Dave’s Guide to PWC
first, to be sure that we understand what we are talking about, let’s define a few words often used when talking about skis
– this is the common name used for PWC, and it is also a trademark for Kawasaki – so while everyone refers to most skis as jetskis, in reality only Kawasakis are actually jetskis.
– same as above, but trademark to Yamaha. (all Yamaha PWC are Waverunners)
– same as above, but trademark to Bombardier (all Seadoo are Bombardier and vice versa) (so, telling the parts guy you have a Seadoo Bombardier doesn’t identify anything other than it is a Seadoo) Also, while Kawasaki and Yamaha manufacture their own motors, Seadoo has an engine partner Rotax. (meaning most Seadoo have Rotax engines – some of the boats have Mercury Sportjets, but that is a different topic)
How fast does a jetski go?
The fastest skis will go almost 70mph. Skis with engines strong enough to go faster are sold new with a governor system to make sure they don’t. If someone says their “stock” ski goes 80 (or 71 for that matter), it just isn’t true. Of course, there is a plethora of hot rod equipment available, and the governor can be bypassed (1-5mph increase, so into the 70s), and other kits added to make a properly modified ski run in the 80s. The most popular recreational skis run in the 50s, and this is totally adequate for most people.
What ski should you buy?
This can be narrowed down quickly by determining how much you want to spend on the ski. If you are shopping new ($7000 to $20,000), then this guide is not really intended for you. New shoppers have a wealth of information from articles and the dealerships, so it comes down to picking colors and features – most all new skis are reliable, and the manufacturers offer good warranties.
If buying used, one of the pivotal question is “2 stroke or 4 stroke”. This argument has been going on for as long as manufacturers have been phasing out two strokes (mostly due to government pollution regulations). I own both, and have good experiences with both.
The tipping point is about $3000 – meaning that most all 4 strokes in the market are going to cost more than $3000, and range to $10,000. I see good 2 strokes sell for as little as $1000, and very nice units for $2500.
The original jetskis (standups and early sitdowns) were small, unstable, but nimble and fun. These are early and mid 90s Seadoo XPs, Yamaha Raiders and Venture, Kawasaki ZXi and 750s, and other brands (see more about “other brands” below). They are fun and cheap, and great for playing around close to shore.
In the mid 90s, we saw a significant improvement in skis. Yamaha with GP and then GPR models, XLs, Seadoo with RX, XP Limited, Kawasaki STX and Ultra. These skis started to get bigger and more powerful, and for ultimate performance (at least bang for the buck) these are some of the best choices. Besides improved horsepower (faster, quicker), the hulls were not only bigger, but worked much better. If you put a big motor in an old ski, it might go as fast as one of the modern skis, but it won’t handle as well (sometimes to the point of being dangerous…)
In 2002 we saw the introduction of the 4 stroke PWC. Yamaha and Kawasaki used variants of their motorcycle engines (4 cylinder, double cam, 4 and 5 valve motors – very nice stuff), and Seadoo’s engine partner Rotax developed a 3 cylinder, single cam 4 valve engine (and later offered supercharged variants up to 300hp).
These new 4 strokes also saw an increase in hull size and weight, and just like the new skis of the late 90s, saw another evolutionary step in terms of hull performance. This mean smoother, safer, more stable in rough water – and just like cars the addition of electronics (fuel injection, GPS, etc).
Larger and more sophisticated engines meant a significant increase in price (and complexity). A basic 2 cylinder 2 stroke (like Yamaha 700 or 760) might have a total of about 50 parts (including nuts and bolts) for the entire motor. A modern 4 stroke will have 100s of parts in the cylinder head alone. Complete replacement 2 stroke engines start in the $450 range. Complete replacement 4 stroke engines start at about $2500 and go up quickly. (A new (from the factory) 4 stroke engine can cost $8000+)
The ”other” brands
There are several companies other than the big three that have built PWCs in the past. And, there are a few specialty market manufacturers that make custom race or trick skis (like Rickter, Wamilton, Hydrospace, and others).
Polaris made some great skis. They won “ski of the year” in the magazines several times, and made some of the cooler hot rod skis available off the showroom floor. (If you want something with a cool motor, check out a Polaris PRO) The problem is they stopped making skis over 10 years ago, which means there is little or no factory support, and few shops have the tools or experience to work on them, and parts are being scarce. This doesn’t mean they are bad skis, it means that the ownership experience is going to be more difficult, and possibly painful. If you have issues with Polaris fuel injection, you might never get it fixed…
Tigershark has the same issues, only more severe (as they were only made a few years, a long time ago…)
What to look for when you go to buy a used PWC
Used PWC ads can be found in lots of places, so finding the skis shouldn’t be a problem. So, the question becomes what to look for when you go see it.
Best way to test any ski is to put it on the water and run it and check top speed. Skis are surprisingly consistent in top speed numbers, so if it’s supposed to run 57mph, and it only runs 52, there is something wrong. (Might be minor, but it isn’t right). And, if it runs 57 smoothly, chances are it doesn’t have any significant problems.
Getting to this point assumes that the ski is running, and this brings up the biggest hurdle in used ski purchases.
I regularly talk to customers who buy skis and say “it ran great the day I bought it – but the second time I ran it, it quit and now won’t start (or worse), and I think the guy sold me a bad ski…”
Actually, the truth is the seller sold a perfectly good ski, and the new owner broke it by not checking carbs and oil lines prior to putting it on the water. A used ski for sale might not have been run in months or years, and any vehicle is going to have issues if it has been sitting for extended periods of time.
Most 2 stroke engines came from the factory with a mechanical oil pump on the front of the motor (driven by the crank). This means you don’t have to pre-mix the gas and oil, the pump does it for you, and many pumps are variable so they add less oil at low speeds (reducing oil consumption and smoke).
The oil pumps don’t fail often, but the lines connecting them to the motor can (and do) fail, and this causes instant catastrophic failure (with parts often flying out of the engine, destroying it…) Because of this, many people will eliminate the oil pump (with a block off kit), and premix the oil in the gas when they fuel up. This is a good plan (and factory race skis don’t come with oil pumps).
So, inspect the lines, the clamps and make sure the oil reservoir has oil in it – OR, be sure you have good premixed gas if you are running without an oil pump.
Next, whenever you run the ski after it’s been sitting (or, maybe every time you run it) – first step, start it, warm it up 1 or 2 minutes, and then run it wide open for 1 minute, and then pull the lanyard (instantly killing the motor). Now, inspect the plugs – if one (or both) are clean, you have a clog and are done for the day. They should be brown or black or just used – clean, especially clean on one side, is obvious sign of running lean and hot (which will destroy the motor in minutes or at most hours).
Avoid Yamaha skis that have any structural hull damage. I’m not talking about ugly and scratched up. If the body of the ski is cracked, or has been repaired, you probably want to pass. Yamaha skis use special materials and manufacturing techniques which makes the body nearly impossible to repair.
While I suggest that any new owner avoid buying any ski with damage, Seadoo and Kawasaki hulls are traditional fiberglass, and most boat builders (or Corvette shops) can repair the hulls successfully.
If hoods or seats are damaged or missing, call a parts house and check availability on the part prior to proceeding – some parts (XL or Venture hoods, for example) are rare and expensive ($200+ for scratched up examples). Other parts (rear seats for 97-99 GP) are nearly impossible to find (and we specialize in used parts for Yamaha and I don’t have any…)
Dave’s Notes on Specific Skis
Yamaha GP1200 (97-99)
This is the first ski that I had great experiences with. (It was the third ski that I owned).
3 cylinder, 130hp, definite 2 seater (3 small people), looks cool (but old school)
These skis are quick – they will out accelerate (get on plane quicker) than most other skis on the market. 59mph top speed, but due to low and nimble hull, feels faster.
Can have a tendancy to bounce (porpoise), especially with a lighter rider at mid speeds. This can be TOTALLY fixed by changing and/or tuning the ride plate. (See article)
Yamaha GPR1200 and 1300 (2000-2002 for 1200, 2003-07 for 1300)
These are one of the ultimate muscle skis. Most powerful 2 stroke engines ever put into a ski (165hp for 03 and 04, 190hp for last 1300 model). Radical looks and a well sorted hull make this ski still the hull of choice for many top racers and top speed junkies. Stock, they run in the mid 60s, but with some tweaks can get into the 70s (or much faster if you want to spend some money).
Yamaha Venture 700 and 760
Great old school family ski. Simple, stable, 3 seater. Nice examples of these are seen for $1500 and less, and they are cheap to own and easy to repair. The engine (62T 701cc or 64X 760cc) are the most popular engines that Yamaha produced, parts are plentiful (and the motors are very reliable, so parts shouldn’t be needed.
Yamaha XL, XLT
These models were the evolution of the Venture, got larger and more powerful (late models with the 155hp GPR engine). These are some of the best overall skis ever produced – great performance and easy to maintain. XLT 2001 and up have modern styling. Very clean examples can go for as much as $3500, but I see nice examples under $2000.
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