Part 1: Time Machine Travels
Modern machines carry us back 500 years around the U.S.’s oldest continually occupied city.
The forecast sucks. Tim McKercher and I aren’t doubting the prediction of an 80 percent chance of rain as we sit in his truck at the Vilano boat ramp and watch the raindrops furiously percolate the surface of northern Florida’s Tolomato River. But as modern day St. Augustine explorers, we channel the spirit of Ponce de Leon and ponder WWPD? We postulate that if PdL had a Nissan Titan Crew Cab with a functioning heater, he would have stayed hunkered down until it stopped raining, or at least ’til the temperature climbed into the mid 50s. McKercher, the point man for Sea-Doo’s PR efforts, has a pair of personal agua barcos hitched up and ready to go. And as soon as the rain stops, we bravely don our neoprene armor and head 500 years back in time.
In 1513, Ponce de Leon reached northeast Florida, looking for the Fountain of Youth. It’s a shame Sea-Doos weren’t around back then, otherwise he might have actually found what he was looking for: an immediate way to feel like a 20-something again.
To facilitate my journey back to 20-somethingness, have a choice between a Dreamsicle-orange Spark 3-Up or a high-vis yellow RXP-X 260. Last year Sea-Doo rocked the PWC world with the unveiling of the revolutionary, low-cost Spark, which starts at less than $5,000. Though they’re powered by either a 60- or 90-horsepower Rotax engine (ours is a 90), their light weight (421 pounds in the heaviest configuration) makes them plenty sporty with nimble handling. The 260 hp RXP-X is the racing-ready rocket ship of the lineup, which has won the IJSBA Pro GP class all four years since its rollout in 2011. Guess which one I select? After a short idle, I goose the billet throttle, putting the intercooled supercharger on the job, and the ensuing adrenaline rush has me glowing toastily in the cool mist. Frankly, the power inequity is the only way I can leave McKercher in my wake, since he’s an ex-pro rider. I slow down and settle into a comfortable cruise speed. After quickly eating up the choppy expanse of Matanzas Bay, America’s oldest continually occupied city, founded in 1565, is before us.
Out of the gloom, the Castillo de San Marcos morphs into view. The Spanish fortress, when viewed from overhead, resembles a giant four-point ninja throwing star. It was built in 1672 out of coquina, a porous shell-infused mixture of soft limestone and sand, bonded together by calcium carbonate: nature’s concrete. And it was chosen for the very good reason that it was the only material locally available. While it might seem like a poor fort-building substance — at least compared to the usual granite or brick medium — its special properties helped the Spanish keep control of it for 200 years. See, instead of shattering like harder materials tend to do when on the receiving end of a fusillade, its porosity helped it absorb enemy cannonballs like BBs fired at a Styrofoam block. The next 300 years saw a total of six national flags hoisted up the fort’s flagpole as it changed hands between the English, the Spanish, the Confederacy and finally the United States.
After idling right up to the fort and checking it out from the water, we do the Doo and head into town, cruising under the scenic Bridge of Lions, which was built in 1927 and was the recent recipient of an $80 million renovation. Just to the right, another slice of 500-year-old history pops into view: a seemingly authentic 16th-century Spanish galleon, complete with deployed cannons. Cleverly named El GaleÓn, this is not your typical pirate ship built for tourists to watch the sunset while trying to break even on the all-you-can-drink grog. El Galeón is as close to the real deal as you’ll ever see. Even though it was built in 2010 and is actually wood planking over a fiberglass hull, the look and atmosphere are the real deal, and it gives you a glimpse into what it would have been like to sail the Spanish Main. It’s a working ship that sailed across the Atlantic from Spain, cross-stitching the Eastern Seaboard until reaching its current, semi-permanent port.
We pull into the St. Augustine City Marina, which is conveniently located right downtown and is perfect for waterborne tourists. I stayed here for a few nights back in the 1990s during a half-lap around Florida on the annual Boat-A-Cade, a flotilla that’s been taking trips since 1950. I can attest that both the event and the marina are fantastic. We lemming-up with the ever-present herd of visitors and check out the usual tourist haunts, such as the statue commemorating de Leon’s landing hereabouts 502 years ago (where I do a fantastic rendition — I’ll bet — of Joe Pesci as Cousin Vinny talking about the “da Fountain of Yute”). Then it’s on to the Ponce de Leon Hotel, which is now Flagler College. The Spanish Renaissance-style grand hotel was built by Henry Flagler in 1888 and lit by his friend Thomas Edison with DC generators. Reportedly, the guests were too afraid to flip the switches, so a hotel attendant would take care of it for them.
Next is a closer scrutiny of the Castillo de San Marcos, which has an amazing collection of period cannonry, some of which are quite ornate. And no visit would be complete without a trip to the creepy dungeon. We are shocked when we are clapped in irons by Monty Python’s Michael Palin, who exclaims, “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!” (OK, I made that part up.)
Having checked off the major items on our tourist bingo card, we saddle up to explore the Matanzas River. In calmer water, McKercher and I take turns on each Sea-Doo and spend more time doing joy circles than actually going anywhere. The RXP-X features the T3 Hull, which is a beast in turns. It was this machine that really taught me how to throw a PWC into a high-G corner. The power is off-the-charts fast, but it comes on smoothly, so it’s very manageable for even recreational riders like me. The Spark is also amazing in its own right, with a light hull that allows you to manhandle it and throw it around like it’s part of you. Our test Spark even has optional Intelligent Brake and Reverse (iBR), which the RXP-X has as a standard feature; iBR allows you to shift to reverse without taking your hands off the handlebar and also serves as a brake.
While most people think Florida waterways are totally developed with million-dollar homes that are lived in two months of the year, there are many stretches where it’s just you and nature. Numerous deserted beaches can be found, garnished by driftwood, and we pick one to beach our bikes and take a sandy stroll. In between us and the Atlantic Ocean is a PWC-perfect cove called Salt Run that borders Conch Island, which is home to scenic Anastasia Park.
The wind picks up a bit, and we wonder if another line of rain showers is moving in, so I quickly commandeer the faster RXP-X again, fire it up and squeeze the finger throttle until it ramps up to its top speed of around 68 mph. And just for the most fleeting of moments, I’m a kid again. Sorry, Ponce, you were just born a little too early.
Part II: On a Mission
Mission Bay and its surroundings provide the perfect backdrop for a day of riding Kawasaki Jet Skis.
By Mike Werling
The forecast is awesome. A little chilly maybe, but only for Southern California, and as soon as my wetsuit is on, I’m sweating — and probably looking a bit like a 1-pound sausage in a ½-pound sausage sleeve. No matter. I’m going to ride Kawasaki Jet Skis on San Diego’s Mission Bay and the Pacific Ocean.
Our group of ragtag journalists from the U.S. and Canadian boating and motorsports press is led by Kawasaki PR guru Jon Rall who, it’s quite obvious, loves his job. After kitting up with gear from Slippery Wetsuits, we head down to the marina at Paradise Point Resort & Spa, where the 2015 Jet Ski Ultra 310s are lined up like pretty maidens all in a row — lots of bright green everywhere. Knowing my limitations, I steer clear of the racing versions and ultimately land on an Ultra 310X, which is about the most recreational rig in the lineup but does not skimp on power and speed, with a 310 hp supercharged, four-stroke, DOHC, inline four-cylinder engine with four valves per cylinder. The other 310X in the group has JetSound, a stereo with a built-in amp and a set of 60-watt speakers. Just plug in an MP3 player or a USB stick, which is kept dry in a watertight storage container (just a fraction of the 56 gallons of storage aboard), and choose the soundtrack for your high-speed adventures.
We don’t start out at high speed, though. Much of Mission Bay is a 5 mph no-wake zone, which is a problem for the impatient riders, but not for the 310X, because it is equipped with cruise control, which caps the Jet Ski’s speed at 5 mph when you push the button while the throttle is released. We round the southern tip of Vacation Isle and head for the high-speed play area. That there is an island to skirt around would surprise the first European who landed in the San Diego area. When Capt. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo found and named Mission Bay in 1542 — he named it False Bay — it was a marshy, go-nowhere inlet. Most of the land in Mission Bay is manmade, part of a massive dredging operation that started in the 1940s and moved 25 million cubic yards of sand and silt.
As we pass under the Ingraham St. bridge, just past which is the end of the no-wake zone, the sprawling Sea World park is to our right, but it warrants barely a glance as Rall gives us the etiquette rundown for glassy-smooth Fiesta Bay — our playground — and encourages us to crank it up. The kid in me says, “Punch it, now!” The adult in me says, “Let’s get the feel of this thing first.” Somehow, the adult wins and I make a smooth run northward to the end of the bay, topping out around 50 mph and knowing the Ultra has more to give. Another couple of runs yield 55 mph before I throw the sled into hard turns, which its deep-V hull handles with aplomb, digging in and not skidding or sliding. I’m sure it can handle faster, tighter turns, because I see other riders tearing it up, but I’m not 100 percent certain I can, so I settle for knowing I pushed it a little.
While the other riders huddle around the photo boat, I take the opportunity to do a couple of flat-out runs, down toward Sea World and back. Shamu would be jealous. The power comes on instantly — as my East Coast uncle would say, wicked fast. I’m to 30 mph in the time it takes to pucker, and I’m to 66 mph in the time it takes to unpucker. Forgive me for not having actual times, as I am holding on tightly. Fortunately, the digital readout makes seeing the important information easy.
I experiment a little with standing while riding, which is made easier for me thanks to the telescoping handlebar. It’s still a little low for me, but that’s entirely because of my 6-foot, 6-inch frame, and it’s something that can be addressed for tall buyers. Soon, it’s time to head for the open ocean, where we meet a good-sized swell and what I would normally consider a small chop, but of course I’m normally on 40- to 70-foot boats during sea trials for our sister publication, Sea Magazine. We turn north out of the harbor entrance and head toward Pacific Beach and its iconic pier. I’m left in the proverbial dust by Rall and a couple of other riders, as I get accustomed to the choppy Pacific, still a little uncomfortable with riding standing up. When Rall suggests I exchange the regular key for the SLO (Smart Learning Operation) Mode key, I decide it’s time to figure things out and ride standing. And while I don’t exactly break any speed records as we head south toward Point Loma, I do increase my average speed, even sustaining 55 mph at one point as the multimillion-dollar homes on the coastline go by in a blur, and stay closer to the rest of the pack. With my knees working in combination with the deep-V hull to absorb the bumps, the ride is smooth, controllable, predictable and beyond fun. I could stay out here a lot longer, slicing, pounding, cutting, gliding and powering along, but alas, deadlines call.
More Info: Find out more about the PWCs mentioned in this story and all of the Sea-Doo and Kawasaki lineups at sea-doo.com and kawasaki.com.