Gang Up and Go on a PWC!

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I CAN SEE THE ADRENALINE-SPIKED EXCITEMENT mixed with a little fear on the faces of the PWC riders as they get their first look at the angry Atlantic Ocean coming out of Haulover Inlet in North Miami. Steep five-footers in their face will do that, especially when they know they are looking at such waves for the next 50 miles on their way to Bimini. As we pick up a little speed, personal watercraft all around me are popping into the air like they are strapped to pogo sticks. After 45 minutes of slogging through the washing machine-like conditions, burning thighs signal it is time for a water-guzzling break. Most riders don’t look back, which is wise, because the Miami skyline is still in view. Three hours later, a weary dozen riders sight Bimini and the relief lights up every face.

For some, this would be torture, but for the adventurous, it created a memory they wouldn’t need photos to remember.

There’s something about the shared experience of a group of like-minded people that tends to create memorable adventures, and traveling en masse with other PWC riders is a thrill one must experience to fully understand. Leading the way on that Bimini adventure was Tim McKercher, president of Look Marketing, the agency that handles PR, social media, video production and event marketing duties for Sea-Doo. He has arranged countless group trips, and I’ve had the pleasure of going on eight of his adventures, to places such as Washington, D.C.; Nashville; Lake Shasta, Calif.; Bimini; Montreal; and the Florida Panhandle, all of which have been well-organized and lots of fun. Although McKercher makes it look easy, many details have to be nailed in order to pull it off. We mined his brain to get his advice on how to organize a group PWC trip — and how to handle some of the problems that invariably arise.DSC00366 copy

Alan: When and where was the first time you went cruising with a group?
Tim: I’ve been involved with the event and PR side of Sea-Doo marketing since 1990, so I can only guess as to the number of group rides I have organized or have been a part of. The first organized group ride was the 1990 Press Intro in Stuart, Fla., based out of the Club Med at Sandpiper.

What was different about going with a group?
What was quickly apparent was personal watercraft were anything but personal, and for many, it’s more enjoyable when you do it with other riders. It’s a great bonding experience.

What do you look for in a location?
Ultimately it comes down to the on-water experience, but there are a lot of practical considerations that have to be taken into account, such as the availability of good launch locations, average and potential conditions on the body of water you are visiting, on-water dining opportunities, places to stay that have adequate dockage, and fuel availability. One big factor is parking, since everyone will have a trailer. It’s also a good idea to know how much your fellow riders can afford; hotels and dining can add up quickly if you are going first class. You can still have a great experience without breaking the bank, and often, rustic places have more charm.

How important is doing the legwork and making advance arrangements?
The importance of advance preparations grows proportionally with the size group you are talking about and the complexity of the event. When we go to restaurants, it’s really fun to sit as a group, which helps you bond and meet everyone, so advance planning with the restaurant is definitely in order to reserve dock space and arrange seating. Having firsthand knowledge of your destination is also important; guidebooks help — Google Earth even more so — but local knowledge is king when doing a group trip. It’s always fun to have a few places to stop along the way to your destination, to break up the riding and to relax. Some people get too focused on getting from point A to B and forget the real point is to have fun. In addition to restaurants or local areas of interest, beaches, islands and sandbars make good stopovers. It’s really fun to learn about the history of the places where you go, so doing a little homework can make the trip even more special. When going to places like the Bahamas, you have to know how to clear customs and learn what fees and regulations exist. Some parks, such as the Everglades, don’t allow PWCs, so you have to do your homework.DSC00956 copy

Should you have a support boat go along with you?
We won’t do an open-water ride without a support boat, for several reasons. First, it carries the luggage, but more importantly it’s good insurance if someone is injured. It’s a good idea to have riders on the boat who can ride a PWC in case someone gets tired or sick, which can happen on more challenging rides. In addition, a boat’s electronics are far superior for navigation and communication. The other plus is that if you are doing a ride of 60-plus miles, a support boat can carry extra fuel, food and refreshments.

In larger groups, should you have a mechanic along?
Having a mechanic along is a plus in any situation. A MacGyver-type participant is golden in places such as the Bahamas or Alaska or the lower Mississippi River, where resources are nonexistent.

What spare parts or tools should you have along?
The must-haves include VHF, zip ties, Gorilla tape, an underwater patch kit, spark plugs, basic safety gear and a model-specific tool kit. If you can bring more, do it, which is another reason to have a support boat.

What activities are important to do when readying for a trip?
A lot depends on how challenging of a ride you are planning. A trip like the Bimini Road Rally, which takes us from Miami to the Bahamas across the very unpredictable Gulf Stream, takes a lot of preparation. Same goes for others we’ve done, such as crossing the Bering Strait or heading down the Mississippi River. On these, both the machinery and people need to be in really good shape. The run to Bimini can be relatively easy if you live there and get to pick and choose your days to cross, but when you plan the event six months out and people schedule their vacations around those dates and travel up to 1,500 miles, you have to be prepared for less-than-perfect conditions. We almost try to scare people out of doing it and let them know what the worst-case scenario can be. You can do everything possible to have things in place to avoid potential issues, but ultimately the rider has to ride.DSC01510 copy

The 50 miles to Bimini in five- to six-foot headwind seas can be the longest 50 miles of your life. It’s key to prepare by riding 10, 20, 40 miles at a time in a chop to learn to read cross-chop. Also, prepare physically by doing squats or running, to get your legs ready, and work on your grip to hold on for that long. The other element is the mental part, to get your mind ready to be in the middle of the ocean with no land in sight. If an unexpected storm confronts us, again, we don’t have a choice but to deal with it, so freaking out doesn’t help anything and actually puts the entire group in jeopardy. The other half of this is the watercraft. For long rides like Bimini, we do not allow modified units of any kind, to ensure a safe and reliable trip. We also mandate all units be serviced by a authorized dealer prior to the ride and that owners leave their watercraft in the water for a few days straight to make sure there are no leaks, because the units will stay in the water for three or more days straight and resources are scarce in some of these destinations.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced?
We have faced every situation you can imagine after more than 25 years of rides. One time we did a group trip from Long Beach to Catalina when a brand new fuel-injected model’s fuel line popped off the fuel pump. A tech literally was sitting in the front storage compartment working on crimping fuel lines back on the tank with a screwdriver. Once, we had a rider see lightning on the way to Bimini — 25 miles either way — and simply freeze up and start crying like a baby (he drove a Hummer too…). On the way to Russia, we took a break and rode the units up on an iceberg; when the journalist pushed the unit back in the water, the nozzle got caught on the ice and bent the steering cable. And there were definitely no spare steering cables in the waters off Nome, Alaska. We had to disconnect the steering cable, and I had to ride the unit for 12 miles to the Diomede Islands, leaning to steer. There, we were able to rope it to our support boat, which again points out the need to have one.DSC06070 copy

What’s the largest group you should have?
Imagine as large of a group as you think you can control, then reduce that number by 20 percent. If you are inexperienced, start off with a group of 10 or less; then, as you gain experience you can add more riders, more stops and more days. It’s also helpful to have one person who is the clear group leader, so you don’t have to vote on every decision.

How do you handle someone who is driving recklessly or breaks the rules/laws?
Usually, you can resolve the issue by taking the person aside, talking to him respectfully, explaining your concerns and letting him know he is endangering others and could potentially cause the trip to end prematurely. If this doesn’t work, ask him to leave. In a worst-case scenario, have him removed. For the most part, group riders are usually older and more chill anyway. Racer groups are younger and have more testosterone, which can be an issue. For safety, we insist that riders refrain from drinking alcohol while we are riding. At night there’s plenty of time for socializing, and that’s the proper time to imbibe.

When going to places such as the Bahamas, should you have a plan B?
With a trip such as going to the Bahamas, Catalina or somewhere separated by water, we always warn participants to allow a cushion of a day or two on the back end, in case we have to delay a crossing. One year we had to cancel the Bimini Road Rally altogether due to a tropical storm hovering over the area for a week. If the seas are just too rough, you can always head to the Keys while staying in protected waters.

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