History of the Jet Ski

How motorized water scooters became a vacation essential

Jet skier almost airborne, looks at camera, homes and palms lined in background
Personal watercraft, more commonly known as Jet Skis, were popularized by Kawaski. Vince Cavataio/Getty Images

Personal water craft have been around for more than half a century. The “Jet Ski,” however, is a trademark used by Kawasaki for its line of personal motorized water craft. Although the word "Jet Ski" has now become a more generic term describing all personal watercraft, we'll use it to refer specifically to the Kawasaki vessels.

Early Years

The earliest water scooters – as they were originally called – were introduced in Europe in the mid 1950s by motorcycle makers looking to expand their markets.

The British company Vincent produced some 2,000 of its Amanda water scooters in 1955, but it failed to create the new market Vincent had hoped for. Despite the failure of European water scooters to catch on in the 1950s, the 60s saw continued attempts at tinkering with the idea.

The Italian company Mival introduced its Nautical Pleasure Cruiser, which required users to hang onto the craft from behind. Australian motocross enthusiast Clayton Jacobsen II decided to design his own version so that its pilots would be standing up. His big breakthrough, though, was switching from the old outboard motors to an internal pump-jet.

Jacobsen made his first prototype out of aluminum in 1965. He tried again a year later, this time opting for fiberglass. He sold his idea to the snowmobile manufacturer Bombardier, but they failed to catch on and Bombardier gave up on them.

With patent back in hand, Jacobsen went to Kawasaki, which brought out its model in 1973.

It was called the Jet Ski. With the benefit of Kawasaki’s marketing, the Jet Ski won a loyal audience as a way to waterski without the need for a boat. It was a small audience, however, as remaining on board while standing up—especially in choppy water—remained a challenge.

Jet Skis Go Big

The next decade planted the seeds for an explosion in the popularity of personal water craft.

For one thing, new models were introduced that let riders do what they could do back on the old water scooters. The ability to sit down helped pilot stability. New designs not only improved stability further, but they allowed for two riders at a time, introducing a social element to personal water crafts.

Bombardier got back into the game with the introduction of the Sea-Doo, which went on to become the best-selling personal watercraft in the world. With further advances in engine technology and emissions, today’s personal water craft enjoy new-found success in every metric. They can go faster than ever, reaching 60 miles an hour. And they now sell more than any boat in the world.

Jet Ski Competitions

As the popularity of personal water craft started to take off, enthusiasts started to organize races and competitions. The premiere racing series event is the P1 AquaX, which launched in the United Kingdom in May 2011.London-based sports promoter Powerboat P1 created the racing series and expanded to the United States in 2013. And by 2015, as many as 400 riders from 11 countries had signed up to compete in an AquaX event. The organizers are looking to expand to other countries.