INSIGHT:

 


The birth and rebirth of Sea-Doo


Years later and Bombardier's original trademark is still evident in the Sea-Doo product line

ROOTS

By Joel Johnson

What do you call guys like Clayton Jacobson II or Laurent Beaudoin or Giles Houde? What do you call people who see the future more clearly than many of us see the present? Dreamers? Visionaries?

Better yet, what do you call their collective leap of faith when they all see the same thing together?

In the case of the three mentioned above, try "Sea-Doo."

Over 30 years ago, these three very different men were brought together by a shared dream - building a motorized recreational vehicle for the water - and, in the process, sowed the seeds for what has become a billion-dollar-a-year industry.

How it all came together is one of those amazing instances of karma and coincidence. Jacobson, an aspiring inventor and ex-banker from Southern California, had been working for several years on an idea he had gotten from racing motorcycles - a motorcycle for the water - when he was approached by Beaudoin's Bombardier Corp. in 1967.

"A man by the name of Warren Daoust contacted me," Jacobson told Personal Watercraft Illustrated several years ago. "He had overheard a conversation in which my father was telling one of his friends about my invention. Daoust was the president of Halverson, Bombardier Corp.'s distributor in Duluth, Minnesota, at the time. He mentioned to my father that it sounded like something Bombardier would be interested in, so my father gave him my phone number. As it turned out, Bombardier was interested, and Daoust sent me a 318cc Rotax engine for further development. The funny thing was, my father wasn't even supposed to be talking about my invention at the time."

Daoust figured Bombardier would be interested in Jacobson's project because the company was already working on personal watercraft of its own.

"I think the company was receptive to Jacobson's ideas because we were already tinkering with things like it," said Denys LaPointe, the current head of design for Sea-Doo and the son of Anselme LaPointe, who worked on the original Sea-Doo project for Bombardier. "Mr. Beaudoin, our CEO, had long been trying to recreate the experience of our core business - snowmobiles - on the water. In fact, there were a number of similar products Bombardier was working on for the water - things like snowmobiles with giant sponsons and paddle tracks. Jacobson was clearly ahead of us, but the concept was there."

Jacobson's project was unique because it used a jet pump to drive the vehicle. However, the idea of a sit-down craft didn't occur to Jacobson until he was sent an 18-hp Rotax engine from Bombardier. Up until that time, his two prototypes had been stand-ups.

"Because of its size, the 318cc Rotax engine that Daoust sent me required that the hull have a larger planing surface than my prototype," Jacobson said. "The air-cooled engine also needed sufficient air induction. These were the two primary factors that contributed to me developing the first sit-down model."

Bombardier was impressed enough with that model to buy the rights to the design and then rush the craft into production by the next year.

"What Jacobson brought was what we would call today a concept mule," LaPointe said. "It was pretty rough - there were some parts carved out of wood - but it was clear even then that he was on to something. Bombardier bought the rights to the design from him and gave him a check. Then we continued developing the project on our own."

Bombardier's touch is evident in the styling of the craft.

"That's the biggest area (in which) you see it," LaPointe said. "Because of the engine size and the pump configuration, there wasn't a whole lot you could do with the hull, but we did a lot to refine the ergonomics, the riding area and the styling."

Bombardier took a cue from its Ski-Doo brand of snowmobiles and rounded the front hood, then painted the craft its trademark yellow with black stripes. The company also used a slightly altered version of its Ski-Doo name for the new watercraft, and the Sea-Doo was born.

The remarkable thing is how modern it looks, even after all these years. Sure, there are a few giveaways, such as the bare handlebars with the bicycle-type grips, the boxy snowmobile seat, and the rough construction. But look objectively at the original Sea-Doo and it's not much of a stretch to see today's Sea-Doo models.

"There are some design cues you see in that original model that are still prevalent throughout all of our product lines," said LaPointe. "The biggest is the positive curve in the area between the bow and the handlebars. By positive curve, I mean how that line curves upwards. We don't like negative curves. We never have, I guess."

In terms of size, the original Sea-Doos weren't all that far away from the second-generation Sea-Doos that appeared 20 years later. Constructed with hand-laid fiberglass, the hulls were very wide (58 inches) and featured a flat bottom, but the length (94 1/8 inches) was almost identical to the model Sea-Doo introduced in 1988.

Most of the original features were unique, however. The craft also featured a bench seat that could carry only one passenger in comfort, a removable gas tank, and steel handlebars pulled straight from the Ski-Doo warehouse. The 18-horse, 318cc Rotax was air-cooled and sat vertically under the rear cowling, just behind the seat, mounted directly to the hull. It turned a Berkley 5J5 mixed-flow jet pump with a belt similar to those found on the Ski-Doo snowmobiles.

Talk to anyone who rode the originals and they all say the same thing: The craft worked and were fun to ride - to a certain point.

"Because the craft got up on plane so quickly, it felt like you were going very fast, at least for the time," LaPointe said. "The hull could also spin very easily, but that was about it. You couldn't turn it very easily and the ride was very hard because of the flat bottom."

The first model year for the original Sea-Doo was 1968. Bombardier sold these unique craft from 1968 to 1970, and even came out with an updated version - the 372 - in 1969.

However, although the original Sea-Doos attracted a lot of attention, a number of factors conspired to sink the project. First and foremost were design problems. The air-cooled engines on the original model didn't perform well under the extreme conditions under the deck, and the belt-drive system required frequent adjustments. The new liquid-cooled 372 engine helped some, but other problems didn't go away - namely the lack of sophisticated marine technology. Most of the units were sold in coastal areas, and salt water tended to eat away at the engines, pumps and controls, causing all sorts of problems.

"On the technical side, that was the biggest problem," LaPointe said. "The technology just wasn't up to par. What was required was real marine technology and it wasn't available at the time."

Jacobson said he had some ideas that would have helped - things like rubber motor mounts, a rubber dampener for the driveshaft coupler, and ways to waterproof the electronics - but that no one would listen to him once he delivered the original prototype.

The main reason for that was because Bombardier was so distracted by the booming snowmobile market.

"The original Sea-Doo was so original and so new that it really needed to be pushed onto the market," LaPointe said. "You contrast that with what was happening in the snowmobile market, where we were having a hard time keeping up with demand. To make the watercraft project work, it would have needed a great deal of attention and investment in engineering - two things the company couldn't provide because the snowmobile market was demanding so much time and engineering. The original watercraft was definitely a workable product, even the right product to create a market, but maybe just a little ahead of its time."

So, with great reluctance, Bombardier shelved its watercraft project in 1970, before its new models could be released. Within a little more than a year, Jacobson sold the rights to his patents (which reverted back to him in 1971) to Kawasaki - a deal that eventually led to the creation of the Jet Ski.

However, the Sea-Doo story doesn't end there. In fact, Bombardier watched Kawasaki's Jet Ski project develop over the years with a mixture of wonder and regret.

"The company paid pretty close attention to what Kawasaki was doing with the Jet Ski. There was mild interest in the '70s, when Kawasaki sold a couple hundred units and then a couple thousand, but then the market boomed in the '80s and we began to think that if Kawasaki could sell that many stand-ups - a craft that required quite a bit of athleticism just to ride - then imagine what you could sell of a craft that anybody could ride."

Fortunately for Bombardier, there were still a few key people in the company who believed in the sit-down watercraft concept - and one of them, Beaudoin, had the power to bring to it life.

"I don't think Mr. Beaudoin ever stopped believing in the potential for the market," LaPointe said. "It was in his mind all along to come back to the market."

Bombardier also had another man associated with the original project who never gave up hope.

"Giles Houde had worked on the original project and later worked as a consultant to the company on a number of different projects," LaPointe said. "One day in 1985, Mr. Beaudoin stopped by Houde's house to see what he was working on, and Houde showed him an early version of the second-generation watercraft."

Laurent Beaudoin knew immediately that Houde had a viable product and talked his son, Pierre, into coming to work for the company to determine whether a relaunch of the Sea-Doo was viable. The younger Beaudoin worked closely with Houde and Gary Robison to design a new product that would fit the emerging market, and the result was the 5801 model that debuted in 1987 and eventually reached the market in 1988.

It was a model that would change the market forever.

"I think that model was a true paradigm-shifter," LaPointe said. "At the time, the market was dominated by stand-up Jet Skis, but I think this was the model that got so many people to switch to sit-downs."

Indeed, the design was extremely influential, particularly the hull and deck configuration, which allowed for terrific handling and a comfortable ride. The craft was easy to ride, but still challenging enough to create true enthusiasm.

Its dimensions were quite a bit different than the original. At 41.5 inches wide, it was almost a foot and a half narrower than the original model, and its 20-degree, semi-V hull provided a much softer ride in the water. In addition to an updated look throughout, the seat extended all the way back to allow for two passengers, and the handlebars were padded and included updated grips. Still, there were similarities to the original, including the wide footwells and the positive curve on the bow.

However, the biggest difference between the 5801 and the original models was the technology inside the hull. Instead of an air-cooled, single-cylinder two-stroke, the 5801 was powered by a water-cooled 581cc Rotax in-line twin connected directly to the pump by a driveshaft and designed specifically for the marine environment. That engine pumped out three times the horsepower of the original, and the horsepower was transferred to the water through an updated axial-flow pump. There were still bugs to be worked out - those first models were notorious for a lack of reliability - but the problems weren't unsolvable.

Sea-Doo also marketed the craft differently, using the lessons it had learned from its original venture into the market.

"I think we all realized it would take pretty determined dealers to make a go of this, people who believed in the product and who could see what the market could be. That's why we established a separate sales department within the company - people whose focus was completely on watercraft - and had them find the right dealers for Sea-Doo," LaPointe said.

This time, the company didn't have to wait long for results. Demand far outstripped supply from the get-go, and within four years Sea-Doo had eclipsed both Yamaha and Kawasaki in market share. Today, nearly half the personal watercraft sold in the United States are Sea-Doos.

Whether or not Jacobson or Beaudoin or Houde foresaw that 30 years ago, or even 10 years ago, it's hard to say. There's no denying, however, that they did see something. And for that, we can all be grateful. pwi


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