May 24, 2010 – Time running out on stand-up PWC model

The stand-up PWC, better known as simply the Jet Ski or SuperJet, is responsible for a lot of history in the personal watercraft story. But thanks to pending emissions regulations, the stand-up’s last chapter (or at least last chapter in mass-production form) will soon be coming to a close.

Looming emissions regulations, scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2012, will mark the end of the two-stroke engine that powers both current models, the Kawasaki Jet Ski and Yamaha SuperJet. And with stand-up model sales amounting to just a fraction of the overall market, neither manufacturer is expected to deliver a viable four-stroke alternative.

A Little History

The stand-up dates back to the early ’70s, when inventor Clayton Jacobson, who had already invented the first sit-down Sea-Doo for Bombardier, sold his patent rights to Kawasaki, which soon released the first Jet Ski model. The slim craft with a raising handlepole went into mass production in 1976, and began to grow in popularity. The first 400cc model soon gave way to a 440cc variant, followed by a 550cc model. Later, engines and hulls would grow even larger, to the point of today’s near 800cc SXR. Paralleling that growth was the growth of the sport of stand-up PWC racing. Yamaha joined the fray with its SuperJet in 1990, and though Polaris would later briefly join in, as well as niche manufacturers like HydroSpace, Kawasaki and Yamaha continued to prove the dominant sellers.

The stand-up, however, was destined to take a back seat to the runabout-style craft that began to arrive in the mid-to-late ’90s. Soon, numbers shifted in favor of the sit-down craft, and ultimately the stand-up became a niche player.

The emissions crackdown in the mid-2000s, however, seems to have doomed the craft. As most PWC moved to cleaner four-stroke powerplants, the stand-ups retained light, compact two-strokes, both for reasons of physical size and weight, but also for their performance characteristics. With such small retail sales numbers, manufacturers also now saw little reason to throw development money at the craft.

Stand-ups survived the initial emissions crackdowns thanks to “fleet averaging,” the process where a manufacturer was allowed to offset a small number of dirtier two-strokes with a larger volume of cleaner, four-stroke engines throughout their line. The last round of federal emissions regulations, however, placed a defined cap on two-stroke emissions, a cap that has eliminated most conventional two-stroke marine outboards as of Jan. 1 of this year. Stand-ups survived, albeit temporarily, thanks to a deal. Kawasaki and Yamaha were able to convince the EPA to extend the deadline for two years, based on the argument that alternative, cleaner engines were not available for these niche models. That move pushed the no-sale date back to Jan. 1, 2012, but served notice that the stand-up, at least as we now know it, would soon cease to exist.

Exemptions For Racing

That’s not to say the current stand-ups will go away completely, at least not for racers. According to details that can be found in the Federal Register, exemptions can be granted for an engine if it is used “solely” for competition. Exemptions are granted for one model year, and a request for renewal must be made for each subsequent model year.

In order to receive the exemption, engines must meet numerous criteria. One, neither the engine nor any vessels containing the engine may be displayed in any public dealership or offered for sale to the general public.

Two, sales of the vessels in which these engines are installed must be limited to professional racing teams, professional racers or other qualified racers. Likewise, replacement engines are limited for sale to the same qualified teams or individuals, as well as the original vessel manufacturer.

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Three, both the engine and the vessel in which it is installed must have performance characteristics that are substantially superior to noncompetitive models.

End Times

Will a four-stroke model save the day? Right now, it doesn’t appear likely. Though both manufacturers will confirm off the record that they’ve tested four-stroke models, no decision to go forward appears to be on the table. And with the low sales volume of current stand-ups, coupled with the current economic conditions, it doesn’t appear the situation will change.

That leaves about 18 months … and counting … before the end of an era. PSB

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