Things People Do : SMOKE ON THE WATER : Jet Skiing Quickly Gaining Popularity Both as Hobby and Competitive Sport

Jet skiing has a lot in common with chess, marble-shooting, golf, hang gliding, fishing, dart-throwing, billiards, snowmobiling and rodeos.

That is, some people consider it a sport, and others consider it a recreational activity.

Laura Nunes was not debating that eternal and moot question when she first rode onto the Pacific Ocean. See, there was a wave ahead. She went at it full throttle.

"I must have gone 10 feet in the air," recalled Nunes, who would become a world champion jet skier. "Somehow, I stayed on. But I didn't jump again that day."

Jet skiing rarely penalizes such gusto to the degree that its cousin, motorcycling, does. Err and you land in water, not on dirt or asphalt. That is one reason jet skiing--the sport and recreational activity--has grown rapidly since Kawasaki introduced the vehicle about 1976.

It caught on quickly in San Diego County.

The first professional race was held near Fiesta Island in 1977. (So confident was Kawasaki in the California consumer that its market research barely included the state.) Also, El Cajon's Jeff Jacobs won the pro class last year, and his mother, Karen, finished second in the women's division, behind Brenda Burns of Santee. Ron Lechien, another resident of El Cajon and one of the top 10 motocross riders in the world, won a slalom event at Lake Mead last month and has said he might expand his participation in the sport.

Jet skiing has become Laura Nunes' livelihood. After her first ride, she got together $3,100--about the average cost for one of the vehicles, with rentals going for about $30 an hour--and since has bought another super stock vehicle for about $6,000.

At first, it was just fun for Nunes. Gymnastics and figure skating, for which she used to rise at 3 a.m. to practice, tended to be work, not fun.

Eventually, jet skiing became more than just a recreational activity for Nunes. In 1986, she won the women's novice slalom title and, competing mostly against men, finished second in the freestyle category.

Her older brother, Al, an expert class jet skier, would rouse Laura on rainy mornings to practice. "We would race every single day," said Laura, 25. "It takes a lot of practice. I just wanted to be good at it. I'm like that at any sport."

But she wanted something more than racing, which, for even the best jet skiers, costs more money than it yields. Her sights were set on entertaining spectators at Sea World.

"I would ride near the grassy section of Sea World (that looks out onto Mission Bay)," she recalled. "I would do headstands and go ripping by. After a while, there would be a crowd of people watching me. I would ride until the Harbor Police chased me away for going too fast."

Her unique application resulted in a job about 16 months ago. Nunes performs tricks and jumps on a Yamaha Wave Jammer, which is similar to a Jet Ski.

Nunes said that if it were not for that job, she would still be racing on the 14-event world tour. She would be seeing bigger purses this time around. Tour entries this year were up 35% as compared to 1987, said Bruce Stjernstrom, vice president of the International Jet Ski Boating Assn. The tour offers varied venues, including the waves near Oceanside, the calm, shallow Susquehanna River near Harrisburg, Pa., and crowded Lake Havasu, which is in Arizona and California. And its championship race purse has grown to $30,000.

Each tour event consists of three categories:

Closed--Resembles a motorcycle race on water. A starting line formed by surgical rubber tubing gives way as the jet skiers buzz toward 12 to 20 one-mile laps around a course marked by buoys. Novice races consist of 4 to 6 laps.

Slalom--A 100-yard zigzag race against the clock. Professionals require about 25 seconds, novices about 35.

Freestyle--Performers do a variety of tricks and maneuvers in an allotted time; judges award up to 10 points for each performance. Maneuvers include headstands, backward rides and submarines, in which the rider nose-dives the jet ski under the water and emerges.

All of which, of course, is beyond the beginning jet skier. That person should be able to stand and ride within two hours, said Nick, who rents out the machines at Fiesta Island and asked that his last name not be printed.

"See there, that guy porpoising up and down," he said, pointing to a first-time jet skier who seconds later flailed off the Jet Ski while trying to turn. "His weight is too far back. You don't want to be going up and down."

Said Lechien: "If you're balance-oriented, it doesn't take long to learn to ride, but it took me four to five months to where I could really do tricks and turn like I wanted to."

Nunes said good coordination and balance are the prime requirements for riding a Jet Ski, that riding works the shoulders and forearms the most and that ocean riding is the most difficult--and illegal if it is within 200 feet of the beach. As for safety, she said Sea World forbids her from discussing accidents.

Said Stjernstrom: "They're very safe vehicles. We have over 100 races last year, and we never have had a serious type injury. The sport is very safe."

But operator stupidity is dangerous, regardless of the vehicle.

"We've definitely had some accidents," said John Klemmer, a San Diego Harbor Patrol officer. "For example, one jet skier tried to jump over a girl in a raft. We thought it broke her back. She didn't have feeling in her fingers for a while.

"I don't want it to sound like I hate Jet Skis, it's just that we've had our share of accidents involving jet skiers that don't follow the rules. When we educate them, they open their mouths and roll their eyes, 'I didn't know.' "

Klemmer said jet skiers need to realize that boating rules apply to them. For example, riding at "high speeds"--5 m.p.h. or greater--within 100 feet of another boat is illegal.

Klemmer said the popularity of the vehicle can cause headaches because owners lend them to friends without explaining boating rules.

If product stability indicates success, the original Jet Ski was a good one. That was the JS 400-cc model. A year later, Kawasaki introduced the JS 440, and five years later, the JS 550.

"The basic design has been virtually unchanged, and I rode some of the test models in 1973," said Stjernstrom.

A more powerful Jet Ski, the 650, and a more spacious one, the 650 two-seater, have been introduced in the past two years.

More change should occur soon. Kawasaki reportedly plans to introduce a larger vehicle, the Jet Mate, which can hold three persons, pull a water skier or serve as a fishing vessel. Also, the Kawasaki patent that covers several features--most notably, the movable handle--is to expire this year. That could result in a number of entries from other companies such as Yamaha, which produces the rigid-handled Wave Jammer.

"That would be great," Nunes said of the prospect of perhaps sleeker and faster machines. "I think it could be a sport where lots of people would watch it. I hope so."

A sport?

"I think jet skiing is great recreation for the family," she said. "It offers a unique activity for fitness. I would put it into (the category of) a sport. When I first started, it was recreation, but it's not any longer. I've just worked so hard to learn all the tricks."

Said Lechien, who rides about three times per week: "I use it kind of as training for my motocross--it's a workout for sure. I'm really pumped up about it."

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