ST. PETE BEACH
At times, the future feels like three gallons of seawater gurgling up your nose. But when you're soaring 15 feet above the Gulf of Mexico, the future can also feel just like James Bond promised.
Forty-seven years after Thunderball teased us with 007's high-flying derring-do, the TradeWinds Island Grand introduces the JetLev, a water-propelled jet pack capable of sending you 30 feet in the air and zipping you across the surface of the Big Briny at 28 mph.
Starting today, guests with fat wallets (costs start at $275) and serious chutzpah can strap on the 28-pound water-boosted rocket gear and spend 30 minutes maneuvering over, on and under a wide expanse of the gulf.
If you can keep your cool — and don't mind the wedgie of a lifetime — the experience is thrilling, addictive even.
Invented by a free thinker named Raymond Li, the JetLev system (the company is based in Fort Lauderdale) has been in the works for more than a decade. In simple terms, a hose connected to a remote craft expels seawater through the jet pack, providing different degrees of thrust. Very little heat is generated from the device. There are only a few of these contraptions around; the TradeWinds has the only jet pack for public use on the Gulf Coast.
"If you can relax out there, no problem," says J.T. Thee, the watersports manager at the TradeWinds. "It takes a little while, but you'll be surprised how fast you can pick it up. It's just like learning how to ride a bike. But, uh, it's a jet pack."
After pulling the thing on (not unlike strapping into an intense roller coaster), you're given a quick lesson that boils down to this: Relax your arms, legs. Small movements do the trick. Slight leans to the left and right turn you. Incremental lifts of the jet pack's arms dictate your elevation. Balance plays a part, but staying loose is more important.
And don't worry too much about losing your head: One of the TradeWinds' several jet pack trainers — in my case, the dulcet tones of Thomas Wheat giving instruction through a headset — are running the show from a command boat and can bail you out of any bad situation.
"Everybody crashes at first," says Wheat. "You really just have to relax and let us help you."
To get in the water with the gear on, you plunge backward (a la scuba diving) off a small boat anchored just off the beach. In the water, you'll get another quick safety lesson from one of the spotters. There's a kill switch, which, unfortunately, I managed to turn off in midair (kersplash). A "turtle" maneuver puts you on your back in the water, but I never felt a fear of drowning.
Well, that's not entirely true.
After a few learning laps with my legs still in the water — vrooom — I was game for myriad maneuvers. A little too game, actually. After one cocky up-and-away try — VROOOM! — I face-planted straight into the water. I was blowing buckets of water out of my schnoz for a good minute.
But sooner rather than later, I was enjoying the ride. I absolutely adored the "flying," or levitation, move, which is especially rewarding when you can manage a nice cruising speed. Wheat told me I made it about 10 feet up in the air, although one reasonable fellow told me it looked more like 15. So let's go with that number.
"Walking on water" (a.k.a. "the Jesus" maneuver), where you hover just above the surf and skip along, is a ridiculous thwarting of human limitations. That said, I want to do it again. NOW.
Alas, there were a few things I didn't dig so much. I fear that the "submarine" move, in which you build up speed close to the water's surface then nosedive under, looked more like a wet, pathetic faceplant. And the contraption's seat started to seriously bruise my undercarriage, if you catch my drift. Plus I was on the water for less than 30 minutes and I was fairly exhausted.
But like many daredevilish activities such as bungee jumping or skydiving, the biggest thrill of jet packing might be the surviving, the bragging. Yes, it's fun to do, but it's even more fun to tell.
Yep, jet packs are here.
The future is now.
And James Bond wears board shorts.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.