A boating revolution - or just the latest obnoxious toy?

The newest fad in yachting, fitting older boats with jet engines, allows for previously unimaginable speed. But the noise angers landlubbers.

On weekends, Bryan Blake plays the accordion in a zydeco band on North Carolina's Outer Banks. During the week, the ponytailed Southerner works on another kind of pump: a 1,000-horsepower water-jet engine he's squeezing into the mahogany hull of a 53-year-old yacht.

In a tin-roofed boathouse near Harker's Island, Mr. Blake and 10 workmen are refitting the stately vessel for the latest in high-seas bravado: jet yachting. A mode of transportation once available only to wealthy elites like King Juan Carlos of Spain, it's fast becoming the newest fad among recreational boaters.

Without propellers, souped-up yachts like Blake's are able to run at much shallower depths and at previously unimaginable speeds - up to 60 miles per hour. But the trend is also drawing fire from critics who see giant jet yachts as the boating equivalent of SUVs - unnecessary status symbols that will further erode the peace and quiet along America's waterways.

Jet engineers say that, although they're pretty loud today, jet yachts will eventually run more quietly than propeller-driven boats. "This is really the prototype for a new kind of boating," says Blake.

More a pump than a turbine, the water-jet propulsion does make less noise than a propeller as it skims over the water. But it takes more horsepower to get these 32- to 220-foot yachts to plane, thus necessitating larger diesel engines with rumbling idles. These engines make more noise when operated at slower speeds.

For those already trying to put a stop to a bevy of faster - and noisier - watercraft, jet yachts are just the latest obnoxious toy for the wealthy and nonchalant. "There's no way we can keep track of all the inventions of the rich," says William Spear, founder of the Silent Oceans Project in Litchfield, Conn. "Hopefully, we're at the apex of our mindlessness and our egocentric behavior with respect to how big a boat, how big an engine, and how loud a race we can muster."

Around the world, jet-driven ferries now take travelers from Athens to Santorini, Greece. King Juan Carlos still takes the world's first jet yacht, the Fortuna, out for a spin now and then. The US government is nearing completion of a propellerless destroyer outfitted with massive water-jet drives.

On a humbler scale, the yacht Blake is retrofitting for jets will be used primarily for recreational fishermen making the 20-mile run from the Carolina sounds to the Gulf Stream, where big tuna and sailfish dart through the currents.

Although the first jet yacht, the Fortuna, was built in 1979, the true potential of water jets didn't become evident until 1992. That's when Donald Blount, an ex-Navy engineer, fitted a 220-foot yacht, Destriero, with a gigantic Italian-built turbine and water-jet engine. Mr. Blount's yacht set the world speed record for crossing the Atlantic.

"It was a screamer," he says.

The idea of bouncing across the Atlantic at 53 knots caught the imagination of boating enthusiasts around the world. Here in North Carolina, a number of the small boatbuilders that dot the tide-roiled inlets and straits are starting to poke around with jet power. With less running gear to get snagged on hidden spits, powerful pump drives are ideal for the region's shallow banks, builders say.

"I keep joking with the owners about putting aircraft landing gear on the bottom of the boat, so you can drive it right off the shallows," says Blake.

Still, some of those who best understand the boats caution that they're far from perfect. Mike Kelsey, a retired boatbuilder who oversaw the building of the Fortuna in 1979, warns about the limitations of jet yachts. The main problem, he says, is that the gear runs best when it runs fast. Rudder-less and reliant on the directional jet streams for steering, the boats are tougher to negotiate.

The most practical problem, Mr. Kelsey says, is that "most people don't find them very comfortable." For landlubbers, 60 m.p.h. may not seem overly swift. But on water, going that fast for an extended period of time is an almost unthinkable feat. Those who fail to hold on may find themselves flying out of the boat as it skips atop the seas.

"It's all a matter of perspective," says Kelsey. "Going 25 miles per hour in a car doesn't seem too fast. But go that fast while riding on the hood of the car, and it's a different experience."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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