By Steven Bull
Boaters are as varied as the watercraft they own. There’s a tireless array of options, sizes and styles; how and where they are used is an equally exhaustive list. Generally I don’t suggest a specific destination to others, preferring to let their preferences and tastes shape my suggestion, but if you’re at all into personal watercraft I will suggest this is a pilgrimage you need to make at least once.
For 35 years, the International Jet Sport Boat Association, or IJSBA, has hosted the World Finals on Lake Havasu in Arizona. The IJSBA is to PWC racing what NASCAR is to stock car racing or what Guinness is to world records. It is the authority and is recognized and respected as such.
Every year racers from across the planet make the trek to Lake Havasu City, smack dab in the middle of the Mojave Desert to vie for the title in one of the many race categories.
This is more than a passive sit-in-the-stands kind of trip or event. There’s food, merchandise vendors, all the big names in PWCs have displays of the latest and greatest—Sea-Doo, Yamaha and Kawasaki—and there are demo rides you can sign up for.
When I say it’s a pilgrimage that’s not just in a metaphorical sense. It’s not the easiest place to get to. It really is in the middle of the desert.
In the mid 1930s Parker Dam was constructed on the Colorado River and the subsequent reservoir became Lake Havasu. In the 1960s, the owner of McCulloch Motors was looking for a place to test outboard engines and spotted the lake. But Robert McCulloch didn’t just think of a testing ground, he thought of a whole city.
Together with C.V. Wood, who had designed Disneyland in California, they spent years developing the city and by 1981 the once barren spot of desert had a population of 17,000. Today it has more than 50,000 residents and the Lake Havasu Convention & Visitors Bureau says there are more than 775,000 annual visitors.
The desert locale is part of the draw—warm and dry weather is all but guaranteed—and also part of the unique, though confusing aspects. Boating remains a massively popular activity here. There are races and demos and poker runs and, of course, crowds of boats during Spring Break.
The IJSBA World Finals is one of the premier events in town and draws thousands. Many people do what our crew did to cover the event for PowerBoat Television and rented an RV. Not only do you get to do your best Breaking Bad impressions along the drive but the base of operations is the Crazy Horse Campgrounds, right on the shores of the lake.
It’s about 200 kilometres southwest of Las Vegas and 230 kilometres northeast of Phoenix so there are plenty of flight options and both have multiple RV rental agencies.
It is a bizarre feeling to head past sleepy little towns like Searchlight, Nevada that seem to appear and disappear in inexplicably remote locations in the Mojave. But cruising along in a 27-foot Minnie Winnie (I suppose that was better than Winnebago-Lite) in just under three hours, we went from the hustle and bustle of Vegas to crossing the most unusual of landmarks: London Bridge.
With an unusual history why shouldn’t Lake Havasu City have an unusual monument?
In the 1960s London Bridge needed to be replaced and McCulloch submitted the winning bid of $2,460,000. So in 1968 it was dismantled brick-by-brick, meticulously labeled, shipped across the ocean, reassembled and rededicated in 1971. It still proudly stands there today—a famous British landmark now linking the planned city in the Arizona desert beside a man-made lake.
Appropriately, the bridge is now a part of McCulloch Boulevard that serves as the main access to the island which houses, amongst other things, Crazy Horse Campground and Site Six Launch Ramp, which is very popular but we’ll come back to that later.
The roar of the modified, high-octane stand-up PWCs the pros race is something else, but the range of machines is even more impressive. The race classes vary from the pros down to off-the-shelf style stock classes and even junior classes for kids as young as 10. That alone is worth the drive to watch those little racers rip around the course with more balance, skill and poise than most of the rest of us could hope for.
Regardless of class or style of race—slalom, endurance, or the standard course—everyone here shares a common purpose.
“This is the absolute biggest event here in the US. Probably even in the world,” Anthony Radetic told me under a Sea-Doo awning as he was tweaking his ride with a mechanic.
Now part of the Sea-Doo X-Team, Radetic is a former-army helicopter pilot now involved with the Special Operations Bionic Warrior and Wounded Warrior program.
“Everyone that’s a good racer will come out here and test their skills against everyone else. You have the top riders and they’re coming out here to battle it out.”
What makes this whole thing more unique than most other race events is that the actual racers and the pits aren’t cloistered off behind a fence of security and secrecy. You can wander along and see what’s going on.
As we strolled along the shore we saw a young woman on a Spark practicing her holeshot—which, as it turns out for a race, is done with two people holding the nozzle mostly out of the water while the racer keeps the throttle revved and when the flag drops, the stern drops and the engine is already at high RPM so you don’t lose precious fractions of a second getting the revs up.
Further down the beach, the international flavour that organizers boasted about (there are more than three dozen countries represented) started to become evident.
The Kuwait Jet Ski Team in their matching zip-up shirts were as intense as you’ll find, but it paid off as they had multiple team members make the podium.
Further down were teams from Norway, Thailand, Estonia and Canada.
Under a tent with a stand-up PWC up on a trailer a mechanic gave the entire set-up a once over before walking away from the Maple Leaf-adorned rig.
It belongs to Dave Davidson from Burlington, Ontario.
“I’ve been here a few times, I don’t come a lot, I’ve been racing for probably 27 years, I’ve probably been here about 6 or 7 times over the years,” he told me, zipping up his full body wet suit.
“Last year I got really lucky I got two world titles last year. Yesterday I ended fourth, just off the podium. Another, Moto-1, is coming up so we’ll see how we can do in these rough conditions.”
With that I wished him well and he was off to do some warm up runs.
He wasn’t kidding about rough. The winds picked up in the morning and churned the lake into a white cap convention, but it was a nice reprieve from the summer heat.
After taking in a few more races and doing some journalistic research into the quality of the beer vendors our crew called it a day.
The next morning the lake had calmed down which was perfect since I had worked my way into a Sea-Doo owner’s ride.
Even though it was a Friday morning there were still 70 machines and riders from across Arizona and California, and even one from Ontario and a couple from New Jersey. Then there was me.
Sea-Doo had kitted me out with gear and a brand new 2017 GTR-X 230, the first one in the water, so I—or rather, it—was the centre of attention for much of the ride.
We launched at Site Six which got its militaristic name from, you guessed it, the military. But now it’s a well-maintained ramp with great parking facilities and a prime spot to start a day’s exploration.
We headed, en masse, around the southern shore of the island and into the channel that leads under London Bridge, stopping for the requisite group shot and quite a few selfies, of course.
From there we shot across the northeast section of the lake before it narrowed back to the Colorado River and into the Topock Gorge.
We stopped briefly at the sandbar which, especially during spring break, can be one of the biggest and best boat gatherings around.
Back on the throttle, our collection of everything from 2-up Sparks to 300-hp RXT-Xs ran northward along the California-Arizona border passing a few pontoons and offshore style racers that, no doubt, we surprised to come across what could best be described as Mad Max: Water Edition. Dozens of machines roaring along side each other kicking up spray and waves that made running in the middle of the pack a touch dicey. Trust me. I was there for a bit of it. Up front or well back was much more comfortable.
Some of the area is speed controlled, which is great because it gives you a chance to look around and soak in the red rock cliffs of the gorge. It looks like something out of central casting for an Indiana Jones film.
And here, running slowly, you get to chat with your fellow riders, like Crystal Crittle who towed her Sea-Doo from her home in California, four hours away.
“We always enjoy coming out here because you’ve got the lake which has over 46 miles of shore line,” she said as a London Jet tour boat cruised through our armada. “You can go up and down it all day and never get bored. Especially through here, it’s beautiful.”
It really is. It’s not the easiest to access or the closest to most reading this, but it’s definitely worth the trip. If you can’t tow your own boat or PWC, rent one or take a tour because cruising through here is like cruising through a postcard and it’s something not everyone gets a chance to do. But they should.
“It’s great to meet people that have similar interests, do the group run and lunch. It’s just a fun day,” Crittle said before wailing the throttle and taking off to catch up with the group.
After about an hour’s ride we pulled into the channel towards Pirate Cove Resort and Marina which is on the California side of the river and, officially, part of the city of Needles in San Bernardino County.
Here our gang beached our rides and swapped stories over lunch before Sea-Doo did some giveaways.
Heading back to Lake Havasu City was at our own pace as the group ride was officially over. But small groups of people rode together and, as I saw Crittle ripping along one of the shorelines, I thought showing off the top-end of the GTR-X 230 was the least I could do for Sea-Doo.
As I caught up to her at 65 miles per hour she looked over and gave me and smile and a thumbs up salute before we peeled off in different directions back into the lake.
It’s one of the most uniquely located cities, with an unusual history and a surprisingly vibrant boating culture given the Mojave Desert zip code, but Lake Havasu is officially one of my favourite boating destinations and a PWC pilgrimage I didn’t really realize I was on until I was about to leave.
I’m already plotting my way back.
This article is featured in the 2017 Winter issue of Boats&Places.