Eighteen years after personal watercraft (PWCs) were banned from Kachemak Bay at the southern end of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, a new battle is brewing over the little boats.
It has a little to do with watercraft, and a lot to do with American culture wars.
Opponents of allowing PWCs on the already boat-busy Bay see the operators of the one, two or three-person, motorcycle-like vessels as speed-crazed renegades who can’t be trusted to responsibly operate their “thrill craft.” Proponents of opening the Bay to PWCs, see PWC owners as a tiny minority singled out for unjustified discrimination by those who know nothing about PWCs except that they look fast.
Exactly how many PWCs there are in Alaska is unclear. Given that the operators are exposed to the cold spray of northern waters and chilly Alaska rain, PWCs appear significantly less popular here than Florida, California or Hawaii, where they have become an important piece of equipment in ocean rescue operations.
When the Bay ban was imposed, PWCs were near their peak in national popularity and looked poised to swarm into the 49th state. Nationally, sales peaked at 92,000 units in 2000, according to the website Statista, and held steady around 80,000 units until 2007 when sales began to plummet. They bottomed out at 38,500 in 2012.
The National Park Service in 2000 banned PWC from 11 national parks with one park official saying at that time that many park users objected to the “loud, mosquito-like noise they make,” Boats.com reported.
The market responded with quieter, and cleaner, PWCs.
The Personal Watercraft Industry Association was by 2006 claiming that a majority of PWCs were being manufactured with four-stroke engines “universally recognized as the cleanest and most fuel-efficient engines on the water” and that combined with new muffling systems those engines were powering “personal watercraft that are 70 percent quieter than models produced in the late 1990s.”
The Park Service, meanwhile, settled a lawsuit filed by the Earth Island Institute by agreeing to close all parks to PWC by 2002 absent environmental analyses and rules for their use. Use rules were later written for 15 parks, most of which contain large water bodies, and PWC use continued.
PWC tours are today popular in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, the 247-square-mile impoundment behind the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River 25 miles southeast of Las Vegas. But the Park Service, which manages the area, requires PWC users comply with a variety of environmental and safety regulations that apply to all boats.
- All operators born on or after Jan. 1, 1983 must possess a certificate of completion for a boating education course or a proficiency exam.
- All boats must limit speeds to 5 mph or less in marked “no wake” zones.
- “No vessel shall be operated on any waters which are zoned or marked as migratory bird waters or for fish culture or wildlife uses.
- “Operating a boat which produces noise in excess of 82 decibels measured at 82 feet is prohibited.”
Reporting on deaths at Lake Mead in 1998, High Country News referred to PWCs as what “some call tools of the devil,” but emotions seem to have mellowed since then. Either that or the internet has stolen the “tools of the devil” label.
Whichever the case, the Park Service at Lake Mead these days seems more concerned about evasive species and falling water levels than PWCs, which might have something to do with the aging of PWC owners.
PWC manufacturers say “the average owner is (now) in his or her mid-40s, college-educated and with a family,” Boating Industry magazine reports. But the image of PWC owners as young and wild lingers among some.
There are fears in Homer, the largest community along the Bay, that PWCs could disrupt the already motor-dominated, city scene in summer when the local boat harbor is a noisy chaos of boats and motor-vehicle traffic backs up on the Homer Spit.
The PWCS “will typically congregate in small areas, spin in circles, jump waves. They are capable of very high speeds — you know, over 65 miles an hour for just basic jet skis coming out these days,” Bob Shavelson of the environmental group Cook Inlet Keeper told the local newspaper, the Homer News.
The Sea-Doo Spark has largely defined the market for “basic jet skis,” according to industry experts. It has a top speed of 50 mph, but compared to a kayak that’s flying.
There are PWCs capable of 65 mph, though, and more than that in the right conditions with a lightweight rider. But the U.S. Coast Guard sort of put a bar up at 65.
There are traditional boats considerably faster. The Triton HP21 bass boat has a top speed of 77 mph. There are no restrictions on such boats in Kachemak Bay, although maybe there should be.
“Since 2001 when Gov. (Tony) Knowles went along for the ‘no ride on top of a boat (ban),’ the population of Homer has doubled,” said Rod Arno, executive director of the Alaska Outdoor Council (AOC). “How about a scientific evaluation of their effect on Kachemak Bay’s habitat?”
A hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation group, the AOC has supported lifting the PWC ban although Arno said he wouldn’t be opposed to closing some areas to all motorized boats if there is science to support such closures.
The problem with that idea is that development has crept into many of the Bay’s coves and bights, and the owners of vacation cabins in sensitive areas would no doubt howl bloody murder if anyone tried to restrict their motorized access.
For some of them, a ban on PWCs is thus the perfect American solution: they can console themselves that they are doing something about the problems and potential problems caused by internal combustion engines while continuing to happily motor along.
A cleaner future
Maybe the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which is refereeing the Bay ban, could offer the perfect solution to satisfy no one and prepare for the leap into the future with a plan to begin a general phase-out of all internal combustion engines in the Bay.
Meanwhile, Taiga – a Canadian company – unveiled the Tesla version of a PWC in September.
The carbon-fiber hulled, jet-drive Orca comes in at 600 pounds “ready to drive,” according to Canadian Yachting magazine, and with “up to 180 horsepower available with instant torque, the craft offers leading power to weight and agility for an unmatched ride experience.”
The magazine noted the “heated debate over personal watercraft use in bodies of water shared by homeowners, marine life, and other recreational watersport enthusiasts…since the late 90s,” and highlighted “the heart of the controversy (as) pollution and noise levels.
“Orca presents a solution to bridge the societal rift between those ultimately looking to enjoy a day by the water, producing 0 g/kWh of emissions and a quiet ride.”
Oh if only the solution was as easy as ordering up a cleaner, quieter Bay.
The problem is that those really aren’t the issues. The issues are image, plain and simple. The bad people on the little boats might decide to start spinning brodies and upset the good people on the big boats.
Or vice versa.