The morning’s overcast hung low over the Florida bay as commuters slogged in creeping traffic along the Courtney Campbell Causeway all as sunlight slipped through the cracks between passing cloud cover and the vertical skyline of downtown Tampa. As I watched passersby I couldn’t help but feel their stares glaring back. If I was trapped crawling along the highway while some jerk was unloading a trailer-full of jet skis into the warming gulf water, I’d be angry too. Sea-Doo’s Tim McKercher lowered a crimson red RXP-X and a festively-colored Spark Trixx into the water, while ProRider’s Danielle Gavagni and myself sat ready to ride them to the beach just inside of Rocky Point.
“Not a bad way to spend a Tuesday,” I joked to Danielle who admittedly, wasn’t having “any of it.” She had just came in from Orlando late last night having literally flown 24 hours from a short stay in India to cover the P1 offshore boat races. Despite her best efforts to hide behind a smile, Danielle was visibly exhausted. Accompanying our two Sea-Doos was a blue-and-white supercharged GP1800 and a EX, Yamaha’s entry-level runabout. A brilliant green-and-black Kawasaki Ultra 310R and STX-15F were already idling away from the launch ramp. The morning taxiing of the watercraft from the ramp to the sugary sands behind Whiskey Joe’s has become part of the Skyway Ski Show as much as the show itself, and all hands were on deck to make it happen.
Celebrating its 5th year, the Skyway Ski Show is the last remaining vestige of Watercraft World magazine, which shuttered its doors in 2009. There, the event was called the “Dream Demo” and was a little more than a glorified free-for-all wherein manufacturers provided examples of each of their available models for testing by a panel of nearly a dozen riders reigning from every ilk. Tales of the demo echo throughout the industry, most of which circling about highly tuned models that far exceeded stock performance levels, incredibly lavish gifts to the judging panel from one manufacturer or another, or some pretty “adult” situations best left for the “Letters to The Editor” section of other publications.
Under the direction of the Watercraft Superstore, all of that has been eliminated. Rather, manufacturers are invited to bring two examples from their lineup, typically sorted by predetermined themes; this year was base-model entry level and top performance model. Providing the test units was Cycle Springs Powersports. Watercraft Sales Manager Dan “Smitty” Smith generously provided Yamahas, Kawasakis and a single Sea-Doo Spark (McKercher provided the RXP-X 300) for the day’s introductions and test rides. Marine Mat provided the camera/safety boat, and former Watercraft World staff writer Jeff Hemmel returned as the head judge and guide for the day’s riding who brought Chris Krall, a previous panelist and friend.
The night before, the Watercraft Superstore introduced us to all the test riders, and to Jesse Freeman and the Eckerd Kids Foundation, a tremendous cause working to provide counseling and direction for troubled youth in the area. Jesse was picked as a judge for her complete lack of experience, and laughed, “This was my first time ever riding jet skis. I started off on the ‘beginner level’ [models]; I started off on the lightweight Sea-Doo [Spark] but I did feel stable – I didn’t feel like I was going to fall off or anything like that. I did feel like the Yamaha [EX] was more stable, but I wish it was easier to grab [the throttle]. Overall, I did spend a lot of time on the Yamaha, and I enjoyed it a lot. The Kawasaki was more of a wet ride.”
We met up with professional racer and full-time PWC enthusiast Dylan Osborn who said, “Going out in the rough, the 310R is for sure the machine for the big heavy swells, but just coming back in I was on the GP1800 and was surprised at how well it handled. It tracked beautiful – and had it trimmed up and down just to test – and came down on a wave sideways. If I was on another ski it probably would’ve ejected me. [Compared to the RXP-X], the GP has a lot more lower-end power, you can really feel it come on. The RXP-X definitely handles and carves, but as the GP just does what you tell it to do, you just have to hang on to the RXP-X. The GP1800 has really blown me away.”
Finally, we chatted up with James Howe after the day’s riding who said of his riding experience, “I’m past beginner, but saying ‘intermediate’ would be pushing it.” Nevertheless, James provided some great insight on his day as a judge, “The Spark was very nimble; very easy to turn, donuts, S-curves, it was very nice. The EX was very predictable when you’re on the gas. It seemed a little unpredictable when you let off the gas. It felt a little uncomfortable when you left off the gas. Of the three, I liked the Kawasaki the best, although I feel it was the wettest. It was very predictable, good get-up-and-go, and got up to good speed. The biggest thing that would keep me from buying the Kawasaki today was that the throttle was sooo tight. It really wore out my hand. The Spark beat me up a little more. The Yamaha was very ‘middle-of-the-road.'”
Ultimately, the final judging on the three entry-level machines and the three top-performer machines will be revealed when the annual Watercraft Superstore “magalog” is released to the world in the coming weeks. Until then, we have a sampling of some really great images taken by our own Kurt NgSaye of Harlem Shake Photography, and look forward to seeing how the final judging results. So while the rest of the world was on its way to work, we were playing on the water. Not a bad way to spend a Tuesday after all.