My first memories of California are of salt air, sun, and speed: the wind whipping past my face as I rode with my brother Bill on his motorcycle. I had come to visit him at college -- he wanted me to join him there. Bill picked me up at the tiny Santa Barbara airport, and in minutes, we were zipping along the coast, palm trees flying past faster than I cared to think about. Bill always was a thrill-seeker. That is, until he traded in the motorcycle for a wife and family. Suddenly, the risks didn't seem worth it. So when I heard he was coming to visit me in California for the first time in 15 years, I tried to think of a way to give him something of that old feeling -- speed, the wind in his face. David at Seaforth Boat Rentals (888-834-2628, locations in Mission Bay, Coronado, and downtown) had a suggestion: jet skis. "You've got the wind blowing on your face; it's an exciting, exhilarating experience." And sized almost like a motorcycle -- perfect.
Jet skis, said David, are generally more popular with the younger generation, "so we need to check that at least one person in a party is at least 18. That's how old you have to be to operate the jet ski. If parents come in with small children, the child must be at least five years old. Our jet skis can carry up to three passengers, but there's a 450-pound weight limit, so if you've got three, one of the passengers must be a child."
The rental involves a bit of paperwork -- first a contract that "basically says, 'You break it, you buy it.'" Then, two waivers, one from Yamaha (the manufacturer) and one from Seaforth. "It's called the PWC renter orientation checklist -- PWC stands for Personal Water Craft." The checklist lays out the safety stuff. "First, you must wear your life jacket at all times. Second, there's a kill switch -- a lanyard goes from the left wrist of the rider into the ignition. If the driver falls off, it throws the kill switch, and the jet ski will come to a full stop."
Rental jet skis are not allowed on the ocean. "Here, we go over a map of Mission Bay. And once people are down on the dock, the dockhands orient them, show them where the buoys are. The buoys mark the 5-mile-per-hour zones, the restricted zones, and the open-speed zones. Some people take their cell phones in a couple of Ziploc baggies; that way they can stop in the water -- away from all boat traffic -- and call us if they have any questions."
There's no brake on a jet ski; if you want to slow down, you let off the throttle. "Our jet skis are Yamaha VX110s; they can top out at 60 to 65 miles per hour. If you're at full throttle and you let it off completely, it still takes more than a football field's distance to come to a complete stop. One way to slow down quickly is by turning. You give it a little bit of throttle as you do it -- otherwise, the jet ski won't turn -- and that causes you to lose speed very quickly."
David stressed "the importance of operating the jet ski defensively. You need to scan the water constantly. Because you are the smallest and most maneuverable vessel, you need to let everyone have right-of-way. You're going to see a 25-foot powerboat, but they may not see you. So you want to keep a safe distance from other boats, swimmers, objects, and the shore. We have a 100-foot rule. Nine times out of ten, the way jet skis get damaged is when buddies want to talk while they're on the jet skis. They don't obey the 100-foot rule, and they forget the jet ski doesn't brake like a car. So they hit each other."
Damage -- even cosmetic body damage -- carries a price. "We charge $100 for every inch of damage, so a foot-long scratch would be a $1200 charge. That's because, not only do we have to pay to fix it, we also lose revenue while it's out of the water."
Seaforth Boat Rentals requires a $500 security deposit per jet ski. Rentals start at $90 for the first hour, less for each hour after that. "We don't have any set time limits for the customer to come back. People usually sign up for an hour, but they almost always end up out there for two [ $165 ]. An hour just flies by."
I knew Bill would be tempted by the thought of serious speed, but I also knew he could be funny about water. California Water Sports, located on Agua Hedionda Lagoon in Carlsbad (760-434-3089), seemed like it might be a good spot for a first-timer. "The lagoon is split into three sections," said manager Cody. "The bigger part is for boats, the back is for kayaks, and the area right in front of our beach is for wave runners (jet skis). It's nice -- you don't have the boats to worry about. There's a big circle of buoys, with a really big ball right in the middle. Everyone moves counterclockwise around the circle, with the ball on their left. It really reduces the chances of collision, and we have a speed limit of 45 miles per hour." And while a busy weekend (15 or so jet skis on the water) might make for rougher water, a slow weekday can make for smooth skiing. Cost: $95 /hour with $300 security deposit. Must be at least 16 to ride alone and 18 to ride with a passenger.
Other places around town:
Action Sport Rentals, 858-581-5939. Locations in Mission Bay and Coronado. Cost: $95 /hour plus $500 security deposit. Must be 18 and up to drive and over 36 inches tall to be a passenger.
Affordable Jet Ski Rental, 619-220-0335. Located in Mission Bay. Cost: $200 /day, plus $1000 security deposit. Must be 18 and have a hitch on vehicle to tow jet ski (trailer included in rental).