The Facts About PWC’s


The personal watercraft (PWC) concept originated in the 1960s when a home inventor conceived and built his notion of a powered water ski. This design combined the elements of self-power, small size, and a maneuverable, active ride. Bombardier Recreational Products , known for its Ski-Doo® snowmobiles, introduced a craft in the late 1960s with limited success. This craft gets credit for being the first sit-down style PWC. In the early 1970s, Kawasaki Motors Corp. U.S.A. introduced the JET SKI® watercraft, the first commercially successful PWC.

PWC are considered by the U.S. Coast Guard to be inboard boats under 16 feet in length. They are powered by either a 2-stroke gasoline engine (the same basic engine type which is found in most outboard motors), or by a 4-stroke gasoline engine, the same engine type used in cars. The engine drives a jet pump that draws water from the bottom of the craft into an impeller (a type of propeller fitted into a surrounding “tunnel”), which pressurizes the water and forces it out a nozzle at the rear of the craft. It is this jet of pressurized water that propels and steers the craft when the throttle is engaged. New off-throttle steering technology offers personal watercraft users increased maneuverability when the throttle is disengaged.

There are three major companies currently active in the personal watercraft market, Yamaha, Seadoo and Kawasaki. In the mid-1980s, Kawasaki’s JET SKI watercraft was joined by Yamaha Motor Corp. U.S.A.’s line of WaveRunner® models, which truly began the change in market emphasis from the stand-up style PWC to a sit-down style with one- or two-person capacities. Shortly after, Bombardier Recreational Products re-joined the market with their Sea-Doo® line. From 2002 – 2009 American Honda began selling PWC, the AquaTrax®. Unfortunately, Honda stopped production of these machines after the 2009 model year. Along the way, two-person craft quickly took over from the single person style, and today three person family models are showing the strongest growth and popularity. Multiple-person family craft currently make up more than 97 percent of personal watercraft sales.

The first PWC consumer magazines also began to hit the racks in the mid-1980s. Splash, Personal Watercraft Illustrated , Water Scooter (now Watercraft World ), and PWC Magazine and sang the praises of the new and rapidly growing sport. Growth of the sport was rapid up until the mid-1990s, and what was once a small portion of the recreational motorized consumer product business became the fastest growing sport in this category. At the same time, the PWC industry became the fastest growing segment in the marine business.

Personal Watercraft Sales

Sales of PWC peaked in 1995 with approximately 200,000 units sold. Since that time, annual PWC sales have declined significantly. In 1998 there were approximately 130,000 units sold. Sales of PWC have continued to drop in recent years, though they began to level off in 2002 with sales of 79,300.

According to National Marine Manufacturers Association estimates, there were approximately 1.35 million PWC owned in 2002. The average retail price of a PWC in 2002 was $8,800. Since the mid-1990s, sit-down
style, multi-passenger watercraft have made up around 99 percent of all PWC sales, with three- and four-passenger family models the fastest growing segment. Twenty million Americans ride personal watercraft each year.


2003 U.S. Personal Watercraft Sales*

Personal Watercraft Sold: 80,600
Total Retail Value: $716,501,760
Average Unit Cost: $8,890
Personal Watercraft Owned: 1,420,000

Unit Sales, 1987 – 2002:

Year Unit sales
2002 79,300
2001 80,900
2000 92,000
1999 106,000
1998 130,000
1997 176,200
1996 191,300
1995 200,000
1994 142,000
1993 107,000
1992 79,000
1991 68,000
1990 72,000
1989 64,000
1988 48,000
1987 29,000
*Source: National Marine Manufacturers Association


PWC owners spend millions on their sport annually. In addition to purchases of PWC, they spend money on boating registration fees, launch fees, trailers, fuel, insurance, clothing, accessories, food, travel, and
watercraft-oriented vacations.

Nearly 9,000 people are employed in the U.S. by PWC manufacturers, in at least 15 states. Other financial impacts of the sport include employment in more than 2,000 retail businesses that service and sell PWC, aftermarket and related small businesses that manufacture components and accessories, corporate tax revenues from PWC-related businesses, and local and state sales and gas tax revenues.

The Personal Watercraft Consumer

Today’s personal watercraft are affordable family boats with clean, quiet, fuel-efficient engines and no exposed propellers. Manufacturers have been outstanding in responding to customers’ desire for environmentally-friendly recreation, and have created cleaner, quieter, safer personal watercraft.

In less than three years, manufacturers have attained the same level of engine emission reductions it took the auto industry 25 years to achieve. Today’s personal watercraft utilize two-stroke direct injection and catalysts that allow up to 75 percent fewer emissions than models manufactured in 1998. Bombardier, Yamaha, and Honda are marketing 2002 models with four-stroke engines, universally recognized as the cleanest and most fuel-efficient engines on the water. Additionally, hull insulation and other muffling techniques have resulted in personal watercraft that are 70 percent quieter than models of only three years ago.

A 1996 survey showed the average purchaser of a new PWC during the previous five years was 41 years old. About 85 percent were male, 71 percent were married, 69 percent had owned a powerboat prior to their most recent PWC purchase, and 66 percent had taken or completed college-level course work. Forty-two percent of those PWC owners owned waterfront property, and over 60 percent had access to a home on the water, whether their primary home or the home of a close friend or relative. Today’s consumer is likely more diverse with the broader selection of models currently available, appealing to different people. PWIA hopes to be able to provide updated information on PWC consumers soon.

In 2001, Leisure Trends Group, a national consumer research firm, surveyed consumer attitudes towards personal watercraft. Sixty-eight percent of those polled who were familiar with personal watercraft did not believe that personal watercraft should be banned from use in National Parks. Ninety-three percent of survey respondents had positive attitudes towards the safety of personal watercraft, particularly if the machines are operated properly.

Awareness and usage of personal watercraft was significantly lower among older Americans, according to the Leisure Trends survey. Consumers 55 years and older and Americans who have never tried the sport had more negative attitudes towards personal watercraft.

Surveys have also found that the most common ways PWC are used (over 80 percent) involve rides with family and friends, short cruises, towing skiers, exploring and entertaining friends. The majority of PWC owners do not race or perform aggressive maneuvers during their typical rides – in fact, less than one percent listed racing around buoys as a typical activity.

Due to market demand for the larger multi-person models, PWC engines have increased in power. These larger models need additional power for towing, water-skiing, and additional passenger capacity.

All outboard engines, inboard engines and inboard/outboard engines are rated for the amount of horsepower that is produced at the propeller. The engine, as measured at the crankshaft, actually produces more horsepower. For example, an outboard that is listed as 225 horsepower produces 225 horsepower at the propeller. On the other hand, the motors found in PWC are rated for the amount of horsepower produced at the engine’s crankshaft. The horsepower produced at the jet pump (equivalent of a boat propeller) is much less.