PERSONAL WATERCRAFT (or PWCs) are small watercraft intended to convey from one to four people at speeds up to sixty miles per hour, though speeds of about 40MPH are more common. The classic examples are the Kawasaki Jet-Ski, Yamaha WaveRunner, and Bombardier Sea-Doo. They are generally powered by small (125 to 750CC) two-stroke engines, though they are moving to four stroke designs because of environmental restrictions. The U.S. Coast Guard considers inboard boats under 16 feet in length to be personal watercraft.
Personal watercraft generally provide no protection from the elements, and many of them (Especially the Jet-Ski) actually require that you get wet. They come in a variety of sizes and styles, though they do all have some things on common. First of all, they are without exception propelled by a jet drive rather than carrying a prop at their rear. The reason for this is obvious: If you are going to be getting up on the back of this thing, having a propeller there is going to cause you problems. They are all fairly small, none carrying more than four people, though some are actually powerful enough to pull a waterskier. And while one may exist, I've never seen one that used any basic control scheme other than handlebars, much like a motorcycle.
This is essentially where the similarity ends. There are basically only three designs of PWC, however. Originally the most common was the upright type popularized by the original Kawasaki Jet-Ski introduced in 1973, and in fact "Jet-Ski" is still used as a colloquialism for "Personal Watercraft". These are fairly small (The 2002 model is only 87 inches long, or approximately 2.2 meters) and support only one rider at a time. A one-person standup model known as the Super Jet is also made by Yamaha. However, since the mid nineties, 97 percent of all PWC sales were of sit-down models.
The first commercial PWC was in fact a sit-down model from Bombardier. It was released in the late sixties but was not an outstanding commercial success. Two and three person models are becoming increasingly common, however, as they are much easier to mount and ride than one-person PWCs. Yamaha's WaveRunner line began the change in the eighties, leading Bombardier to rejoin the market with the Sea-Doo product line, followed by Polaris (another major snowmobile manufacturer).
Two and three seat models have engines ranging from about 500 up to 1100CCs. These craft are all jet drive-propelled as well. However, the early Sea-Doo products from Bombardier are set apart from those from other manufacturers, as they actually featured skis at the front for steering, like a snowmobile. While this made them more agile in the water, it also made them somewhat more dangerous, and they were phased out. Newer high-end models from Bombardier feature dual rudders for steering in zero-power situations. New Sea-Doos and all Yamaha PWC, as well as the models from Kawasaki, steer through the use of a pivoting jet drive, like any jet boat.
In the United States, PWCs are facing impending doom due to EPA restrictions coming in 2006. Protecting the interests of PWC owners (for good or ill) is the business of an organization known as the American Watercraft Association. Besides putting out a magazine known as Jet Sports, and sponsoring various events including races and exhibitions, they also campaign to protect the right to ride PWCs in more locations. Due to various environmental concerns, PWCs are being outlawed in more and more places to protect marine life and prevent contamination of water with two-stroke engine oil. The new four stroke models will open some areas up for use, but others will still be denied, primarily to protect various marine mammals. The AWA also maintains a club directory and organizes recreational events.
Personal watercraft racing is sponsored and administered by the IJSBA, or International Jet Sports Boating Association. They offer more than 150 events in the US, including closed course, slalom, endurance, offshore, and freestyle, with classifications for beginners, novices, experts, and pros. The IJSBA is affiliated with the American Watersports Association.
Website: Kawasaki Watercraft (http://www.kawasaki.com/watercraft/)
Website: Sea-Doo (http://www.sea-doo.com/)
Website: Yamaha Motorsports (http://www.yamaha-motor.com/)
Website: American Watercraft Association (http://www.watercraftassociation.com/)
Website: Personal Watercraft Industry Association, History of Personal Watercraft (http://www.pwia.org/Abo_PWC.htm)
Website: International Jet Sports Boating Association (http://www.ijsba.com/)