Personal watercraft are the best-selling boats in the nation.
Sales of "wet bikes"--also known by their trademark names, such
as JetSki (manufactured by Kawasaki) and Sea-Doo
(Bombardier)--top $1 billion a year. And the market is growing
at about 25% a year. But these fast, agile craft, which go for
about $6,000 apiece, are also heating up tempers. Waterfront
communities from California to Nebraska (Nebraska?) to New
Jersey are fed up with the boats' noise, their drivers' antics
and their high accident rate.
Nowhere is the anger greater than in the San Juans, an
archipelago of about 175 islands and reefs in the northwest
corner of Washington State. In response to local protests, San
Juan County has banned personal watercraft for two years. The
anti-wet-bike law, which went into effect in February, is the
strongest in the nation.
The law is also a serious threat to the wet-bike industry, which
fears that other communities will impose similar prohibitions.
Manufacturers prefer the milder mandatory driver-education
programs and age restrictions now in place in several states. So
the industry has slapped San Juan County with a lawsuit aimed at
reversing the boat ban. The suit will likely be heard in court
"We find [the prohibition] arbitrary and capricious," says Roger
Hagie of Kawasaki Motors. Not so, replies Jim Skoog, 53, who
lives on San Juan Island's northeast corner in a cedar-plank
house overlooking Rocky Bay. Skoog, a boating writer, is one of
many islanders who dodge office life by working at home.
September 1, 1996
"The quality of sound here is just as important as the quality
of air or water," says Skoog. Compared with the sound of
wavelets lapping against the beach a few yards from his deck, he
says, the noise made by wet bikes is "like a drill in your
Skoog and fellow islander Mary Ann Anderson gathered more than
1,400 signatures (in a county with 12,000 residents) in support
of banning the boats. That persuaded the county commissioners to
vote 2-1 to bar personal watercraft from the islands for two
years while the county decides on a long-range plan for coping
That plan is apt to be a continued ban, judging from the
response of many islanders to the boats. It isn't just the noise
that personal watercraft make--a high-pitched wail (about 75
decibels, the equivalent of some vacuum cleaners, claims the
industry) that sounds to most people like fingernails on a
chalkboard. Watercraft foes say their islands' natural splendor
is at stake too. Pods of orcas patrol the channels, bald eagles
and ospreys wheel in the sky. Anderson recalls the first time a
flock of personal watercraft roared around a nearby bay.
"Afterward it was like a dead zone," she says. "No seals, no
otters, no eagles."
Even more serious, opponents of wet bikes say, is their accident
rate. In 1994, according to Coast Guard statistics, wet bikes
were involved in nearly a third of the 9,722 boating accidents
reported nationally. Last year Florida had 12 wet-bike
fatalities, including that of a Howard University law student
who died when he collided with singer Gloria Estefan's boat
outside Miami after trying to jump the wake.
Upholding the ban may not be easy, however. Jeffrey Johnson, a
42-year-old Seattle trial attorney who represents the Personal
Watercraft Industry Association, argues that a Washington State
law designating waterways as public highways prohibits the
county from barring registered watercraft--and personal
watercraft are registered. Also, Johnson claims, the county has
no evidence that wildlife is in peril, nor did the county try to
solve problems caused by the behavior of boat owners through law
enforcement rather than a boat ban. Finally, Johnson says, the
county's claim that the craft are noisy is absurd: County
officials "don't even have the monitoring equipment to determine
if these craft are in violation," he says.
In San Juan County's little brick courthouse, prosecuting
attorney Randy Gaylord is gearing up for trial. Gaylord says
he'll rely on precedents that allow counties to regulate
everything from firearms to personal watercraft.
As for Skoog, he's convinced the best policy on wet bikes is to
keep the door closed. "We don't have to wait for them to take
over before we start screaming," he says. "We're preempting them."
Seattle-based Douglas Gantenbein writes frequently on
environmental issues and the outdoors.