In the past decade we’ve seen a radical change in the typical personal watercraft enthusiast – and the machine he or she rides.
Once driven by athletic action-sport nuts looking for a challenge, PWCs are now a toy for the entire family. Comfort and stability have become just as important as performance.
Propulsion systems have changed too, switching from antisocial two-stroke engines (which were noisy, dirty and smelly) to high-tech four-strokers that are some of the quietest and cleanest powerplants on the water today. One thing that hasn’t changed: a PWC costs a fraction of what a full-size runabout does. It’s also easier to trailer and fits in a standard garage. To get a better understanding of the typical features of a modern PWC, we disassembled a 2008 WaveRunner FX Cruiser SHO, an all-new model from Yamaha that delivers power and style in the high-performance cruiser class.
Electronic and analogue instruments must be readable in bright sunlight. Most important, the fuel gauge has to be easy to interpret and backed by a low-fuel warning light. A built-in compass or GPS navigation is a bonus for long-range touring, but isn’t necessary. The SHO is one of very few models with handlebars that can be raised so the rider can operate the craft from a standing position.
It’s easy to slip and fall on a PWC. The aft platform and footwell surfaces should be covered with a mat material that provides good traction when wet. The aft portion of the footwell should also be designed to offer a footrest for a rear-facing observer (a requirement when towing a skier, wakeboard or tube). And make sure the sternmounted moulded plastic grab handle is shaped to offer a solid handhold.
A good seat is shaped to hold riders securely in place and is comfortable on long cruises. The two-piece seat shown here is not typical; the benefit is that it’s lighter and easier to lift off than a onepiece. Beneath the aft section you’ll find a sizable storage compartment (all PWCs offer some storage; the bigger the better). The forward piece provides access to the SHO’s engine.
High-performance engines such as this 1,8-litre Yamaha SHO produce over 180 kW when aided by a supercharger and intake intercooler. Look for good access to the oil filter and battery, the most common service points on modern boats. Unfortunately, the SHO’s engine compartment is tight on space, so these service points are hard to reach. A stainless-steel jet pump impeller (essentially a driveshaft) is a must, as it will be more durable than one made of aluminium. Finally, a plastic fuel tank rests in the forward area of this engine and sits in the moulded hull liner below. Fuel capacity ranges from about 60 to more than 75 litres. High-performance models burn 25 to 30 litres per hour at about 55 km/h, but suck down more than 75 litres per hour at full throttle.
5 Hull Liner
Like all modern PWCs, the SHO’s moulded hull liner is bonded to the deck, and cavities between the two parts are filled with injectable foam, which provides flotation and makes the structure more rigid, allowing it to track better in the water.
Hull material may be glass fibre, or fibre-reinforced sheet moulding compound (SMC). Glass fibre is typically lighter than SMC, but both materials are equally durable. The raised features curving around the bow are called spray rails (they knock spray down and away from the rider’s face); the rail-like pieces on the aft hull sides are called sponsons and keep the stern connected to the water during high-speed manoeuvres.
On the Web
Watch us slice this PWC to pieces at www.popularmechanics.com/video.
Here are three purpose-built PWCs for you to check out.
Kawasaki Jet Ski 800 SX-R
A direct descendant of the original Jet Ski, the 800 SX-R has twice the power and a wider hull (which makes it much easier to ride) than the classic Jet Ski 400 that popularised the sport. That said, this “stand-up” craft poses a steep learning curve for the beginner. But when you figure it out, the cut-and-thrust ride is like surfing on flat water. It’s a pure adrenaline rush. The 60 kW two-stroke engine is sporty, but not as clean as four-stroke models. Visit www.kawasaki.com; R64 995
Designed specifically for board sports, the three-passenger Wake comes new this year with water ballast tanks that fit over the footwells and an aft platform. Turn a valve and water pressure from the jet pump fills the tanks and adds 90 kg of weight to help produce a shin-high wake with a steep, crisp shape to better launch a wakeboarder skyward. A retractable towing pylon, wide-angle mirrors, a board rack and electronic trim are part of the package. Visit
Yamaha FX Cruiser SHO
A nano-engineered material is used to form the SHO ’s hull, deck and hull liner, reducing the weight of those components by 25 per cent to enhance both acceleration and agility. Electronic Cruise Assist lets you lock in a specific speed to help the driver stay focused on the water ahead when towing a boarder or tube. The 1,8-litre supercharged engine is rigged for a top speed of better than 100 km/h, and it can zip to 50 km/h in 1,8 seconds. Visit
www.yamaha-motor.com; R162 889
On the Web
Check out previews of 2008's best boats at
What can you get for your money?
R80 000 to R115 000
The lowest-priced three-passenger PWCs are bare-bones models. Spend the extra dough for basic features like rear-view mirrors, reverse thrust and a speedometer.
With 80 to 120 kW under the seat, expect a top speed of 80 to 85 km/h with a solo rider and enough power to ride two-up or tow a wakeboard.
Lighter and shorter than most, these boats will deliver a rougher ride in choppy water, but they’re still a load of fun.
R120 000 to R135 000
You get a plusher seat, more instrument functions and styling details like a painted hull when you step up to this price class. Items such as a boarding step and compass also become standard fare.
With up to 160 supercharged kW on tap, top speeds approach 100 km/h.
Enough power to thrill a solo rider, to cruise with two adults and a child, or even to tow a slalom skier. A longer, heavier hull delivers a smoother ride than you get with a bargain boat, and there’s a feeling of tighter quality and better materials in this range.
R140 000 to R160 000 +
You pay mostly for more power, but these models may also come with GPS navigation, drive-by-wire throttle with cruise control, more complex digital instrumentation and electronic trim control to adjust hull attitude for riding in rough weather.
Furious acceleration and peak speed over 100 km//h. Supercharged and inter-cooled engines pump out more than 175 kW, but suck fuel accordingly.
This much power in a 3,5 m boat demands the respect of even experienced riders. But it’s a perfect tool for blasting out the cobwebs.