IT had to happen: Top Gun on the water. The hottest item in recreational boating is a 14-foot fiberglass jet boat.
Yes, instead of using outboards, these boats use 90-horsepower water jets that can streak the craft along at up to 43 miles per hour in less than a foot of water. One company's brochure shows its craft powering off the deck of an aircraft carrier.
The boats, which retail for $7,995 to $10,995, are being snapped up faster than jet skis, those waterborne equivalents of motorcycles. Jet skis have annoyed many waterfront communities nationwide and their use is now restricted.
The boat industry is marketing the jet boats as something different. "The boats are safe enough for kids," says Courtland Herbert, a Bayliner dealer in West Haverstraw, N.Y. "I burned up most of a tank of gas trying to get one to flip in San Diego harbor but couldn't come close."
Dealers point out that the propulsion system has no propeller, which makes it safer for water skiers and swimmers climbing into the boat while the motor is running. Sellers hope wealthy individuals will buy them for runabouts for their yachts, since on-board storage will be easier.
A year ago, Boston Whaler introduced the first of the jet-propelled boats, a 13-ft., 6-in. craft called Rage, powered by a 50-horsepower engine that zips the boat along at up to 33 m.p.h.
Rage was so popular last year that it represented 40 percent of Whaler's domestic sales. The factory did not catch up with orders until August. "Now, we're researching more power, perhaps a jet series," says Paula White, the public-relations manager for the Rockland, Mass.-based company.
At the New York National Boat Show earlier this month, Bayliner and Sea Ray, the two largest powerboat companies, showed off their own, higher-powered versions. "Have fun faster," is the motto for Sea Rayder, the name of Sea Ray's jet boat.
The craft are modeled on the jet skis - called "personal water craft" by the industry. The engine acts like the propulsion system of a squid. Water is sucked in and expelled with greater thrust. A nozzle directs the thrust, eliminating the need for a rudder.
On the skis, an individual usually straddles a seat to drive the machine, and a "deadman" throttle or lanyard arrangement cuts the throttle if the driver falls off.
Jet boats are designed so that people ride in them, not on them. They have seats, and a gunwale to keep water out.
From a regulatory standpoint, that difference is critical. Many states have enacted legislation limiting the operation of jet skis to cut the noise and prevent accidents (some see their ability to run fast in shallow water as a threat to swimmers).
In Connecticut, for example, jet skis cannot operate at night, or at high speed close to shore at any time. Jet-ski drivers also must have an "operator's certificate."
While at the boat show examining Bayliner's new jet craft, called "Jazz," Maj. Randolph Dill, director of Connecticut's Boating Safety Division, says he considers the new models "regular boats." In other words, anyone can operate one without a license, on nearly any waterway.
In fact, to prevent the boats from being considered the same as jet skis, the industry is working closely with regulatory agencies.
"The industry helped provide model legislation," says Thomas Watt of the New York State Marine Services Division.
The states may also end up buying some of the boats themselves. "They would be ideal river rescue boats, because they draw so little water," says Mr. Watt.
The jet boats' lack of draft raises another issue: potential damage to the marine environment. Thomas Bancroft, a researcher for the National Aud-ubon Society, says the boats can disturb wildlife in shallow water. The National Marine Sanctuary in the Florida Keys is now developing rules for jet boats' use, he says, adding that "The boats are no problem if they are used conscientiously."