July 2, 1995 in Nation/World

Jet Skis Leave People Fuming In Their Wake As Sales Of The Buzzing Little Boats Skyrocket, Some Angry Residents Look For Ways To Stifle Noise

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Tags:feature

Robert Pyle insists he’s a non-violent person. But when the sound of Jet Skis shatters the serenity of a lake, writes the Washington author, “I look about wildly for the nearest bazooka.”

If a personal watercraft is your idea of summer fun, you can expect at least a barrage of dirty looks.

Pyle’s gripe is echoed throughout the Inland Northwest: Jet Skis are annoyingly loud, they’re like swarms of mosquitoes that won’t go away, they’re harassing wildlife, they’re dangerous, they’re …

“They’re driving me crazy,” says Phyllis Sheppard on a hot Saturday, as the baby boats buzz along the Spokane River just outside her living room.

Government officials and water cops are swamped with such complaints. They struggle to meet demands for tranquility without regulating a popular form of recreation into extinction.

“It’s ridiculous,” Jet Ski enthusiast Mark Janes says of the level of complaints about the sport. “Some people just have an ax to grind.”

Janes, 26, likes to get away from other people and be wildly acrobatic on his high-performance toy. He’s also a Coeur d’Alene businessman who rents out nine personal watercraft, worries about liability, and says he does his best to keep the peace. For example, he says, his J&J; Jet Sports tries to reduce Spokane River congestion by directing customers into the bays of Lake Coeur d’Alene.

A few bayside residents don’t mind that, and have even gone to the Kootenai County Waterways Advisory Board asking that their bays be designated as personal watercraft playgrounds. But, board chairman Sandy Emerson notes, those folks don’t bring along petitions of support from their neighbors.

Nope. The neighbors are likely to come before the board themselves, howling that something must be done about those darned Jet Skis.

“Their noise vibrates, especially in small bays where the land is close in,” says board member Red Halpern. “The small bays should definitely be designated as no-wake zones and patrolled heavily.”

Exactly where should personal watercraft be off-limits, and where should they be allowed?

Halpern concedes that he wouldn’t want to decide.

Tom Mattern, a marine deputy in Spokane County, explains the problem by asking: “Who would I sic ‘em on?”

On some California lakes, there are designated Jet Ski areas. Minnesota’s solution has been to ban riders from buzzing around in one spot for more than 20 minutes.

Officials around the country must deal with the issue because personal watercraft sales, like the craft themselves, are jet-propelled.

This year, a third of all boats sold (everything from canoes to cabin cruisers) will be Jet Skis.

Of course, they’re not all really “Jet Skis.” That’s the name Kawasaki attached to the first single-person, stand-up, motorcycle-on-water that began selling in the mid-1980s.

Now, a number of companies make personal watercraft. More than 95 percent being sold are of the sit-down variety. They are quieter and more stable. They carry two, three, even four people. The big ones will pull a water-skier.

In other words, these toys have evolved into something that appeals to more than what Deputy Mattern calls the “Ninja Crotchrocket” crowd.

The average age of buyers is going up, according to area dealers.

“We’ve doubled our sales over last year, and it’s expected to keep doubling,” says Dusty MacDonald of Kawasaki Motor Sports in Spokane. “If you don’t have the model you want by the end of June, first of July, you’re out of luck.”

Although they cost $3,500 to $8,000, Jet Skis are a lot cheaper than a full-sized powerboat.

Ray Bradley, who includes a couple of Jet Skis among his various boats, says personal watercraft offer the same kind of fun as motorcycles and snowmobiles.

“They’re maneuverable and they’re independent,” says Bradley. “If you go in a boat, you’re not often by yourself. You’re in control of your own destiny when you’re on a Jet Ski.”

Jet Skiers love to jump over waves. That angers some powerboat pilots, who get nervous about having personal watercraft bounding in their wakes.

Bradley’s different.

“Occasionally, I’ll throw a big wake for Jet Skiers so they can play in it,” says Bradley, who lives along the Spokane River near Coeur d’Alene.

Jet Skis require more stamina than snowmobiles, Bradley says. He’d like to see designated places where riders can take frequent breaks, without clogging up public docks or coming dangerously close to swimmers on the beaches.

For all of his enthusiasm, though, Bradley says, “I wish I knew exactly how I feel about Jet Skis.”

That’s because he, too, is a member of the Kootenai County Waterways Advisory Board. So he listens to many people blast away at those annoying personal watercraft.

There’s no cease-fire on the horizon. But here are some of the options for resolving conflicts and safety concerns:

No-wake zones: Wakes aren’t allowed with 100 feet of docks, shorelines and swimmers. (In Spokane County, it’s 50 feet.)

Speed limits: Last year, Kootenai County passed an ordinance making it illegal for any kind of boat to go more than 15 miles per hour when it’s with 100 feet of another object, including other boats. That means Jet Skiers can’t go fast when they’re side-by-side, or get too close to big boats in the riders’ zeal for wakes.

But speed isn’t the only problem.

“Those things turn so quick, so sharp,” says Mattern, who sometimes has to throttle back his patrol boat to keep from hitting a Jet Skier who’s turned abruptly. “They tend to turn, then look.”

Noise levels: There are laws on the books, and marine deputies try to enforce them. But, legally, they can only test the decibel level of one watercraft at a time. There’s nothing they can do about the combined noise of multiple Jet Skis.

“It’s like 20 little bumblebees spinning around,” says Kootenai County deputy Andy Boyle. “There’s this big huge lake out there, and they persist in hanging around docks.”

Age limits: Spokane County won’t allow anyone under age 10 to operate any kind of boat; limits those under 14 to boats of 10 horsepower. Which means you can’t operate a Jet Ski unless you’re 14. You can’t rent one unless you’re 16.

But in Idaho, anything goes.

“There’s a tremendous amount of negligent parents,” says Clyde Sheppard, president of the Spokane River Association. “I’ve seen a 3-year-old, and a significant number of 10-year-olds, out there.”

Sen. Mary Lou Reed, D-Coeur d’Alene, sponsored legislation this year that would have required Jet Ski operators to be 16. The bill failed. Some critics argued that kids would have been banned from operating personal watercraft, but still could legally zoom around in a speedboat.

Some people see education, not legislation, as the key.

Most dealers offer instruction manuals and videos, but either don’t offer - or don’t get asked for - on-the-water lessons.

And although the local Coast Guard Auxiliary hopes eventually to offer personal watercraft classes, the necessary text has not yet been completed.

Recognizing that Jet Skiers need a chance to show their skill in a safe setting, the Spokane County Sheriff’s Department and Spokane Water Rescue Team will sponsor their first Personal Watercraft Rodeo this summer. That’ll be July 23 at Nine Mile Resort on Long Lake.

Most people follow the rules of the waterways and are courteous, says Mitch Silver. He’s assistant manager at Heyburn State Park, at the southern end of Lake Coeur d’Alene.

Silver also is a former Jet Ski owner.

“I bowed out because of public pressure,” he says. “I thought I was a safe and sane rider. But if you ride a Jet Ski, you automatically get the reputation of a hot-dogger.”

Marine deputies are strict, but not unsympathetic. They use personal watercraft sometimes on the job. Strictly for patrolling, of course.

“They are fun,” says Deputy Boyle. “They’re a lot of fun.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Personal watercraft sales


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