The personal watercraft segment by nature is one that breeds an atmosphere of enthusiasm. That enthusiasm is matched by personal watercraft manufacturers, as all are in agreement that the state of the segment couldn’t be more positive.
According to data from Info-Link Technologies, personal watercraft sales grew 15.1 percent in 2015 overall. A combination of factors contribute to this increase, including sales at the state level being up across the board and rising between 15 and 20 percent in large markets like Florida, Texas and California. Sales are also up 20 to 25 percent in seasonal markets like Minnesota and North Carolina.
Peter Houseworth, director of client services at Info-Link, also said inherent characteristics of the personal watercraft market can be attributed to sales growth. There are roughly 1.3 million personal watercraft currently registered in the U.S., and among the existing fleet the average age of units is approximately 15 years old; personal watercraft, in general, have a shorter life cycle compared to boats.
“The last market downturn that was experienced also means the supply of pre-owned units to the personal watercraft market has been greatly reduced. For many consumers, the choice is between a seven- to 10-year-old unit and buying a new unit,” said Houseworth. “Moreover, there are likely more technological advancements that can be cost-effectively retrofit to traditional boats to keep them viable for a longer service life. By comparison given the generally lower price point of personal watercraft, the dynamic of replace versus retrofit would tend to favor replacing a personal watercraft as compared to a traditional boat.”
Price point advances segment
Manufacturers agree that new technologies have helped them propel sales growth in the past few years.
“It bodes well, from our standpoint, that having new products come into market at attractive price points … I think that’s what’s driving a lot of the success here,” said Bryan Seti, general manager of sales and marketing at Yamaha Watercraft Group.
The growth of the personal watercraft segment could easily be attributed to the sales of the Spark, which released in 2014. As Sea-Doo has tracked the success of the Spark with retail sales, consumer awareness, owner surveys and dealer feedback, Sea-Doo can confidently attest that the company is bringing newer, younger buyers to the industry than there were before.
“The watercraft business is doing good in the U.S. It’s increasing thanks to the Sea-Doo Spark model. It helps to bring new people into the industry, and by bringing new people in the industry, it’s good for the whole boating industry,” said Louis Lévesque, vice-president, global marketing and consumer experience at BRP. “It’s good for competition because there are more people buying and getting people into water sports.”
The Spark has been seen as an option for entry-level buyers to easily enter the boating lifestyle with an accessible price point. However, Lévesque says there is more to the story of the Spark than its price tag.
“The price point by itself, and not delivering the promise, will not fix anything,” said Lévesque. “You need to deliver an experience. You need to deliver something the consumer will be wowed by. After that, price comes in. And if it is affordable, this is the perfect equation because you will be able to have volume.”
Stable, reliable, affordable
All manufacturers in the segment are aware of the affordability issues boating faces and its critical role in bringing those newcomers into the industry. This means creating stable, reliable products that offer the experiences users crave.
“We want to make sure that we have products at price points but also with the features that consumers are looking for,” said Seti. “We know that if they have a good experience with that product, they’re going to move up the line with us. … So it’s critical that entry-level product maintains the excellence in design and build and that we don’t cut any corners the way we build that product, whether it’s the hull, the deck, the engine we put into it.”
This also means creating a lineup that gives those new buyers an opportunity to move to higher-end products as they become more experienced.
“We can’t just focus on one and not just on the other. So for us, it’s always a continuous process on how we can improve in all of the categories we have,” said Seti. “We’re seeing products in all categories doing well.”
Personal watercraft manufacturers are focusing on products that are compatible for up to three riders, which helps meet the multi-faceted uses of the current personal watercraft buyer. The market for solo riders is generally small for all players and so there is not as much focus on producing these units.
“Everybody’s looking for multi-use. People use personal watercraft for many different reasons, but people like to go for long rides, they like to tow, they like to be with their friends,” said Seti. “It’s a very communal activity, so you’re trying to get as much activity out of the personal watercraft as you can. No doubt there are specific models for specific activities, but at the end of the day we’re talking about being on the water and having fun.”
Comfort is also top of mind for manufacturers. Yamaha’s Luxury line of WaveRunners come with the Cruiser seat, which is a theater-style seat ergonomically designed for comfortable driving.
“You aren’t looking for the cruiser seat experience if you’re racing, but certainly if you’re a mom or a dad with kids, you definitely want something that’s stable, comfortable, easy to board and easy to get in and out of the water,” said Seti.
Kawasaki has created a seat for its Ultra 310 models designed to provide maximum comfort for all-day riders. The seat, created with a partner vendor, is made with a material that keeps cool in the sun.
“It makes a big difference when you’re in the sun all day. The black material on a lot of these machines gets very hot. This [fabric] dissipates the heat very well,” said Dave Oventhal, senior manager, corporate research & market analysis, market & product strategy of Kawasaki Motors Corp., U.S.A. “It’s got a very ergonomic design for the passengers and the driver.”
Kawasaki’s five-way tilt adjustment, also included on all Ultra 310 models, was created for comfortable all-day driving and can be readjusted based on the driver’s height.
“You have a lot more adjustability and you’re able to really make the machine much closer to the best position that you want,” said Oventhal.
Style also attracts customers to the personal watercraft segment. The Spark changed its color offerings for the 2016 model year in order to stay trendy, as the customer buying these products are looking for something “fashionable” in addition to its ability to perform.
“Spark is a dynamic vehicle, it’s a young vehicle and being trendy is critical,” said Lévesque. “You can be trendy in many different ways, but the type of colors we are picking are all around [the idea of] fun.”
Average age of boat buyer holds steady in 2014
After years of increases for the average buyer age, the recreational boating industry has effectively moved the needle back to zero, according to analysis by Info-Link. Contributing to the steady hold of the boat buyer age is the decrease of the age of the average personal watercraft buyer. In 2014, the average personal watercraft buyer was 46.7 years, down from 47.9 years in 2013.
The decrease in the age of the personal watercraft buyer could lead to long-term trends for other propulsions as well, said Houseworth.
“PWC is an entry point for many boaters where they first get exposed to being on the water at all,” he explains. “It’s kind of a low area of entry in terms of cost and ease of participation, and [some] PWC owners will move on to purchase boats and get more involved in boating.”
While Houseworth would not point to any single model significantly affecting the age decrease of the personal watercraft buyer, he did say that many companies in the segment contribute to widespread awareness and a lower price-point has been successful in attracting those younger buyers.
“Anything that we can do relatively to affordability is going to be useful,” said Houseworth, “and I think the industry has really started to respond to some of the affordability issues.”
(To see more stats on the average age of boat buyers across categories, see our 2015 Market Data Book, which can be purchased at
A wide range for Kawasaki’s 2016 model lineup
Kawasaki released several new products this year: The STX-15F, which is an entry-level jet ski; the Ultra LX and four different models of the Ultra 310. The STX-15F is equipped with an agile hull for sporty handling and ample storage.
“It’s a great vehicle for entry-level riders but they can grow into it, and then it’s just as good as they get more experience. Then they can really tap into its potential,” said Oventhal.
The STX-15F was built for a new buyer to enjoy, learn how to use and have the opportunity to grow into as they become more experienced.
“It just gives the consumer [confidence], when they’re buying something, that they aren’t back in the dealership the next year going ‘I need something a little quicker’” said Jon Rall, senior public relations coordinator at Kawasaki Motors Corp., U.S.A.
The Ultra LX provides the same hull quality and performance of the STX-15F, but it holds more fuel for longer rides.
“[The STX-15F and Ultra LX] are both great handling vehicles, but the Ultra LX has got that deep V hull, which really equates to a smooth ride, especially when you’re in rough water. And it’s got the largest storage and fuel capacity in its class, so that really equates to going out for long rides,” said Overthal.
The four 310s are the Ultra 310 R, Ultra 310X, Ultra 310 SE and the Ultra 310LX, each serving a specific higher-end clientele. Each of the Ultra 310s includes Kawasaki’s five-way tilt adjustment and are built for extreme power and rough water stability. The units also feature the SLO (Smart Learning Operation) system that allows engine speed to be limited as needed.
“If you put somebody on there that you want to have it at a little slower pace for them, you can use the yellow key,” said Oventhal. “And then for full-power operation, you can put in the green key. So it gives you a little customization of who’s riding and how you want it to perform.”
New technologies from Sea-Doo
While the Spark is a big part of Sea-Doo’s success, the company is focused on its whole range of product.
The new 300 hp Rotax 1630 ACE (Advanced Combustion Efficiency) engine was released in September 2015. The plasma coating technology of the ACE is a thermal spraying process that deposits a protective coating on engine cylinder liners to create a metallic layer that provides a hard, durable surface to withstand piston friction forces. The engine was built to improve surface durability while keeping it lighter and compact.
The new engine powers the RXT-X 300, a new luxury model for 2016 geared toward the “pure enthusiasts” of water sports. The unit includes the Adjustable Ergonomic Steering (A.E.S.) handlebar and angled footwell wedges, which are built to benefit in aggressive cornering and connecting the watercraft in all water conditions.
The customers that the RXT-X 300 is looking to attract “want to go as fast as they can on the water, they like to have the best acceleration, the best handling, being able to push the limits,” said Lévesque.
The 2016 model lineup for Sea-Doo also saw the addition of the RXP-X 300 and the GTX Limited 300, both of which include the Rotax 1630 ACE engine. The new RXT and GXT models offer the new Ergolock seat, which lets riders leverage leg muscles to grip the watercraft for better control.
The 2016 models from Sea-Doo also include the new second-generation of the intelligent Brake & Reverse (iBR) system, which is built for intuitive operation. The company built upon its existing system with a stronger gear drive motor and larger, reengineered brake gate to provide maximum control and a more natural reaction to the various situations a rider may encounter on the water.
“There are a lot of people, especially in the watercraft business, that have no clue how to end on a boat. A brake on the boat like a car makes a big difference in their experience, so they have a piece of mind when using the watercraft,” said Lévesque.
A more intuitive ride from Yamaha
Yamaha added the WaveRunner V1, V Sport, VX, VX Deluxe and VX Cruiser to its Versatility line, which is targeted at entry-level buyers, in 2016. All of these models, as well as the Performance and Luxury models, come with Yamaha’s RIDE Technology, which is a dual throttle handlebar control system that allows users to accelerate or decelerate using specific right and left levers for those functions.
“What you’re able to do is, when you’re coming off a unit, there’s no shifting or anything. You’ve got two dual throttles that you can work in symmetry. That allows all riders of any level to easily maneuver around docks, trailers, tight spaces, the ability to spin,” said Seti. “It’s extremely intuitive.”
The RIDE technology has precise slow speed maneuverability because the thrust on the reverse bucket goes sideways, not up and down.
“By going sideways, you’re able to push the rear of the unit left and right when you’re trying to get into tight quarters, or coming off a trailer or being around a dock,” said Seti. “It’s different than other [companies] that have the thrust going up in the air, because if you go up in the air you’re going to actually nosedive when you slow down. So it’s really an ingenious process.”
Another new product for 2016 is the TR-1 High Alpha 3-cylinder Yamaha marine engine, which is also included on the Versatility products. The engine, which won an innovation award from the National Marine Manufacturers Association at the Miami International Boat Show, is 40 percent smaller, 20 percent lighter and 13 percent more powerful.
“It really gives the consumer a better product on the water,” said Seti. “It’s pretty amazing we have this TR-1 engine at our entry-level price point, but we put time and energy into that to make sure that customer has an amazing experience, because we know that it will translate to them moving up in the years to come.”
In creating the engine, Yamaha put the engine into an entry-level product, so the company was able to focus more on the stability and features of the engine.
“We wanted to have a product that was going to appeal to a younger audience. A younger audience typically does not ride with three up,” said Seti, “but it allows it to create a more nimble, agile product, which is what the first-time buyer is really into, because they are typically younger and don’t have a family.”