Flirting with the speed limit – December 4, 2006

Recent escalations in the horsepower of some personal watercraft have raised questions about whether PWC manufacturers are heading into territory deemed off-limits under a so-called “gentlemen’s agreement” between OEMs and the Unites States Coast Guard.
Under that agreement, set forth in a November 1999 letter from then USCG Boating Safety Chief Michael Holmes, several personal watercraft manufacturers voluntarily agreed to a “speed cap” of 65 mph (67 in reality as the letter allows for up to 2 mph in “production variances”), although no official agreement was ever unanimously accepted nor signed. The somewhat recent introduction of 200-plus horsepower engines, however — first with Sea-Doo’s 215-hp supercharged four-stroke and now Kawasaki’s 250-hp package found in the Ultra 250 X — have left many questioning whether that so-called cap has been left behind, and whether the industry may be setting itself up for additional scrutiny as a result.
Powersports Business recently looked into the issue to separate fact from fiction, and determine what repercussions, if any, the industry may be facing.
Radar Vs. Real World
Surprisingly, the question of whether manufacturers have abandoned the 1999 agreement in search of those with the need for speed is currently almost a non-issue with the Coast Guard. The reason? From the USCG’s standpoint, those 65 mph-plus boats don’t truly exist.
“We’re not aware of any craft at this point in time that will exceed 65 mph in the given test conditions that were established between our office and the industry,” said Jeff Hoedt, the current chief of the United States Coast Guard’s Office of Boating Safety. “When we become aware that there may be a craft that exceeds that limit, then we go ahead with the industry and test that craft, under very strict conditions.”
The key phrase? The aforementioned “strict conditions.” As Coast Guard reps are quick to point out, a typical magazine radar test is often held under best-case scenarios. Craft are run with as little fuel as possible, with nothing in the storage compartments, a lightweight rider in the saddle and next-to-perfect water and temperature conditions.
That’s far from the real-world scenario the Coast Guard envisioned when it established the guidelines. “The gentleman’s agreement was basically a 200-pound rider, with full fuel and oil tanks, on calm water,” clarifies Phil Cappel, chief of the Coast Guard’s Recreational Boating Product Assurance Division. “We found out for ourselves that if you run the test on a muddy day in August on brackish water, you get a different level of performance than if you took that same boat out to Lake Mead on a cool day in the fall.”
It’s a perception vs. reality issue that Coast Guard officials say is fueled in part by the media. Magazines routinely tout a high-performance machine’s impressive top-speed numbers, achieved under near-perfect settings. In fact, last year repeated magazine tests showing the Sea-Doo RXP reaching in excess of 65 mph prompted the Coast Guard to go out and purchase its own. The result? Averaging two runs in opposite wind directions, and with the designated 200-pound rider and full fuel tanks, the boat ran no better than 63 mph. The Coast Guard expects Kawasaki’s 250 will perform likewise.
“We’re watching it,” admits Cappel. “Certain magazine testers have gotten these boats up over 65 mph, but it’s under certain situations. You’d have to have very specific circumstances to get these models up over 65 mph.”
United We Stand
Although there appears to be a definite division between manufacturers in terms of which are pursuing performance and which are following a more recreational slant, thus far they appear to be united as an industry, with none attacking the others’ choice to pursue speed or recreation.
“In terms of what other manufacturers are doing, that’s really their business,” responded Yamaha’s Mark Speaks, when asked to comment on the issue. “It’s up to them to determine where they want to go and how they’re going to pursue it. Yamaha’s position is that we have a responsibility to our customer to deliver product that can be enjoyed safely when used responsibly, and it’s our goal to develop product that appeals to the mass of the market.
“My company is focused on family recreation, basically that’s our corporate strategy, to be a leader in family fun on the water. And we’re adhering to that. That’s where most of our customers reside and that’s the part of the market we’ve made an effort to pursue.”
Speaks believes all of the manufacturers are likewise pursuing their own niche, with the consumer’s safety and ease of operation first and foremost among their concerns, resulting in what he terms “a very healthy situation.”
Efforts at reaching officials from Kawasaki, which recently unveiled its 250 hp PWC, for comment were unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, the Coast Guard appears satisfied that the voluntary guidelines are being met, for now.
“The agreement we have is not a legal type of memorandum of understanding or anything, it’s more of an informal type of agreement whereby we have not imposed the manufacturer’s standards upon personal watercraft,” Hoedt said. “We have not felt the need to with the speeds currently. Craft going over (the 65 mph limit) would prompt us to reconsider at least the manufacturing standards, for safety’s sake.”
“We’re aware of it,” sums up Cappel. “Again, it’s pushing the bubble, but we don’t see where it’s breaking the gentleman’s agreement that the manufacturers have.” psb

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