Water sport 'flights' on hold

On Tuesday morning, Jetpack America President Dean O'Malley took his water propulsion equipment into Newport Harbor to film a segment for Newport Beach TV, which promotes the city.

In contrast, that evening, O'Malley addressed a City Council that was hesitant to welcome any more businesses like his just yet.

Recognizing excitement for the new activity as well as concern with issues like safety and noise, council members voted unanimously to enact a moratorium on permits for water-propulsion businesses before any more set up shop.

The businesses allow users to fly several feet in the air by shooting water at high speeds from a jet pack or similar device, like shoes or a board.

A Harbor Commission ad hoc committee will have up to six months to evaluate how such companies should fit in the context of its harbor, the council decided.

"We aren't really the typical user of the harbor, but along with that goes the unique draw," O'Malley said in an interview Wednesday.

The users don't exactly blend in with the quietly bobbing sailboats, but council members noted that such an experience can be a fun addition — if not advancement, as O'Malley asserts.

Councilman Mike Henn said he had used the jetpack to glide over Newport Harbor. (A picture of him doing so appeared on his Christmas card.)

And while the nature of the activity means the city should evaluate where it should operate and what kind of safety rules should be in place, that doesn't mean it should be ruled out altogether, Councilman Keith Curry said.

"When the commission and staff go back to look at this, I want it to be with an attitude of how do we create a framework for us to broaden what's offered as options for people who visit Newport Harbor in terms of visitor-serving amenities going forward, not how can we prohibit everything," Curry said.

Fly Jet Sports President and CEO Gus Caicedo said his company had already worked extensively with the city and wished to be considered an exception to the hold on applications.

The company operates in places as far as Dubai and as close as Dana Point. Though the overarching technology they use is similar to O'Malley's, he explained in an interview Wednesday that the specifics are different.

Most notably, clients strap into boots, rather than a jet pack.

Caicedo further suggested that he would also be the right person to help them address their issues because he could analyze it from the inside, rather than the outside. For example, he said, taking clients to different parts of the harbor would help assuage concerns from residents like Devon Kelly, with whom he said he took the time to meet.

"They're noisy, really noisy," said Kelly, a boater herself, as she listed concerns to the council.

She added that the operators also don't seem to understand boating rules and right of way. Caicedo said his staff are Navy veterans.

Still, Jetpack America will be the only authorized company to provide water-propulsion services in the harbor because it is the only one so far with a permit.

Since its first customers took to the air in August 2011, the company now sees up to 500 customers a month during the summer, at a cost of $179 to $699 per flight session, O'Malley said.

He assured council members that the company operates safely. An instructor talks with the user through a radio that connects to a walkie talkie helmet. The staff to flier ratio is 3:1.

The technology has even been a part of the crowded Christmas Boat Parade.

As the yachts made their sparkling debut in the Chamber of Commerce event, Caicedo said he presented a suit that glowed with LED lights.

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