Racing Kawasaki’s 310-horsepower Jet Ski Off the Coast of California
Cost of entry to this L.A.-to-Catalina Jet Ski race is $250 and possibly your teeth.
The world before me is big and wild and dangerous. Due south, a glimpse of San Clemente Island. Beyond that, Guadalupe, off the coast of Baja. Then Antarctica. To the west of Avalon, my halfway point, there’s Japan. It’s open ocean, and I’ll be bashing across it, alone, on a supercharged Jet Ski with more horsepower than a Porsche Cayman. For 60 miles. That’s the very limit of the Kawasaki Jet Ski 310’s range, and I suspect it’ll be running on fumes when I bring it home. If the fuel tank empties, I’ll be adrift, a practically invisible speck no bigger than a whitecap in the middle of a shipping channel at the congested entrance to one of the busiest ports in the world.
Around me the field lines up in a viscous brown broth of Long Beach Harbor after a rain. Thirty-three racers who stared down foul weather reports and showed up anyway, popping and gurgling and side-eyeing each other in motocross gear and wetsuits. All but a handful own their boats, know their machines inside and out. All but one knows what they're doing. And that’s me.
Flag drops. Throttle pinned. Giant jerk backwards. It’s startling every time. Remember to breathe. A knucklehead starts to come across my bow, aware neither of my existence or of how very barely in control of the Jet Ski I am. By some miracle I only catch the edge of his wake and go hurtling through the air. Feet feel like miles. I pass him like he’s standing still. Seconds later we leave the harbor and its flat water. Seconds after that I hit a swell. I’m flat-out, throttle pinned, and the wave stacks up in front of me, three feet of Newtonian ramp.
I can only cringe while I hang in the air. Revs rocket upward. The impeller screams without water to push against, or maybe it’s me. Then the crash - into the face of another wave. The water could be concrete, the boat stops dead and my body ragdolls over the bars, slamming my face against a GoPro mounted to the dash. Slamming it so hard that it shuts off the GoPro and half-ejects the memory card. So hard that my now-crossed eyes take a few minutes to acknowledge the camera pointed toward the sky. And by then I don’t care, because I’ve been hard on the throttle since the moment I could suck in another breath. I’ve bent myself over the bars a handful of times, and I’m still losing the race leaders to the horizon.
Which begs the question: What the fuck am I doing here?
A month earlier, I’d met Jon Rall, Kawasaki’s PR guy and fixer, for a test session off the coast of Dana Point. It was my first time on a Jet Ski, aside from a little lake fun when I was a kid. It was also my first time doing freeway speeds on the ocean. And my first time bouncing more than 1,000 lbs of V-hull across steep swell. Taken together, it was a handful.
The Kawasaki 310X SE doesn't scythe through waves like I’m accustomed to. Instead, it slams off the top of them. Totally inflexible, remarkably buoyant and shockingly fast. It can turn 360 degrees inside its own length, accelerate to extraordinary speed in just feet, then launch off a wave and linger airborne for seconds before burying its bow, stopping instantly, and flinging my less-adept body over the bars. The boat doesn't communicate like a motorcycle, or like a sailboat, or any combination of the two. A motorcycle has springs and shocks, rules and manners. Maybe the Jet Ski has manners too? I don't know. I can't tell. I spent the entire test day just trying to catch up with the thing.
People who know say this Kawasaki hull is the best at handling chop offshore and at speed. It’s racked up race win after win, but under me it’s more like a horse at gallop than a precision racing machine. There’s shock and violence and everything happens just a second after I will it to. And, Jesus, is it ever hard on a body. Added to the stresses of navigation, and adrenaline, fogged goggles, competition and a busy waterway, I quickly realized a lot of things could go wrong. So when it came time to race, I hatched a backup plan.
After stacking up a pile of marine radios, a cell phone, some mandatory safety gear like flares and a whistle, I put in a call the makers of SPOT, a GPS-based emergency transponder. Their gadget is about the size of a deck of cards and pings a custom, shareable online map every 150 seconds so others can track your progress. If something calamitous happened, I could call for help with the emergency button, or broadcast a reassuring message, like “Made Catalina. Heading home.” Or, alternatively, “I'm in a pickle, please send someone to fish me out of the ocean.” It made me feel a little better, because if I’d learned anything from the test session, I was in for a beating.
At dawn on race day, the Long Beach boat launch starts to gum up with trailers and trucks and bodies. As if I needed reminding that I’m a dabbler, just about everyone doing last minute wrenching is wiry and athletic. Even among them, Craig Warner stands out—tan, bare muscled arms and a Monster sponsorship, all indicative of what it takes to actually succeed. He’s won a few of these things. He’ll have another in the bag by noon.
I’m also introduced to Ashley Sponaugle, my quasi-teammate. An accomplished racer from Florida on a supercharged Kawasaki-supplied Jet Ski, Ashley tells me it’s her first race back after breaking a leg during another event over Memorial Day weekend. She drifts off, tugging on her gear and listening to a run down on her boat’s redundant GPS systems. Sponaugle’s athletic too, and bright. Obviously capable.
“A pro?” I ask Jon.
“Ashley?” He drawls back. “She’s a neuroscientist.”
She scrambles over the top of her trailered 310R, taking a pair of costume bumble bee wings with her.
About five miles offshore, after rocketing through the harbor at speeds approaching 70 mph, taking another racer’s wake flat-out, knocking the wind out of myself too many times to count, I finally look up for an instant and realize I’ve left the California coast in the smog. Sweat runs into my eyes from humidity so thick I could swear it’s slowing me down. I squint through it at the roost of other racers, little light dots of spray on the horizon ahead. As much as I’m conscious of anything, I’m aware of having a leg in two worlds, and my head in neither.
The Pacific isn’t rough, it’s even glassy at times, but the swell is irregular and I’m moving too fast to get a read on it. It’s all serene and quiet, roiling mercury under long white clouds, even a few inches under the bow the ocean is slick and peaceful. Then it all explodes, intensely loud and fast and brutal. There is me, and there is the place I am. And that’s it. And there’s no harmony. As soon as my attention drifts to one, the other hauls me up short by the leash. It’s startlingly beautiful until you’re startled by something else.
I catch movement out of the corner of my eye and see a small bird, a phalarope, beating its wings frantically, leaving its mates behind to race me. Later, I look up to find myself in an endless pod of Common Dolphins. Glinting polished and dark, like river stones between swells. And then they're gone, and when I crane my neck to see them go I explode through a swell and bounce my ribs off the bars again.
The impact dislodges my VHF radio, once securely attached to my life jacket. It thrashes violently from a lanyard, a weighty wrecking ball at testicle height. Days before I lined up at Long Beach, friends regaled me with stories of hitting seagulls at 80 mph and YouTube videos of white sharks prowling beaches. They thought it was funny. And now here I am, getting nut-tapped by my radio. Unless I stop, there's not a damned thing I can do about it. Worse, there's not a soul around to hear me laughing. I'm not going to stop.
All the while, the race leaders—Warner battling hard for first, with Sponaugle maybe a dozen places back—they’re making time. Warner hits Avalon dragging the camera helicopter behind him. Twenty-four minutes. Incredible. When he passes to the east of me he’s absolutely flying. His boat, a pro/am class turbocharged 310R, ostensibly similar to the Jet Ski I’m riding, sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard. Warbling and screaming, pitch changing with the doppler effect, it’s equal parts pulse jet and piston engine. Quick math puts our closing speed in the neighborhood of 120 mph.
After I see the glint of Ashley’s bee wings heading the opposite direction, I start focusing on Avalon, trying hard to pick out the turn-boat. Flipping around it, I pass a few guys still headed south, but the bulk of the field is somewhere up in front of me. That’s where it all starts getting hazy.
There’s a lot of jarring. Wincing. Some groaning. Endless squinting at the horizon. The gaps stretch out; I lose the leaders to the smoggy horizon. I don’t see anyone in my wake, either. Occasionally, the yellow blanket over the coastline lifts and I can get my bearings through salt-encrusted goggles, but most of the time my direction is just a guess.
The low-fuel alarm starts chirping about half-way across the channel. I reach for the dash to silence the alarm, still going 50 mph, and I’m rewarded by a wrenching jolt that launches my whole body forward for a very close look at the speedometer.
It’s all so satisfyingly violent, but you know what the shame of it is? The real goddamned shame of it? The danger over the water, 70 mph through a busy port, 45 mph over the open ocean for an hour, the threat of weather and shipping, it’s nothing compared with the danger from the waterborne bacteria, pesticides and pollution and runoff pouring in great plumes from the LA River. Staph and E. coli, motor oil and industrial waste and all of Los Angeles’ dog shit, flushed by storms and storm drains and misted and frothed by 300-hp atomizers. That I could be so close to skipping my fragile body across the water at incredible speed and still worry more about breathing, just breathing the mist of ocean air. That’ll sit with me a while.
By the time I finally shut the beeping off, the sharp lines of a Long Beach skyline have started peeking through the smog. The finish line is at the stern of the Queen Mary. I pick out her three red-and -black stacks among the cranes and towers. She’s a handsome old thing, so elegant contrasted with the cold computer-designed modern freighter I dodge on the way back in. Wide-open, through Queen’s Gate, my hand feels permanently claw-clamped to the throttle. Even wearing gloves, the salt and friction has burned through the soft web between my thumbs and forefingers. The harbor looks unfamiliar. Everything is so different at speed. I’ve barely been gone an hour.
Racing has finished and the finishing has started. Hamburger hands are the only prize for 20th place, and I’m damned proud, actually. A little flotilla is sitting at the finish, waiting, bobbing, sweaty and tired. The rest of the field trickles in, one at a time with ever-longer gaps. Ashley the Bee buzzes toward the launch ramp and I numbly follow. Whatever fine motor skills I’ve developed over a summer of hard motorcycle riding and racing are absolutely fried, and I bounce the Kawasaki off the dock awkwardly.
Standing is even more cumbersome. I feel shook out like a sheet. My limbs are heavy in the way they are just off a trampoline. It’s not even noon and I’ve got the feeling I’ve lived hard, the feeling of an adventure in the bag. My ears ring. Weary as I am, I know I’m smiling. Talking my way into another race, maybe Dana Point to Oceanside, my mouth shaping the words even while I can’t feel my face.