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Flexing horsepower

Wave-whipping watercraft blast off. Let's go -- and chop-chop.

September 14, 2004|Scott Doggett | Times Staff Writer

Bellevue, Wash. — It's fun to go fast on water. That's why recreational watercraft makers keep cranking the innovation throttle. And this has been a particularly good summer for kidney-slamming speed.

The brainiacs at Sea-Doo just launched a wasp-colored party crasher that delivers what its ad men claim: a new way of seeing watercraft. Meanwhile the super-sizers at Zodiac have goosed their familiar inflatable line to Hummer-scaled grandiosity.

Zodiac press releases describe the black-and-blue CZ7 as "a direct crossover from the H-733 military rigid-hull inflatable boat used by the U.S. Navy and Navy SEALs in missions."

This ain't no crossover. The CZ7 is the H-733, minus the machine-gun mount and a few other odds and ends.

It's got the same deep-V, wave-slicing, fiberglass hull. It's got the same engines (twin V6, 150-horsepower Evinrude outboards), the same fuel capacity (133 gallons), the same payload capacity (2,100 pounds) and it's built to grueling military standards.

But it's a smooth operator, thanks to a shock-mitigation system developed for Special Forces conducting reconnaissance on white-capped seas, night raids on seaside sentries and "wet work" preceding a massive assault by sea.

Among the system's features: shock-absorbing Skydex flooring (the same cushioning used in Nike shoes), a huge inflatable collar (think big, U-shaped tubing) and four Ullman hydraulic saddles ($10,000 apiece).

Where better to take the CZ7 for a spin than Lake Washington, where yachts create launch wakes in front of Bill Gates' no doubt well-guarded lakeside home. A man of his means must have a few well-armed ex-commandos in the hedges, so every pass is a thrill.

The deep-V hull, twin Evinrudes and self-inflating five-chamber collar deliver superb maneuverability, quick acceleration and little skipping even when making sharp turns at speed across the wake of the Thurston Howell III.

Because it rides so high, spray won't mar those custom CZ7 gauges designed by Faria or the Raymarine electronics suite that includes color radar, chart plotting, GPS and VHF radio.

In fact, we see only one person on Mr. Microsoft's property, a Shaq-sized man in black with a Tom Selleck mustache.

If somewhere in the sprawling Gates mansion Bill happens to be watching, it could be good for sales. At $200,000, the CZ7 isn't for everyone. But it might be for Gates, his bud Paul Allen (who already owns seven Zodiacs) and perhaps even you -- when you win the lottery.

Then again, if your number comes up, you could buy 28 1/2 Sea-Doo 3Ds for the price of one CZ7. The 3D sells for $7,000, and you get three personal watercrafts (or PWC, as cool people call 'em) in one.

Most PWC are vanilla or chocolate -- ridden seated or standing. The 3D is Neapolitan: "Vert" for standing, "Moto" for motocross-like seating and "Kart" as in go-cart. One PWC with three interchangeable riding positions.

After watching a pro frolic on the 3D under a cloudless sky at the Long Beach Marine Stadium, it was time for me to take control. I requested Kart mode and in a snap a rep tucked the banana-shaped "Moto" seat into the pull handle and clicked a bucket seat into place on the floor. With my legs straight out in front of me go-cart style and the steering handle adjusted to my liking, I cranked the motorcycle-type throttle and took off.

The CZ7 and the 3D share the same top speed: 52 miles per hour. The CZ7 feels like you're cruising at 52 mph when you're topped out. The 3D in Kart mode felt like 152 mph. Something about being seated less than a foot above sea level alters perception in wonderful ways.

I threw the 3D into roll-intended turns and it stayed upright. An obscenely low center of gravity will do that. Moto mode was as good a rush, but Vert kicked both. On the straightaway, I stood and let it unwind. Into turns, I crouched and leaned. The extra-wide platform let me spread my feet and get karate-stance secure. I liked that.

PWC riders often get bored riding either up or down. Sea-Doo is betting the PWC crowd will warm to this three-rides-in-one, two-stroke looker. Plus, with standard features such as a 782cc Rotax engine that's surprisingly quiet (due to generous use of acoustical foam) and clean burning (due to fuel-injection and variable oil-rate-injection systems), chokeless starting, and Bombardier's Formula water jet pump, I found nothing not to like about the 3D.

Hmm. Maybe I need to spend more time going fast on the water. All of next summer would suit me fine.

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