TAMPA — Like many die-hard "prop" men, I once snubbed my nose at jet-powered watercraft. A dedicated outboard owner, I dismissed these recreational vessels as nothing more than jet skis on steroids.
Times have changed.
"Where's my ride?" I asked Justin Greene, pointing to a beefy boat on the back of a trailer outside Barney's Motorcycle & Marine in St. Petersburg. "I'm here to do a test drive."
One of the perks of being an outdoors writer is that you get to check out all sorts of watercraft. This weekend's Tampa Bay Boat Show at the Florida State Fairgrounds will feature dozens of boat dealers from both sides of the bay, showing everything from flats skiffs to cabin cruisers.
So when I went through the list of manufacturers, I really had my pick of the fleet. Over the years, I've tested everything from motorized canoes to offshore race boats (I find the former functional, but the latter more enjoyable). This time, the choice was easy.
"I like to go fast. Real fast," I told Greene, Barney's sales manager. "I'd want to get his baby out on the open water and crank it."
While this Yamaha 242 is fresh off the showroom floor, jet boats are nothing new. I first ran across them back in the late '80s in New Zealand, where the Kiwis had been using them for decades to run shallow boulder-strewn rivers.
Any boater will tell you that rocks and props don't mix. So a jet drive, which utilizes an impeller system, has no outward moving parts, so nothing to bend or break when it hits something.
"They are really much safer," said Greene. "They are especially well suited for running in sensitive areas such sea grass beds. They are also manatee friendly."
Yeah, yeah, I thought. I've heard it all before. Sounds good, but I wanted power, enough umph to get the hull out of the hole and up on a plane without waiting for the tide to turn. The jet boats of old, or at least the ones that I'd run before, barely had enough energy to get off the floor and up on the couch.
"You will be surprised," Greene said. "This new Yamaha is bigger and better than any jet boat I've ever seen. It's got a lot of muscle."
At first glance, the 242 had me looking for a stern drive. It looked too big for a jet boat. What's more, it seats 12 (adults, not preschoolers) and has carrying capacity of 2,700 pounds, which is more than many bay boats.
With an 8-foot 6-inch beam, the platform is astonishingly stable. And the twin 1.8 liter, high-output engines give it plenty of power to top out, fully loaded, at more than 50 mph.
But the real question was, how does it handle?
I found out pretty quickly. Doing donuts at full throttle in the middle the bay is my kind of fun. Smiling ear to ear, I burned off a few gallons of fuel before Greene grabbed the keys so he could head back to the showroom to get the boat ready for the fairgrounds.
"I need one," I told him. "If I could only convince my wife."
For many would-be boat buyers, the choice often comes down to performance or function. I've always looked at utility, but a 24-foot jet boat, while not a fishing craft, seems like the ideal family-fun machine. Fast, yet easy to operate, the 242 is the perfect way to get to a sandbar sunset.
"This is the ideal family boat," Greene said. "But you don't have to go this big to get the kids out on the water."
The Yamaha 242 will be on display at this weekend's Tampa Bay Boat Show with a list price of $58,499. The price is reasonable in a market where high-end bay boats can go for more than $100,000. But you don't have to spend that much to get into a jet boat. Yamaha makes a 19-footer that starts at $27,499.