Remembering Clayton Jacobson, Grandfather of the Jet Ski

By Will Burgess

Inventor of the Personal Watercraft and powersports enthusiast, Clayton Jacobson II, passed away Thursday, August 18, in Byron Bay, NSW, Australia at the age of 88. He is survived by his wife Lee Anne, and four children.

The child of Norwegian immigrants, Jacobson was born in Portland, Ore. in October 1933. Jacobson was an avid dirt bike rider, street racer, and enjoyed working extensively on cars.
Early in life, he and his family moved to Southern California, just prior to the surfing boom as new technological developments from WWII led to a revolution in the design and composition of boards.

Jacobson studied physics and engineering at Los Angeles City College before joining the Marine Reserves Air Corps to get closer to jet planes, a fascination of his from childhood. During this time he met and married his first wife, Diane Edwards. He worked with Diane’s father in finance at the local Savings and Loan while participating in dirt bike races in his free time.

After an injury during a race in the Mojave Desert, Jacobson yearned for a way to enjoy this sport in a way that wouldn’t result in injury after wiping out.

Jacobson was interviewed by Personal Watercraft Illustrated in 1994, saying, “I had been racing dirt bikes as a hobby. It was a form of stress relief for me. However, as you know, when you crash a dirt bike, the ground isn’t very forgiving. That’s why and how I came up with the idea for a personal watercraft.”

Jacobson started drafting the design for a single-rider “motorcycle for the water. “I was looking for a softer landing, and the water offered exactly what I was looking for,” said Jacobson.
Thus, the jet ski concept was born.

An early prototype PWC by extreme sports enthusiast Clayton Jacobson | from Wikipedia: Jet Ski (shared under CC BY-SA 3.0)

In 1965, Jacobson presented the first working prototype of the stand-up jet ski to Bombardier, manufacturer of Ski-Doo snowmobiles. Bombardier exclusively licensed Jacobson’s patent and eventually produced the first sit-down “Sea-Doo pleasure watercraft”.

Bombardier rejected Jacobson’s input in the development of the Sea-Doo which did not become a commercial success during the initial launch, and were discontinued after only two years of production.

Once the licensing agreement expired at the beginning of the 1970s, Jacobson immediately presented the concept to Kawasaki to finally produce a stand-up jet ski.

By 1973, the first trademarked Kawasaki Jet Ski models “WSAA” flat hull and “WSAB” V-hull (click for gallery) for speed enthusiasts, were unveiled to the public, becoming the hot new powersports product of the decade.

The first official production β€œPersonal Watercraft”, trademarked the β€œJet Ski” was based on a patent design by Clayton Jacobson in 1971.

Jacobson, once again disenfranchised with the direction of the personal watercraft under Kawasaki’s agreement sent a letter of intent to sever their partnership. This resulted in a legal battle of several years, resulting in a $21 million dollar award for Jacobson when the suit was finally decided in July 1991.

The Jet-Ski logo on a sign you might see at your local Kawasaki retailing dealership.

During this time, Jacobson entered a new agreement with Yamaha Motor Company to consult on their watercraft production.

Jacobson retired to Parker Strip, Ariz., where he continued to lead a thrilling life of water racing, flying in his Cessna 208 Caravan seaplane, and even published a 2013 biography recounting his thrilling life.

The legacy of the jet ski lives on today; there are an estimated 20 million Americans who ride, race, and enjoy PWCs annually.

Clayton Jacobson at a autobiography book signing tour in 2014. | Credit: Kidsixteen from the Wikipedia article Clayton Jacobson II (shared under CC BY-SA 3.0)

Adrenaline Powersports Mag extends our gratitude to Jacobson and his family for his contributions to the world of watersports.

Will Burgess is a journalist with Adrenaline Powersports Mag


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