Clayton Jacobson II, a jet ski pioneer, dies at 88

Clayton Jacobson II, a banker and dirt bike racer who was tired of crashing to the ground at high speeds and decided to build what he called “a motorcycle for water”, inventing a stand-up personal watercraft that evolved into modern jet skiing, died August 18 at his home in Byron Bay, Australia. He was 88 years old.

The cause was pneumonia, a complication of his treatment for advanced skin cancer, his grandson, Dr. Barrios, said. Mr Jacobson had lived in California and Arizona, where he tested and raced his jet skis in the Pacific Ocean and the Parker Strip section of the Colorado River, before moving to Australia around 25 years ago.

A thrill-seeking rider and motorcyclist with a knack for customizing his own bikes and hot rods, Mr. Jacobson was widely credited with the invention of the jet ski or the personal watercraft. Powered by an inboard engine and steered by motorcycle-style handlebars, the watercraft became popular soon after Mr. Jacobson licensed its design to Kawasaki in the early 1970s, leading to the creation of the the company’s Jet Ski brand, which popularized the ship’s name and helped create a spirited new summer sport. Critics complained that the personal watercraft were loud and dangerous, but they emerged as a cheaper alternative to full-scale boats, accounting for more than a third of all new boat sales in the mid-1990s.

Like Mr. Jacobson said it, “the jet ski was born because I needed to evacuate the stress.” It was the early 1960s, and he was working for his stepfather’s savings and loan company, spending his free time racing dirt bikes in the desert outside Los Angeles. . While other runners covered themselves in leather jackets and long sleeves, he avoided most protective gear, trying to intimidate other runners by showing off a muscular physique he had honed upon entering the nascent scene of Southern California bodybuilding, according to his grandson.

It was a pretty look, at least until he was thrown off his bike near Perris, Calif. – some say he was in the Mojave Desert – and found himself tending to his wounds from the bottom of his chest. an irrigation ditch. “I was removing the gravel from my skin and cleaning the blood,” he later told The Associated Press, “and I said, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’”

Looking for a “softer landing”, he turned to the water, later writing that he wanted to “enjoy the exhilaration and excitement of a motorcycle without the inherent danger of falling on hard ground at high speed”.

His creation had some unfortunate precedents, notably a propeller-driven “water scooter” called Amanda which was made by Vincent, a British motorcycle manufacturer, in the mid-1950s. Unlike the Amanda, Mr. Jacobson’s version was mounted upright and used a jet pump, not a propeller; it also featured an aluminum body, fixed handle, and a two-stroke engine from West Bend.

By 1966, he had improved his design by making a second fiberglass prototype. He quit his day job, filed his first patent for a “motorized aquatic vehicle” and began selling his invention to manufacturers. Eventually, he partnered with the Canadian company Bombardier, which was more interested in the seated version of its personal watercraft, seeing it as a summer counterpart to their Ski-Doo brand of snowmobiles. They released the original Sea-Doo in 1968, marketing the mustard yellow vessel as a “jet-powered water scooter” that could go 25 mph but was “virtually impossible to flip over”. It was, they said, “the new thing to do on the water”.

But the watercraft never really started. It was discontinued after two years and Mr. Jacobson signed a new licensing agreement with Kawasaki, leading to the creation of the company’s first Jet Ski models in 1973. Painted the color of pea soup, the scooter des mers weighed around 220 pounds and was powered by a 400cc engine. The company released two different models, one with a flatter, more stable hull and the other with a V-shaped bottom that allowed pilots to cut sharply through the water.

“The first ride on it was worse than a wild horse,” said Fred Tunstall, a veteran Kawasaki employee who helped develop the jet skis, in a 2000 interview with Boats.com. “But after spending some time getting used to it, it became a lot of fun.”

Over the decades, advancements in cockpit, engine, and hull design have helped boost the popularity of the jet ski. The Sea-Doo was reintroduced by Bombardier in 1988 and became one of the most popular boating brands in the world, and rival watercraft were introduced by companies such as Yamaha, where Mr Jacobson eventually worked as a consultant. Competitive jet ski racing has also become popular, with more than 30 countries represented in the world championships, according to Scott Frazier, the head of the International Jet Sports Boating Association.

In a telephone interview, he called Mr. Jacobson the “patriarch” of the sport, crediting him with creating what became the first mass-produced personal watercraft. “He had an amazing idea,” Frazier wrote in an online tribute“and carried him to a height that earns him a place in history comparable to some of mankind’s greatest commercial inventors.”

Mr Jacobson’s role in the development of the jet ski has been the subject of a two-decade dispute with Kawasaki, which ran advertisements saying the company, rather than the Californian inventor of the motorcycle, had created the vessel. In 1989, he sued for defamation and slander of title, claiming that Kawasaki wrongly obtained jet ski patents in Japan and wrongly credited its employees with developing the watercraft. A federal jury awarded him $21 million in damages two years later, though he said he was looking for a lot more — $30 million to $60 million, given the fortune Kawasaki had made from the jet skis.

Less than two months later, a judge in the Federal District of Los Angeles overturned the sentence, saying there was insufficient evidence for the allegations against Kawasaki. A new trial was ordered and Mr Jacobson settled with the company’s US subsidiary in 1992. He received a cash payment – the amount was not disclosed, but his grandson said that it was about “a few million dollars” – and issued a joint statement with the company, acknowledging that Kawasaki had made significant contributions to the development of the watercraft. The company’s vice-president of marketing, Robert Moffit, in turn acknowledged that Mr. Jacobson was “widely known as the inventor of the first autonomous personal watercraft.”

“Indeed,” he added, “without Mr. Jacobson’s invention, Kawasaki’s Jet Ski brand of personal watercraft would not have been developed.”

The youngest of two children, Clayton Junior Jacobson was born in Newberg, Oregon on October 12, 1933. According to the family, there was a misunderstanding when his name was removed and he legally dropped his middle name at age adult. . Her father was a traveling salesman who later worked for Kellogg’s, and her mother was a housewife. Both parents were the children of Norwegian immigrants; Mr. Jacobson considered himself a modern-day Viking.

He grew up in Southern California, graduated from high school in Los Angeles, and worked in the wholesale food industry before marrying his first wife, Dianne Edwards, and joining his son’s business. father, Southwest Savings and Loan.

By then he was racing hot rods, building cars and motorcycles, and riding off-road in Mexico. He then worked with automotive engineer Gerald Wiegert on the design of the Vector sports car; circumnavigated the globe in a Cessna seaplane in his early 60s; and designed several buildings, including his bright house in Parker, Arizona, and his two-story garage in Australia, which included “a prototype flying jet ski that never really came to fruition,” his grandson said. .

He also self-published an autobiography, aptly titled “Autobiography of the Jet Ski Inventor,” in 2013. If a person’s ego is defined as their “appropriate self-worth,” he writes, “mine is about the size of my Ford F250 pickup truck. ”

Her marriage to Edwards ended in divorce. He then married Lee Anne McMillan, his partner of 35 years. She survives him, as do four children from his first marriage, Karen Jacobson, Margo Orona, Tava Mericle and Clayton Jacobson III, a competitive jet-skier; five grandchildren; and many great-grandchildren.

In accordance with his wishes, Mr Jacobson was cremated in what he considered a traditional Viking funeral. He was wearing his usual outfit: Levi’s jeans, an Oakland Raiders Starter puffer jacket, a Parker Strip t-shirt and a pair of clogs. Then, in what his grandson described as a nod to ancient tradition, “they put his hand in a bowl of hazelnuts and gave him his Buck knife, which was what he was approaching the more than one sword, and sent him to Valhalla”.