assembly--calling for the banning or reining in of what opponents consider waterway terrors that are noisy, polluting, and dangerous.

LIFE-THREATENING? Take Lawrence A. Geiger of Merritt Island, Fla. He says that his Boy Scout troop was "threatened with our very lives" by aggressive jet skiers during a recent canoe trip on the Oklawaha River. State statistics show that these water scooters account for 30% to 55% of boating accidents, even though they represent only 4% to 13% of powercraft in use. In part because of this criticism, the industry has seen its sales slump by 25% since 1995.

But it's not just a fight between business and granola-chewing lily-pad lovers and Boy Scouts. Irwin L. Jacobs, chairman of Genmar Holdings Inc., the world's biggest private boatmaker, yanked his company out of the National Marine Manufacturers Assn. in 1997 over what he called the group's promotion of jet skiing while neglecting the interests of fishermen and boaters. "I'm not going to help them build a business that abuses our customers and defies everything we stand for," he fumes.

Unfair, jet-ski makers retort. True, they say, there are some irresponsible riders who have taken to heart the attitude proclaimed in one industry ad that "Scenery is for saps." But penalizing all users because of the bad apples is "like forcing all Buicks to drive at 45 mph because you caught one speeding," argues Kawasaki spokesman Roger Hagie. Besides, companies such as market leader Bombardier Inc. are trying to jump-start sales by developing quieter, less-polluting machines. They also are pushing for legislation setting rider age minimums and requiring better boating education. And their congressional wooing has not been in vain: Senator Slade Gorton (R.-Wash.), for instance, recently took their side against suggested restrictions in Olympic National Park.

Still, the industry believes that the best argument for jet skis may be the experience itself. "Once you get people on it, they understand a little better what it's all about," says John Donaldson, head of the Personal Watercraft Industry Assn. But then, some of us may never really comprehend the special delight of riding a motorcycle on water.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.