A poignant allegory has developed between what has been happening on America’s lakes in recent years and what has been happening throughout our culture for a long time. Unless you are a recreational boater or live near one of America’s lakes, you may not be aware of the significance brought to our consciousness by these two extreme representations of Americans’ love of speed, noise, and oil. I want to tell you a little story in honor of the Labor Day Weekend, traditionally the final hurrah of recreational boating in each summer season. The weather where I live usually allows boating to be enjoyed up through October if you want to actually jump in the lake, and throughout most of the whole year if you don’t, so this is a subject close to my heart.
There are many varieties of boats used strictly for recreational purposes on our inland lakes; however, two particular types of boat have drawn the ire of many people residing in lakeside areas in recent years. I want to explain some of the history, facts, and misconceptions surrounding these two types of powerboats that have raised the hackles of many due to conservation or environmental issues. Although they reside at opposite poles of the recreational boating hobby in most respects, these two seem to have taken on the persona of the wolves and whitetail deer of our forested areas. The two even have roughly parallel histories. Scarabs are a now extinct brand of cigarette boat and WaveRunners are the sit-down Yamaha jet skis that seem to be buzzing about everywhere there is a mud puddle. Scarabs are like rare, vicious predators who need a large territory in which to survive. WaveRunners just seem to be multiplying everywhere like whitetail deer, wherever there are insufficient numbers of predators.
Cigarette boats and jet skis were invented and purchased by small numbers of their respective enthusiasts many years before their numbers greatly increased, bringing negative attention to them. I am singling out Scarabs and WaveRunners here because, not only are they my own favorite brands of their respective types of powerboats, but each has been responsible almost single-handedly for their widespread popularity. Wellcraft was the first boat builder to mass-produce cigarette boats at somewhat reasonable prices. Yamaha began the sit-down jet ski craze for people who either wanted more versatility or were just too lazy to stand up or learn a new skill. Unlike most of their competitors, the Wellcraft Scarabs utilized straightforward hull designs, standard engine options, and reasonable levels of luxury trim to complement their mass production numbers. Particularly for the smaller models, ranging from eighteen to twenty-nine feet, this strategy held the prices of Scarabs somewhat below the if you have to ask, you can’t afford it level. Although Kawasaki coined the term jet ski in 1973 at a time when motorcycle sales were waning in the U.S., Yamaha’s introduction of the WaveRunner in 1987 really gave a jet-like thrust to the personal watercraft market.
The jet ski was officially invented by Sea-Doo in 1967-8, but the company never seemed to get the idea off the ground until Kaw entered the picture a few years later. As you may have already guessed, six companies have built all the mass produced jet skis. Sea-Doo is still one of the most popular brands with its Rotax engines. Kawasaki has continually sold official Jet Skis since 1973. Polaris built jet skis using engines built by Fuji Heavy Industries from 1992 through 1997. Tiger Sharks with Suzuki engines were marketed briefly in The Nineties. Yamaha has continually sold its line of sit-down WaveRunners since 1987. Honda finally entered the market with a line of four-stroke models just a few years ago, following the series of uprisings by environmentalists over the pollution caused by the horde of two-strokes swarming all over the nation’s lakes. This predictable string of events followed a familiar pattern set by the same corporate players decades ago, when Honda was the only Japanese motorcycle brand building four-cycle engines in The Sixties. Due to environmental pressures, all the other Japanese brands began building four-strokes and phasing out their two-stroke models as The Seventies progressed. This time Honda just waited for the backlash to build up against the two-stroke smokescreen before entering the jet ski market.
Extremely long, closed-bow, deep-V, offshore racing boats had been entertaining millionaires in small numbers for years before Crockett and Tubbs brought them to the consciousness of average Miami Vice couch pilots in 1984. That was a Scarab they were driving across the waves. Now Scarabs and their many competing, smaller, boutique brands are ripping up and down inland lakes all across America. Most likely the ones you are seeing now are built by Baja, the brand that has taken the helm of the affordable, mass-production cigarette boats. Most of these roaring beasts still cost as much as a house, but at least Baja is making an effort to make them available to the masses of the upper middle class. You could say that this phenomenon is just another example of wretched excess taking over American waters. The pilots and passengers, who usually number no more than three, ride high above the miniscule waves with their noses held aloft. Most of these minions of excess enjoy the mellow bellow of through-hull twin exhaust systems that shatter the peace and quiet of the other millionaires living along the shoreline. The peasants in their smaller runabouts must pause their conversations until the elitist snots have roared on down the lake, disturbing someone else’s tranquility.
Americans are facing a crossroad in our history. The stresses brought on our environment and economy by decades of wretched excess are beginning to cause cracks in the hull of our ship. We are unsure who to blame and uncertain which issue is disturbing us more. The allegory becomes clear when you see that jet skis have borne the brunt of our anger simply because of their numbers. Their two-stroke engines assault our ears and their pollution assaults our lakes. Should anyone wonder why illegal immigration has finally arisen to the forefront of our collective consciousness? Why have overpaid CEO’s and hedge fund managers become so reviled? Are they not roaring across the quiet masses with their noses held high in the air? Some of us have become sickened by the sight of a soccer mom driving her Hummer to work alone. How many big-block V-8’s does a recreational watercraft need to cruise down the lake? Many of them have two and some even have three. A five-year-old holds up his fingers to indicate his age, but that kid will not need that many fingers to describe the fuel consumption of a big Scarab! We used to speak of a CEO’s income in millions. Now there are hedge fund managers making billions. We have become a nation of wretched excess for a few and unlimited growth for the multitudes. Like the middle class families enjoying their family outings on the lake, our national sanity is being wrenched apart by the growth of the extremes.
Floyd M. Orr is the author of Ker-Splash! Recreational Power Boaters Guide and Timeline of America: Sound Bytes from the Consumer Culture. His website is Nonfiction in a Fictional Style.
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