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Jetpack flies onto yacht charter scene

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Now humans can fly solo over the sea with little more than a bathing suit and a jetpack. And with the Jetlev R200, a futuristic water-powered craft, yacht charter guest requests have reached new heights.

Jay Oosterhouse, general sales manager of Jetlev South East in Ft. Lauderdale, said guests will want to soar like James Bond in the film “Thunderball,” and because competition for charter customers is also high, captains can win bookings with this latest water toy.

“What’s not to love?” said Sean Phillips, Jetlev academy instructor and assemblyman. “The ‘wow’ factor is high.”

“Wow” is one thing, but yacht captains have to ensure the safety of crew, guests and property before professing their love for the new technology.

Taking flight

To fly in a Jetlev, a pilot sits on a unicycle-type seat and strap into a five-point harness connected to a backrest. The right hand holds the throttle; the left, a handle. On the backrest are water jets connected to a 33-foot hose. This flexible tether leads to a water pump in a small boat hull.

A slight twist of the throttle starts water flow and creates enough lift to levitate several hundred pounds. A tilt of the handles rotates the jets forward and the pilot starts flying. Actually flying.

Once the pilot has gained height over the water, he steers by tilting his body and turning like a NASA space astronaut wearing a manned maneuvering unit of the 1980s.

In the water, the pump is pulled along in a modified personal watercraft hull. This allows the system to travel untethered.

“Right now you could go from South Beach [Miami] to Bimini at about 20 mph, about four hours, if you have a strong butt,” said Raymond Li, chief executive officer and inventor of Jetlev.

Li came up with his vision about 10 years ago after studying jet packs and rocket belts of the 1960s. Those were powered by a unstable mix of hydrogen peroxide and compressed nitrogen. Aiming for a safer design using water, Li created his first proof-of-concept prototype in 2005. The first fully functional prototype was completed in 2008 and is still propped in the corner of his factory in Dania Beach, Fla.

His invention is safe, insurable and U.S. Coast Guard compliant, Li said. He has perfected the design and production methods during the past three years.

“I realized first thing, we had to be able to get insurance,” Li said. “So, I researched falls and accidents.”

Professional platform diving records during the past 100 years show only two deaths from the standard diving platform height of 33 feet, Li said. Both were hits to the back of the head on the platform, not from hitting the water. Although the tether that connects the pilot to the water pump could be extended, Li limited the length to 30 feet for safety.

It may even be safer than other water craft because of the design, Li said.

“In the Jetlev, you can stop, even at full throttle, and hover motionless so there is no forward thrust,” Li said. “You can also go reverse by leaning and bypass a collision. Boats can’t stop, but this can.

“Plus, no one will miss seeing you in this,” he said. “They’ll have their camera out watching.”

Industry compliance

Li compiled a six-page safety briefing for the U.S. Coast Guard. The craft falls under coast guard jurisdiction because it is powered by an inboard motor of more than 10 mph. Li said the category is unique because it is not classified as a vessel. It carries no passengers, no one is riding on it; it is just a floating pump. There is no propulsion because the boat is just pulled through the water by the flier.

The Jetlev has an official grant of exemption in the U.S Code of Federal Regulations and the boat unit is affixed with the required label.

The safety report was also sent to insurance companies where he secured coverage options for owners.

“The machine looks really fun, but well before I could consider using it with crew or guests, the question would be if the yacht’s insurance company will insure its usage as one of the yacht’s toys,” said the captain of a 139-foot private yacht who asked not to be named. “As always, the insurance company has a lot of say.”

Charter Capt. Herb Magney said he and his boss regularly review water toys to see if price, liability, storage, maintenance and safety issues make them worthwhile to buy.

The yacht once lost a charter because another boat had a water slide. But Magney’s boat is undecided about the Jetlev at the moment. The yacht already has scuba, PWCs, sailboats and nearly every other water toy.

“We went back and forth with this one,” he said. “We don’t have a plane or helicopter, but clients can rent them and anything else.”

There is a market for yachts to rent the machine, Oosterhouse said, noting that details are being worked out for flight instructors to train crew and bring the Jetlev to yachts as rentals.

Others in the industry, such as Jennifer Saia, executive director of the charter division of International Yacht Collection, are waiting for a bit more information before recommending them to owners.

Learning to fly

Perhaps the first step is to fly the thing.

Flight instructor Keith Paul counts three stages of introduction to the craft: First, people see a video on the Internet or in a news report. Next, they see it in person. Then, they fly it.

“Most people learn the flight aspect quickly,” Paul said. “In the beginning, they’re a bit nervous, but then they splash down, get excited and are ready to go again.”

Paul recommends the introductory flight experience for captains. The one-hour course provides training, 15 minutes of flight time and enough information to share with yacht owners.

Once a yacht has a Jetlev, the crew would train to become certified flight instructors.

“You can’t take delivery without knowing how to use it,” Paul said.

“It’s a rush of adrenaline,” said Shelley Oosterhouse, administrative manager of Jetlev South East, as she pointed to her flight on the promotional video running in the office. “See me screaming in that video? That’s what it’s like.”

There are several flight centers open including Newport Beach, Calif., and Key West, Fla., and one opening in Mexico. Travis Wolf, lead instructor at JetPack Adventure in Key West, was still dripping water after performing a demonstration flight at Lauderdale Marine Center in Ft. Lauderdale in July.

“This is a childhood dream, it’s ridiculous,” Wolf said.

A test spin costs about $250, or you can buy one for $99,500.

A Jetlev is one of the few water toys that has control, agility, safety, and is fun, Jay Oosterhouse said.

“I also think this it’s appealing because not everyone can have one,” he said.

Dorie Cox is associate editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at dorie@the-triton.com.

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