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Dangerous By Design: Jet-ski aficianado Ron Simner says the flaw in personal watercraft is that they require acceleration to turn.

Wave Warrior

As the tide turns against the jet-ski industry, even a serious local fan criticizes their poor record of safety

By Allie Gottlieb

RON SIMNER, a nonflamboyantly well-toned guy who registers a healthy pink color, stands squarely but awkwardly in the middle of a roiling water-sports squabble.

Simner is a San Jose native who lives in one of those neighborhood coves on Hamilton Place where all the apartment buildings look the same. He started jet skiing in 1990, fell in love with the sport and developed a habit of weekly skiing. He quickly figured out, however, that he didn't like the way his Kawasaki 650SX handled turns, so he slapped together a rudder system.

Simner thinks that the way jet skis turn makes them unsafe. In order to turn while on a jet ski, a rider must give it more throttle--that is, pump more gas into the motor, similar to the action of a motorcycle's twist grip and a car's accelerator pedal. The problem, according to Simner, is that gunning the engine to start a turn goes against a rider's safety instinct, which is to lay off the power while turning.

While he's an avid jet skier who headed out to San Jose's Calero Reservoir to ski just last week, he's critical of the industry's manufacturers and lobbyists. He says their jet-ski design encourages riders to be aggressive and therefore dangerous. And worse, he says they know it.

"I got caught up in it because I know I'm right and they're wrong," he says.

Making Trax

Simner has since produced an attachment to solve the problem. It's a flat piece of plastic with two slim plastic rudders that rotate side to side with a portal to direct water. This contraption, which Simner patented in 1992, fastens to the rear bottom end of the jet ski and allows the rider to turn without applying the throttle, he says.

Simner sold his product through his website but couldn't move more than 200 of the gizmos. He still sounds disappointed when he says he had to stop selling it. But its purpose--to make avoiding stuff easier--would seem to be a much-needed contribution to the jet-ski world, judging from the collision statistics.

A jet skier is 6.6 times more likely to get hurt than a motorboater and 24.8 times more likely than a canoer or kayaker, according to a survey commissioned by the U.S. Coast Guard and published in 1999. Furthermore, Simner says, jet skiers only report about 8 percent of their accidents.

He still shamelessly plugs his WaveTrax™ system in the hope that industry players will buy the design from his company, Ride Technology. He also hires himself out as a $200-an-hour expert witness for court cases involving jet-ski accidents.

"The industry has known about this problem since its inception," Simner alleges, "but has not sufficiently warned the ... public of the dangers involved."

Simner's disappointment with the jet-ski industry is symptomatic of the problems the industry has suffered in recent weeks. On July 23, the American Canoe Association released Hostile Waters: The Impacts of Personal Watercraft Use on Waterway Recreation, a report about the increasingly high percentage of personal-watercraft-based crashes.

On July 16, in a serious blow to the industry, Marin County won a court appeal upholding its ban on personal watercraft.

Providing Fun

The jet-ski industry, which boasted sales of $660 million last year, has a different take on safety issues and recent events. Its members point to such Coast Guard numbers as 99 percent of jet skis are used accident-free, and stupid mistakes by clueless riders cause nearly 70 percent of accidents. Well, the Coast Guard doesn't actually use those words. They prefer the term "boater error."

Incidentally, the industry consists of organizations like jet-ski user group and lobbying body the American Watercraft Association (AWA) and the Personal Watercraft Industry Association (PWIA), which also likes to think of itself as "People who love Water Invested in America," as indicated on its website.

"First of all, personal watercraft operate the same as pretty much every other motorboat on the water," says Stephan Andranian, AWA government-affairs guy. "You need to have power in order to turn. They're not counterintuitive; it's an education issue." Andranian says he advocates passing new laws, like requiring training and licensing for jet skiers.

The PWIA lobbies for the interests of the five jet-ski manufacturers: American Honda Motor Co. Inc., Bombardier Recreational Products, Kawasaki Motors Corp., Polaris Industries Inc. and Yamaha Motor Corp.

"A lot of times, we wonder why we get a lot of criticism when we really are working very hard to provide a fun recreational vehicle," says PWIA spokesperson Elinore Boeke.

After all, she adds, the newest jet-ski technology is much more fuel-efficient (75 percent reduction in hydrocarbon emissions) and less noisy (70 percent quieter, according to official ears) than it was just four years ago. She also points out, in a nyah-nyah-nyah move, that canoeing and kayaking cause more deaths than jet skiing.

She's right. "The fatality rate of 42 deaths per million hours on canoes and kayaks is almost twice that of those on personal watercraft (24 per million hours) and almost four times higher than open motorboats (14 per million hours)," according to trade rag Boat/U.S. Magazine's analysis of Coast Guard figures published in October 2000.

Angry Boating

But the boat-industry magazine's highlighted stats are not the final word on numbers gathered by the Coast Guard. The American Canoe Association (ACA), which put out the Hostile Waters report damning jet skis' safety record, leads with other startling stats.

Jet skis make up a lowly 6.5 percent of boating vessels owned in the United States. They are, however, involved in a whopping 55.6 percent of boat collisions and a disproportionately noteworthy 32.8 percent of overall accidents.

"We don't see these impacts with any other vessels," says Hostile Waters author David Jenkins, the association's director of conservation and public policy. "That shows me that there's a problem with this particular kind of craft."

Jet skiing attracts people who are "more into the machine and the performance of the machine than the water and the environment around them," Jenkins believes. By comparison, paddlers, as he calls his people, pursue their sport as "a vehicle for them to have an experience with the environment ... to hear the paddle in the water, to observe wildlife. ... The canoe allows them to escape into the natural world."

Clearly, people who canoe and kayak, in Jenkins' mind, are more pure and good than those who jet ski. Some jet skiers even purposely run over loons, he claims. And ultimately, even canoeing and kayaking deaths are less intrusive, he suggests. "Those fatalities are people getting themselves in trouble by doing something stupid," Jenkins distinguishes. "The problem with personal watercraft fatalities is [that] those are people putting others in trouble by doing something stupid."

The folks with opinions on motorboating and nonmotorized boating agree on one thing: they're different people. Some of them compare the divide to the rift between all-terrain vehicles and hikers, or the conflict between cross-country skiers and snowmobilers. In any case, it's a fight that erupts commonly enough to lead to formal mediation.

"Personal watercraft, in particular, seem to generate more controversy than many other boat types, possibly due to a combination of nontraditional use patterns and a rapidly increasing user population," states an article on a conflict-resolution website sponsored by Kawasaki.

It adds: "The Personal Watercraft Conflict Resolution Website is a vital information resource. The site, founded in 1997, provides useful information about programs that have proven effective in resolving disputes re: the use of public waters, including issues relating to the use of PWC."

Santa Clara County permits jet-skiing in only two places: Calero Reservoir in San Jose, and Coyote Lake in Gilroy. People should reserve a skiing appointment at either, as Calero limits the party to 30 motorized vessels at once, and Coyote shuts the gate at 70, by current restrictions. Also, riders must fuel up at Union 76 Stations on cleanish non-MTBE gas and produce a recent receipt to prove it before they get to hit the water, says County Parks and Rec spokesperson Tamara Clark-Shear. Reservations 408.355.2201 (8:30am to 3:30pm Monday-Friday); county park website: www.parkhere.org.

To contact Allie Gottlieb: [email protected]

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From the August 8-14, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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