“What am I doing here?” a chattered, rubbing my together vigorously over the gas fire pit. The attempt to warm myself against the bristling late-winter gusts blowing across the Tampa Bay was wholly in vain. The Clearwater/St. Petersburg area was being blasted by some unseasonable weather that plummeted the temperatures and whipped in waves of stinging rain. And here I was standing on the sugary white sand trying to regain a little circulation in my extremities.
Mid-March means making my annual trek from Nashville, Tennessee to the Watercraft Superstore headquarters in Clearwater, Florida for the annual Skyway Ski Show. Carrie and Stephanie had alerted me that “things were going to be a little different this year” but not to what extent. The event’s format of inviting 6 guest judges to ride and evaluate a sampling of latest personal watercraft models hadn’t changed – The Watercraft Journal had even played a role in selecting one.
Earlier in the year, we invited readers to “like,” “comment” and “share” a post on The Watercraft Journal‘s Facebook page to qualify to win the prize of being a guest judge. Bobby Sessom earned the honor and was more than happy to join the show. The selection of craft though, has thinned. Kawasaki opted to back out for 2019; leaving Sea-Doo and Yamaha. The latter brought out an EXR, GP1800R and FX Limited SVHO. Sea-Doo presented a Spark Trixx, RXP-X 300 and Fish Pro.
Ultimately, the judges were asked to evaluate the brands’ top tier Rec Lite entries as well as their respective muscle craft offerings. In addition to some new swanky JetPilot wetsuits, gloves and side-entry vests, each judge was provided with SBT slip-on booties, SeaSpec shades, and a clipboard with a whole lot of paperwork to fill out. Evaluating a new machine takes much more than a thumbs up or down, but some well developed though and consideration. Apparently, I make it look easy.
I had ventured down to help facilitate, drive skis from the launch ramp to the beach and back, and generally be a help where I can. Retired WCJ contributor Kurt NgSaye stepped in to snap pictures, while representatives from Yamaha, Sea-Doo and Cycle Springs Powersports were present to provide walk-arounds of each unit, detailing their respective features and characteristics.
Water levels were low around Whiskey Joe’s beach-side restaurant, and riders were cautioned to follow channel buoys as close as possible. Of course, I did not follow this council and rightly ran the Fish Pro (y’know, the only ski there with the dedicated depth gauge) into 1-foot deep water. A short, laborious walk back unstuck the big Sea-Doo; and I returned to the shore to applause and laughter. This was not a great start, I thought.
Thankfully, the night before was fantastic, as it usually always is. The food was phenomenal, the company even better. Again, the annual pilgrimage is one of my favorites. Equally, the evening marked the Watercraft Superstore’s and Pickren Community Outreach Program’s presentation of Oldsmar Cares; a local outreach that “provide[s] stop gap rent and utility assistance, a food pantry, and a clothes closet – at no cost – to those in need in the greater Oldsmar area.”
Oldsmar Cares has added health screenings and dental services to children over the past decade, which simply put them over the top. For their efforts, WCSS and Pickren Community Outreach Program awarded them $5,000, and invited one of their team members to be a guest judge for the day. Steal gray skies and wafting sheets of rain nearly spelled doom for the day, but the rain ceased long enough for head judge Jeff Hemmel to guide the group through a short predetermined route, allowing riders to stop and trade craft intermittently.
Even without Mother Nature’s cooperation, the Skyway Ski Show managed to perform without much of a hitch. Yet, there was one more change still left on the table. For 2019, the Watercraft Superstore won’t be publishing its massive annual catalog. Rather, all of those products, the individual evaluations, the final analysis and awarding of “SBT’s Watercraft of The Year” will be announced on WCSS’ website and social media channels. So if you’re dying to find out who won, you’re gonna have to like and subscribe their pages.