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Chopper Waters : More Affordable and Easier to Use Than Other Vessels, Personal Craft Gain Popularity and a--Somewhat Deserved--Reputation

August 30, 1995|PATRICK MOTT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you think of them as waterborne motorcycles, you'll come fairly close to understanding both the great popularity and the criticism that continues to swirl around the machines that are known collectively as "personal watercraft."

The growing number of people in Orange County who ride these sit-down powerboats with handlebars praise them as affordable, sporty, quick, highly maneuverable, exciting and just plain fun.

Some other county boaters and waterborne law-enforcement officials, however, can be less-enthusiastic. Boaters complain of reckless riders violating marine-safety rules and ruining a usually calm environment with high-decibel engine noise. Orange County Harbor Patrol officers say accidents involving personal watercraft, sometimes resulting in serious injury, are on the increase in county coastal waters.

In California, personal watercraft can legally be operated by anyone age 12 or over (or younger if someone 18 or over is aboard), and no training or license is required.

In short, they are easy to own, easy to operate and, in the hands of the inexperienced, sometimes easy to crack up.

And they are very popular. Last year, the 17,142 registered personal watercraft in Orange County represented nearly a quarter 23.9% of all registered vessels.

Statewide, the percentage is 13% of registered vessels. But the 257 accidents reported last year accounted for 36% of the state's boating mishaps. There were seven fatalities.

In Orange County, Sheriff's Harbor Patrol Lt. Dick Olson said there have been 11 accidents involving 15 personal watercraft through July of this year.

"Most of those accidents resulted in some type of injury," he said. "It's just this year that we've started to have problems."

Harbor Patrol Sgt. Howard Mol said the total is certain to rise this year as more and more boaters put to sea astride personal watercraft. The vessels are particularly popular--and the accident rate higher--at Dana Point Harbor than other county coastal areas.

"It's so popular [at Dana Point Harbor] because of the short distance of the launch ramp from the ocean. The speed limit in the harbor is 5 m.p.h., but they can be out of the entrance channel and into the ocean, where they can go faster, in a matter of minutes."

A personal watercraft is often called a Jet Ski, but that's a misnomer. Jet Ski is a trade name used by Kawasaki Motors to describe a type of personal watercraft operated from a standing position. That craft, say retailers and others, has steadily declined in popularity as the sit-down models, manufactured by a handful of companies as well as Kawasaki, have emerged. Many riders, they say, simply find wave-hopping in a standing position too strenuous.

The sit-down versions seem to be popular with owners nationwide.

Last year, personal watercraft accounted for 31% of all motorized vessels sold in the United States. The average price for one was about $5,600, said John Birkinbine, the executive director of the Chicago-based Personal Watercraft Industry Assn.

Paul DeMaio of Aliso Viejo and his wife bought their first personal watercraft a year ago after getting rained out of a day at Disneyland. The pair decided to "putter around and go to a few shops instead."

"We saw one, and it was much less than we expected to pay--$6,900 out the door. We just jumped on it."

The DeMaios had been going to the Colorado River regularly for 10 years and watching the number of personal watercraft there increase. After a year of piloting their own two-seat model they bought a three-seater, which can legally tow water-skiers and inner tubers. Learning to ride, he said, was no problem.

"A monkey could operate these things," DeMaio said. "They're very user-friendly. It's not a balance issue at all. The most important thing, though--and a lot of people forget this--is learning the rules on the water. Because for all intents and purposes [a personal watercraft] is a boat, and you have to learn to use it properly."

Neither he nor his wife has ever had an accident or a close all, DeMaio said, but he added that they avoid riding their craft on crowded days, such as the Fourth of July.

*

Depending on their size, personal watercraft can carry one to three people and can run at speeds from about 39 m.p.h. to around 60 m.p.h., said Bill Ritt, a sales associate at Newport Boats.

"And with a nine-gallon tank, you can go to Catalina with it and still have a gallon left over," he said. "The bottom line is that they're cheaper than a boat, and anybody can do it. You don't have to have talent or balance; you just get on and go."

Which, said the Harbor Patrol's Mol, may be a problem. There is no law in California requiring people to learn how to operate the craft before they use it.

"They're certainly a fun-type thing," Mol said, "but in my opinion there should be some instruction required. People should know the basic boating laws and things like right-of-way and yielding and how to turn properly."

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