Mr. Adventure: Sharks Below, Glories Ahead

What happened when a first-time rider braved the waves and wakes of the Gulf for 30 miles of challenge and sight-seeing

BY April 3, 2015


“A world-record hammerhead shark was caught right here,” said my guide, Jordan, as our idling WaveRunners gently bobbed from side to side above the serene blue-green waters of Boca Grande Pass.

“Right where?” I asked.

“Right here, in this channel.”

“The one we’re floating in? Right now? This channel?”

“Yeah! It’s hard to believe because the water is so shallow, but they’re all over the place.”

“That’s just, you know, really, err … gosh, look at the time. Maybe we should be getting back to, you know, land.”

This seems like a good place to tell you that rental Yamaha WaveRunners can go 51 miles per hour on a good day. On a bad day, I’m guessing I could have gotten 52 out of that sucker.

But even with the prospect of being eaten by sharks, this was a good day. Why? Because I spent the day exploring our area on a personal watercraft (PWC aka Jet Ski, WaveRunner, Seadoo, etc.). And if you’ve never been aboard a crotch rocket of the sea, you need to finish reading this magazine and immediately purchase, rent or steal one. They are worth whatever someone charges.

Made from what I believe to be cat litter boxes and decommissioned parts from the Russian space program, PWCs capture the freedom of the open sea coupled with our inherent need to cripple the ozone. If they could make one that belched fire AND deep-fried the very fish I was skimming over, I’d say Henry Ford was a hack for limiting us all to roads. But, alas, they’re still pretty great just as they are. Like snowmobiling on drifts that keep moving over fields of potential death. The spray in your face from the waves and wakes makes it the closest thing to saddling a dolphin for personal use.

Of course, you can rent these things up and down the Gulf Coast, but what drew me to YOLO Watersports was an advertised WaveRunner excursion to Cayo Costa State Park, just north of North Captiva Island.

The excursion is a 30-mile journey from Captiva, up the west side of North Captiva Island, around Cayo Costa and Punta Blanca Island, past Useppa and Cabbage Key (where supposedly Jimmy Buffet wrote Cheeseburger in Paradise), and back down to YOLO headquarters near the world-famous Mucky Duck. It’s basically a tour of a whole lot of places you can only get to by boat (or PWC). It takes a minimum of two hours, but within that timeframe you will have an absolute blast exploring the open sea, witnessing wildlife and stopping along the pristine beaches of Cayo Costa in much the same fashion as the famed Calusa Indians did centuries ago—albeit wearing wetsuits and Ray-Bans and uploading selfies.

Most of the time when you rent a PWC, you’re confined to a set of buoys approximately a half-mile wide—not exactly an adventure. But 30 miles over shark-infested waters, especially when you’ve never been on one before, totally qualifies. And Jordan seemed completely qualified to rescue me should the need arise. A 28-year-old communications major, he gave up being a ski instructor in Colorado to get paid to hang out on the beach all day. By night he operates a totally rad T-shirt silk-screening business called Garage Shirts that also makes vinyl stickers for surf- and snowboards. “I’m not sure that less thought has ever gone into starting a business in the history of the entire world,” he says. He was wearing a ski hat with a pompom on top of it even though it was 82 degrees out. Cliché? Perhaps, but it works for him. And for all I know, the pompom may have contained shark repellent.

Nevertheless, when you first climb aboard a PWC, there are a few things you need to know up front. One: They’re pretty stable. It would take some doing to fall off one of these suckers. Two: They don’t steer worth a darn at slow speeds—so by all means, go fast. Three: Beachcombers and boat owners think you’re a menace. And they’re probably not wrong. (But you’ll be having too much fun to care what anyone thinks of you.) And Four: The second part of number one is probably wrong.

We’d barely left the beach when we spotted a pod of dolphins doing dolphin things (I’m not an expert, but it looked like they were mugging an amberjack). We even saw tarpon jumping. I considered slowing down but Jordan was pretty far in front and I didn’t want to be the guy that doesn’t know how to drive one of these things, so I gunned the throttle in an effort to close the gap. Which brings us to another thing you should know about PWC: There are, in fact, inherent dangers to riding on a watercraft capable of fairly high speeds.

And some of those dangers, as spelled out in Wikipedia, involve risk of “orifice injuries.” That’s right. According to the online encyclopedia, these injuries are the types suffered by water-skiers when they fall into the water at high speed. We quote: “A rider who falls (or is ejected) off the back can land directly in the path of the PWC’s high-pressure jet of water. Unless a rider is appropriately dressed in garments made out of a strong, thick substance like neoprene (as is commonly found in wetsuits), the jet may penetrate any orifice it reaches.”

Good. To. Know. That little disclosure is actually a part of several manufacturers’ warnings. That may well have been in the fine print of the waiver I signed, but if it was I glossed right over it, preferring to remain blind to the possibility of a Gulf of Mexico colonoscopy. (Feel free to Google “PWC Orifice Injuries.” John Morgan is probably all over this.)

  However, it turns out there is a slight design flaw that might lead directly to having your openings power-washed by a WaveRunner. You see, the throttle sits on the front of the handlebars. So if you give it a little juice and that juice turns out to be too much juice, your body gets pulled backward and you are forced to go for a tighter grip on the handlebars, meaning you squeeze the accelerator even harder, leading to a vicious cycle of horrific lurches and leaps. Only the realization of a jet-powered enema or that the world’s second-largest hammerhead might be just a few feet beneath me kept me from going overboard. From shore I suspect I looked like I was riding the only sea-going mechanical bull known to man—
Gilley’s gone coastal.

Regardless, the trip was a spectacular experience that highlighted all that’s right with our little piece of paradise—sun, sea, sand and an adventure after every wave.

But with that said, all I can tell you is that the Gulf of Mexico tastes like a really awful margarita and that I’m having Jordan make me T-shirts that say “Congratulate Me on My Intact Orifice.” Let me know if you want one, too. 


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