Your toes are frozen, yet your legs are cozily warm and dry. Your hands are so cold that it’s hard work keeping the numb thumb of your right hand depressed on the throttle; conversely, your upper body is quite snug. Also, your eyes and cheeks sting a little. Well, quite a lot actually.
Despite this, and the pretty well complete absence of sensation within your chilly extremities, your face, as far as you can make out, sports a size 10 grin.
Welcome to the paradoxical world of personal watercraft, to give them their correct generic title. (Most folk refer to them as Jet Skis, a Kawasaki trademark and therefore an appellation which applies only to the Japanese giant’s products.) “We usually call it a waterbike, which is pretty much what it is,” explains Tim Shaw, general manager of the marine division of EP Barrus, which markets Polaris watercraft in the UK. Unlike a motorbike, however, the best results are obtained by transferring your body weight away from the direction of travel during turning manoeuvres. By leaning right as you turn left, and vice versa, you reduce the amount of friction between the hull and the water, and the Polaris will skim through the turn a fraction more quickly. It is probably thus easier for a non-biker, who has no preconceptions about such things, to work out the best technique from scratch.
Polaris, an American company, is tackling the Japanese head-on in this growing leisure industry (the States, predictably, is the biggest market, but there is healthy interest in Britain, where between 3000-4000 machines are sold per annum), and its two watercraft – the SL650, tested here, and the 78 bhp SL750 – have thus far been well-received. There is even talk of a one-make racing series for the SL650 this year, which will be a first in this sport. To this end, negotiations are presently underway with the Personal Watercraft Association, which governs watercraft racing in much the same way as our own RAC MSA looks after motor sports.
Racing in the UK has been a fairly serious business for the past five years or so. By and large, it’s very much a privateer’s sport. The manufacturers feel it’s unwise to poke their noses in to what, at present, is a reasonably affordable hobby. As such, it’s a fairly egalitarian pastime, for which a full season with new equipment could cost between £5000-£6000 all in. By keeping an eye on the second-hand columns in the specialist press, more avaricious participants can get by for a couple of thousand pounds. As a guide, list price for the SL650 is £4500. Its bigger brother retails at £5800, a price which includes manually adjustable power trim (which allows you to vary the angle of the jet), speedometer and fuel gauge, all of which are absent from the entry-level model.
In layman’s terms, there are two types of watercraft: those you stand on, and those you sit on. The latter type are becoming more and more popular, and are certainly more manageable for the uninitiated and/or the incompetent. As one who has previously spent the best part of a day involuntarily imbibing the contents of a Cotswolds lake in a largely futile bid to stand up on one of the former, I can vouch for the extra user-friendliness of the seated variety.
On the SL650, you straddle a long bench seat with room enough for a pillion. The controls are straightforward: a pair of innocuous, bicycle-style handlebars with thumb-actuated throttle on the right, a start button, a choke and a little red knob marked ‘stop’, to which your left wrist is attached by means of a lanyard. This is a simple safety device. Should you become parted from your machine, the lanyard is ripped away from its socket and the engine cuts. It means you won’t have far to swim. If you happen to turn the thing over, which is entirely possible, it is imperative to rotate it anti-clockwise through the water, to prevent the engine ingesting unwanted liquid, tadpoles, carp and so on. There is a sticker advising you of as much, but this is displayed above the water line, and would thus be out of sight should you ever visit the amazing underwater world of Jacques Cousteau. It’s a point you should have engraved in your memory, though, if you wish to avoid potentially expensive rebuilds.
Rather than somersaulting into the briny, it’s far more likely that the SL650 will simply turf you off, as one of our party discovered after being thrown off line by the choppy wake of something rather more esoteric from within the Barrus portfolio (they deal in everything from outrageous powerboats to quad ‘bikes). Once you’ve overstepped the laws of physics, the SL650 will rotate in much the same manner as an over-excited Formula First. If you are travelling at speed, the chances are that the watercraft will stop moving several seconds before you do. This is quickly followed by a loud ‘splash’ . . .
What to wear? The sales brochures are awash with pictures of sickeningly healthy looking youngsters sporting tomorrow’s haircuts, sun-tanned, musclebound torsos, skin-tight wet-suits in a lurid, graduated pink-to-purple tint and colour co-ordinated life-jackets. In the real world, at a private lake near Fairford, Gloucestershire, on a bitingly cold February afternoon, the recommended apparel is a dry-suit, under which you are advised to wear workaday sweatshirt and jeans. The protective clothing, which has rubber seals around neck, wrists and ankles, is super-efficient. Unless you should be unlucky enough to rip a seal (easily done, apparently), you will step off the Polaris with clothes undrenched even if you fall in. The dry-suit also boasts a reasonable buoyancy factor, thanks to the air within. As our involuntary guinea pig (see previous paragraph) discovered, when you hit the surface you simply float. Thanks to a grab rail and an extended lip to the rear, remounting is the work of a moment.
Toes and fingers are tucked into protective boots and gloves, which you soon find out are rather more absorbent than the rest of the garb. Crash helmets are advisable, and the preference is for a full-face, motocross-style lid with wide aperture. Few people bother with visors, though goggles are certainly recommended in racing conditions. On the relative surface calm of a midweek test session, facefuls of water are not uncommon, and are more than a mild distraction. At the top end of the market, the fashionconscious opt for a light, comfortable Kevlar based helmet. It’s advisable to have a peak, too. Even in frozen February, sporadic rays of sunshine can cause blinding reflections which obliterate the marker buoys indicating the entry to the tight lefthander at the tip of the circuit.
Step down to the Polaris and the immediate sensation is one of cold, wet feet as boots wet as meet water-laden footwell. Operation is simplicity itself. With the engine already primed, there is no need to bother with the choke. Simply slip your wrist into the safety lanyard, push the starter, squeeze the throttle and go,
The Polaris has the only three-cylinder engine on the market, and its 650 cc generate 68 bhp. Weighing in at around 400 lbs, that equates to a power to weight ratio in excess of 380 bhp per ton . . . If you want an automotive comparison, a Ferrari 348 has around 213.
Being thrust-propelled, the Polaris can only be steered under power. If you’re heading for the bank, it is imperative to keep the throttle open if you want to steer your way out of trouble. Either that or jump off and wait for the repair bill. If you do hit something solid, Barrus is confident that structural damage to the Polaris will be minimal. The hull features composite construction SMC (Sheet Moulding Compound), which is reckoned to be considerably more durable than traditional glassfibre. Scott Cohoon, sales manager of Polaris UK, and a dab hand at the helm of most things aquatic, tells a couple of tales. “First time Tim got on one of these,” he grins, pointing at colleague Shaw, “he forgot about not being able to steer without power. Straight into the bank! We were playing with a couple of ‘bikes here last weekend, too, and he hit a buoy pretty hard. It only needed a fresh protective strip at the front though. They’re actually fairly robust.”
Last year, during a race, a Polaris T-boned a glassfibre rival which had spun in front of it. While the former emerged from the impact with no more than a few scratches, the target vehicle shattered.
The term ‘water-Volvo’ springs to mind.
Despite the impressive figures on paper, the SL650 doesn’t feel all that quick in a straight line, although it takes off with impressive panache. Top speed is reckoned to be around 45 mph when freshly serviced. The demo machine at our disposal was probably a couple of mph shy of the optimum, thanks to continuous excessive use by ham-fisted tyros. The nice thing is that it’s fairly simple to use, albeit at novice level. While it may take months of practice to learn every trick in the book, Joe Public can step off the street and ride a Polaris competently with no more than a couple of minutes’ instruction. Leastways, they can on a tranquil, under-populated lake on a Friday afternoon.
The SL650 is manoeuvrable, too. In some ways, its sharp responses are reminiscent of those of a kart.
The wider the throttle aperture, the more eagerly it tucks in. Accelerate suddenly with a reasonable degree of steering input and you can feel the rear end beginning to break away. Applying opposite lock via a pair of handlebars is a long-lost sensation, last experienced at rather more sedate speeds while locking up the rear brake on a pushbike around a cinder track . about 20 years previously.
The ride becomes more interesting, and less predictable, when you turn into a tightish bend, previously taken flat out without qualms, that has been battered by the wash from a recently departed power boat. Suddenly, the Polaris starts to buck rather uncertainly through the surf. Stinging spray peppers your cheeks. You can’t see where you’re heading. You know there’s a small island looming up on the left and the shoreline’s somewhere on your right. Trouble is, your senses of direction and distance have temporarily been impaired, and you can traverse a fair bit of narrow lake at 40-plus mph . . .
On a day such as this, there’s an easy option. Release the throttle, allow the tempest to wash away and gradually you regain some perspective.
Vision returns, and you’re miles from anything, floating somewhat feebly in the middle of the channel. Remedy: depress the throttle and get on with it.
In the heat of a race, of course, there are no such facile escape routes, and you can’t very well back off to survey the horizon when you are one of as many as 60 machines in the field.
It must be a bit like racing in a watery version of the Dolomites, if not the Himalayas. You see, performance kits are available to racers. For around £300, you might be able to find another 20-25 bhp via different air filters, carburettors and so on.
“We don’t really know how much power some of these guys are getting,” says Shaw. “I would say, though, that the machine is going to be barely controllable at anything over 60 mph.”
That’s almost half as fast again as I’d been going at full chat. Funny how one’s sense of modest achievement can be deflated in the space of a few words.