Jet boats and competitive sport
New Zealander Bill Hamilton developed the first practical shallow-water jet boat in the 1950s. Jet boats are propelled by a jet of water thrust from the back of the boat, rather than by a propeller. From the beginning jet boats were used more for private recreation than competitive sport. New Zealanders pioneered using jet boats for thrill-seeking tourist trips on wild rivers such as the Kawarau, Dart and Shotover.
In 1956 Hamilton entered one of his boats in an 80-kilometre race on the Waikato River, from Mercer to Hamilton. From the 1960s jet boaters began holding races and rallies. Rallies tested a range of skills, including negotiating slalom courses, boat manoeuvring tests, first-aid techniques and speed trials.
Marathons are races over several days, either on one river, or on a number of rivers and lakes. The first New Zealand jet-boat marathon, held in May 1970, was a three-day event on the Waikato River, Lake Taupō and the Whanganui River. Races and marathons continue to be held on North and South Island rivers, with the nature of each river testing different sets of drivers’ skills.
Airborne jet boat
New Zealand driver Mark Cromie describes a crash during the 2012 World Jet Boat Championship on the Clearwater River in Idaho, US: ‘We just hit a green wave that was bloody high, launched [the boat] airborne about 30 feet and landed in the next wave. Believe it or not the motor didn’t stop.’1 Cromie and his navigator Richard Maunder were uninjured, but their boat The General was too damaged to continue racing.
In 1978 the first world jet-boat rally, held in Canada, was won by New Zealander Reg Benton. The world jet-boat rally is held annually, alternating between rivers in Canada, Mexico, the United States and New Zealand. In the early years of competition New Zealand boats dominated. By the 21st century the honours became more evenly shared between New Zealand and Canada, while a US boat won in 2012.
The sport of jet sprinting originated in New Zealand during the early 1980s. Jet boats, each with a driver and a navigator, raced around a designated course in a section of braided river. In Australia, which doesn’t have braided rivers like New Zealand’s, specifically designed shallow water tracks were dug for a race course. This system has since been adopted in New Zealand. Jet sprinting now regularly takes place on tracks at Meremere, Gisborne, Hastings, Whanganui, Featherston and Timaru.
Jet skis or personal watercraft are craft that are ridden or stood on, and are usually designed to carry two or three people at most. Racing can be on a closed or short course, where riders race around a buoyed course. These can be set up in flat water or in areas of surf. There are also endurance races, sometimes covering distances of more than 150 kilometres. The Jet Ski Nationals, a series of closed-course races, are held annually.
World championship jet sprint races have been held since 1988. In the early years most competitors were New Zealanders, but by the mid-1990s more Australian and US boats became involved. The sport continues to be dominated by New Zealanders, with drivers such as Rodney Pohio, Peter Briant and Peter Caughey winning many local and international competitions. In 2012 New Zealanders Leighton and Kellie Minnell won the World Superboat Jet Sprint category, while fellow Kiwis Reg and Julie Smith took the World Jet Sprint Group A title.