Why Do People Buy Jet Sportboats? - 05/20/2009

Increasingly, jet-powered runabouts have been growing in popularity. Only two major companies – Yamaha and Sea-Doo – are building them. We have been waiting for the old-line sportboat builders to introduce one into their lines, but so far no cigar. To our minds jet drives are a solid alternative to stern drive power. When the 23’ Yamaha was quietly introduced at the Miami boat show in 2003 in a tent in the back parking lot it didn’t get a lot of consumer traffic, but word spread quickly among the boat builders that this was a boat that had to be seen. Yamaha designers had created a stern that was unlike anything on the market. It was instantly obvious to even the dimmest bulb that it was a great idea – Yamaha had turned the transom into THE major focal point of the boat. Its 23’ boat became a three-ring circus: cockpit, bow seating, and stern watersports venue. It wasn’t long before conventional sportboat builders were copying the concept. Now it has spread even to 40’ cruisers! But when will they start copying the jet power?

The Yamaha SX210 has an MSRP of $31.5K.
The Yamaha SX230 has an MSRP of $38.1K.

Last year the 23’ Yamaha was the largest selling 23-footer on the sportboat market. In fact, more Yamaha 23-footers were sold than many small sportboat builders sold in their whole line. Hello…something is going on here. To find out why jet boats were becoming so popular, we called the president of Yamaha watercraft, Mark Speaks.

A Price Hard to Beat

We thought we already knew one reason for the popularity of the Yamahas – the price. In fact when the 23 was first introduced in 2003, the MSRP was $28,000, and we remember suggesting to the factory spokesman that they had made a mistake and had underpriced the boat. It was so low that we figured that Yamaha was trying to buy their way into the market.

Mark Speaks confirmed to us that their studies show that Yamaha’s competitive pricing structure is something that appeals to 100% of their owners that have been surveyed. We note that since 2003 the price has moved up considerably on the loaded-up 23 which now sells for $43,200, MSRP. But tellingly, the company has managed to keep the price down on its more basic model, the SX 230, which is selling today for $38,100, MSRP.

This drawing of the 232 Limited S the three-ring circus Yamaha designers created.

So, the 23 has gone up about $10,000 in six years, or about a 5% a year annual increase. Not bad in a period with 3% inflation with far higher spikes in petroleum and basic metals. Moreover in 2006 the boat was completely redesigned and many new features were added, so while it is still a 23-footer, it was really a different boat.

Speaks told us that Yamaha has been able to hold the price down on its basic and most popular model because there are virtually no options on it; they are already included as standard. By being able to, what is in the boating business, “mass produce” the basic 23 and 21 foot models (the only two sizes the company produces) it is able to take advantage of scale. The AR 210 has an MSRP of $31,500 -- a price which is less than even the “affordable,” low price-point competitors.

Yamaha’s pricing competiveness on the 23’ SX 230 is even more dramatic, and is from $5k to $24k less than the mid- and high price-point boats in its size range, and about the same price as the best-selling low-priced stern drive sportboats.

This young couple demonstrates the first table we ever saw put on a swim platform in 2003 by Yamaha.

Jet Power Appeal

We asked President Mark Speaks if the fact that the boats were jet powered was important to the buying decision and he said that while 30% of his customers say that they prefer the jet powered propulsion system, their studies also indicate that from 15% to 25% of the sportboat buyers prefer conventional stern drive propulsion.

“Essentially, they buy the boat because of what they see above the water,” Speaks said. “This aspect of the boats, plus the price, are what influences 100% of the purchases.”

Performance Counts

Speaks told us that the incredible 0 to 30 mph times and quick planing abilities demonstrated by jet boats didn’t seem to be particularly important in his customers’ buying decisions. However, once they owned the boats they realize the advantages of this kind of performance for waterskiing and wakeboarding. Also, the lack of bow rise is another thing not generally appreciated, he said, until after his customers had owned and operated their boats.

The Engine Saves Weight & Room

The Yamaha 23’ models are from 100 lbs. to 300 lbs. lighter than their closest price competitors, but this also did not seem to be particularly instrumental in buyers’ decision-making, according to Speaks. He says that virtually all of the weight savings comes from the engine and drive train in his sportboats.

A wakeboard dude takes the plunge. With rocket-like times to plane it will be easy for him to get up on his board.

“Our 1053 cc engine was designed and built specifically for jet watercraft,” Speaks said. That means from the beginning the Yamaha engineers knew they wanted a light engine so they built it of aluminum, and they also eliminated the transmission. The engine’s drive shaft is connected directly to the stainless steel impeller in the water pump, thus eliminating all of the heavy gear, shafts and house of a transmission. This reduction in weight is one of the important contributing factors to the boats’ performance and fuel economy. Of course weight savings also manifests itself in fuel economy for the tow vehicle going to and from the water.

Since the engine was designed from scratch, it was given a low profile. That low profile allows Yamaha to keep the engines below the cockpit deck which is what gives the company’s designers the ability to be so creative with the stern of the boat. There is simply no large engine in the way.

Jet boats are made to order for watersports of all kinds in shoal water.

PWC Migration?

We asked Speaks if there was a large migration from PWC owners into jet-powered boats. He told us that while that seemed like a logical progression, that such a movement had not yet developed into any appreciable numbers. He told us that 50% of the buyers of Yamaha PWCs already own a conventional boat, so the PWC is an added watercraft.

This seems to indicate, then, that most of the people buying the jet-powered boats are people who are coming from conventional stern drive or outboard powered boats. If Speaks is correct, the bulk of their sales are coming from would-be buyers of conventional sport boats who like the price, and the interior design, and are open to experiencing the benefits of a new type of boat.

BoatTEST.com has tested 17 Yamaha jet boat models. To see the tests and to get a handle on their performance, as well as to see the videos…

To visit the Yamaha boat site…