By Mike Milne
I love all kinds of boating: cruising, towsports, fishing, paddling, you name it, but in the last decade, personal watercraft riding has topped the list. PWC are easy to launch, stable, safe and powerful. You are close to the water and shoreline scenery; PWC are easy to anchor or pull up on a sandy shore, simple to dock and small enough to store in your garage.
OK, they’re not perfect: not for taking friends or family on a sunset cruise, not ideal for a day of fishing, nor the best for getting older folks or others with limited mobility out on the water.
But personal watercraft may be something else. In today’s boating market, they may be the ideal introduction to boating—the perfect first boat.
In the past few years, PWC manufacturers have moved decisively to develop products that are affordable, accessible and attractive to new, mainly younger boat-shoppers. Sea-Doo led the way with its Spark in 2014, built of lightweight Polytec composite (as opposed to fibreglass) and powered by a light, efficient engine.
The 60-hp 2up Spark’s price tag, now $6,099, makes it the most affordable PWC on the Canadian market. Across North America, it has helped put BRP on top of the PWC market. The 90-hp 3up Spark costs more, but is still the most affordable three-place PWC in Canada. BRP’s 11-foot GTS built of Polytec and powered by the 90-hp 900 HO ACE engine, priced at $8,899.
Kawasaki’s lowest-cost PWC is its 160-hp $12,499 Jet Ski STX-15F.
Always competitive, Yamaha has responded with a light, low-cost, full-size alternative with its WaveRunner EX lineup. The WaveRunner EX Sport, built of SMC (sheet-moulded composite) fibreglass and powered by the 123-hp TR-1 engine, is priced at $9,699.
In a promotional battle for first-time PWC buyers, Yamaha has attacked the U.S. market with head-to-head WaveRunner EX vs Sea-Doo Spark comparisons. Sea-Doo responded with hilarious, but very effective, Highly Scientific Test videos. For a good laugh and a sense of what’s at stake, google Sea-Doo Spark. Both campaigns should show up.
The real winner, though, has been the manufacturers (BRP’s sales and stock prices are up) and the industry as a whole. Sales of PWC in the U.S. were up seven percent last year. In Canada, PWC sales have been increasing by at least 10 percent a year for the last four years.
Meanwhile, according to data from the U.S.-based National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) the number of first-time boat buyers as a proportion of all sales has dropped by about 20 percent in the last decade. The NMMA is still trying to figure out how to best attract first-time buyers and keep them in boating.
Boat builders should take a closer look at the PWC market, which is attracting more than its share of new boaters. Youth-oriented but family friendly designs and affordable prices have revolutionized the PWC industry; a similar approach to the more traditional boating market could have the same effect.
In the meantime, I hope first-time boaters look closely at personal watercraft. Find one that fits your budget, find a helpful dealer and give it a try. You may get hooked on PWC and discover that you love boating.