Clayton Jacobson II, a jet ski pioneer, dies at the age of 88
The cause was pneumonia, a complication of his treatment for advanced skin cancer, his grandson Drü Barrios said. Mr. Jacobson had lived in California and Arizona where he tested and raced his jet skis in the Pacific Ocean and the Parker Strip section of the Colorado River before moving to Australia about 25 years ago.
An adventurous pilot and motorcyclist with a talent for customizing his own motorcycles and hot rods, Mr. Jacobson has been widely credited with inventing the jet ski, or personal watercraft. Powered by an inboard engine and steered with motorcycle-style handlebars, the watercraft became popular shortly after Mr. Jacobson licensed its design to Kawasaki in the early 1970s, leading to the creation of the company’s Jet Ski brand, which popularized the vessel’s name and helped create a dashing new summer sport. Critics complained that the watercraft were noisy and dangerous, but they emerged as a cheaper alternative to large boats, accounting for more than a third of all new boat sales by the mid-1990s.
As Mr. Jacobson said, “The jet ski came about because I needed stress relief.” It was the early 1960s and he had been working for his father-in-law’s savings and loan business and spending his free time dirt bike racing in the desert outside of Los Angeles spent. While other riders covered themselves in leather jackets and long sleeves, he avoided most protective gear and attempted to intimidate fellow racers by showing off a muscular physique he honed when he broke into Southern California’s burgeoning bodybuilding scene, according to his grandson.
Things were looking good, at least until he was thrown off his bike near Perris, California — he was in the Mojave Desert, according to some reports — and tended to his wounds from the bottom of an irrigation ditch. “I picked the gravel out of my skin and removed the blood,” he later told the Associated Press, “and I said, ‘There has to be a better way.’ ”
He turned to water in search of a “softer landing” and later wrote that he wanted “to enjoy the rush and excitement of a motorcycle without the inherent danger of hitting hard ground at high speeds”.
His creation had some unfortunate precedents, including a propeller-driven “water scooter” called the Amanda, made by Vincent, a British motorcycle manufacturer, in the mid-1950s. Unlike the Amanda, Mr. Jacobson’s version was driven standing up and used a jet pump, not a propeller. It also featured an aluminum body, fixed handle bar and a West Bend two-stroke engine.
By 1966 he had improved his design and made a second prototype out of fiberglass. He quit his job, filed his first patent for a “powered watercraft,” and began buying his invention from manufacturers. Eventually he teamed up with Canadian company Bombardier, who were more interested in the seated version of their watercraft and saw it as a summer counterpart to their Ski-Doo brand snowmobiles. They launched the original Sea-Doo in 1968 and marketed the mustard-yellow vessel as a “jet-powered aqua scooter” that could go 25 miles per hour but was “virtually untippable.” It was, they said, “the new thing on the water.”
But the watercraft never really got going. It was discontinued after two years, and Mr. Jacobson signed a new licensing agreement with Kawasaki that led to the development of the company’s first jet ski models in 1973. The standing watercraft was painted the color of pea soup and weighed about 220 pounds and was powered by a 400cc engine. The company released two different models, one with a flatter, more stable hull and the other with a V-shaped bottom that allowed riders to cut sharply across the water.
“The first ride on it was worse than a wild horse,” said Fred Tunstall, a veteran Kawasaki employee who helped design the jet skis, in a 2000 interview with Boats.com was fun.”
Over the decades, advances in cockpit, engine and hull design helped boost the jet ski’s popularity. Reintroduced by Bombardier in 1988, the Sea-Doo became one of the most popular boat brands in the world, and competing watercraft were introduced by companies such as Yamaha, where Mr. Jacobson ended up working as a consultant. Jet ski competitions also became popular, with more than 30 countries represented at World Championship events, according to Scott Frazier, executive director of the International Jet Sports Boating Association.
In a telephone interview, he called Mr. Jacobson a “patriarch” of the sport and credited him with developing the first mass-produced watercraft. “He had an incredible idea,” Frazier wrote in an online tribute, “and took it to a height that ranks him in history on a par with some of mankind’s greatest commercial inventors.”
Mr. Jacobson’s role in the development of the jet ski was the subject of a two-decade dispute with Kawasaki, which ran ads stating that the company and not the motorcycling inventor from California had developed the ship. In 1989, he filed a lawsuit for defamation and defamation, alleging that Kawasaki had illegally obtained jet ski patents in Japan and falsely credited its employees with the development of the watercraft. A federal jury awarded him $21 million in damages two years later, though he said he was looking for a lot more — $30 million to $60 million, given the fortune Kawasaki had made in jet skis.
Less than two months later, a federal district judge in Los Angeles reversed the arbitral award, saying there was insufficient evidence to support the allegations against Kawasaki. A new trial was ordered and Mr. Jacobson settled with the Company’s American subsidiary in 1992. He received a cash payment — the amount was not disclosed, but his grandson said it was roughly “a few million dollars” — and issued a joint statement to the company recognizing that Kawasaki made important contributions to the development of the watercraft has done. For his part, the company’s marketing vice president, Robert Moffit, acknowledged that Mr. Jacobson was “generally known as the inventor of the first stationary watercraft”.
“Indeed,” he added, “without Mr. Jacobson’s invention, Kawasaki’s jet ski brand of personal watercraft would not have been developed.”
Clayton Junior Jacobson, the younger of two children, was born on October 12, 1933 in Newberg, Oregon. According to the family, there was a misunderstanding when his name was cleared and he legally dropped his middle name as an adult. His father was a traveling salesman who later worked for Kellogg’s and his mother was a homemaker. Both parents were children of Norwegian immigrants; Mr. Jacobson considered himself a modern Viking.
Raised in Southern California, he received his high school diploma in Los Angeles and worked in wholesale groceries before marrying his first wife, Dianne Edwards, and joining her father’s business, Southwest Savings and Loan.
By then he was racing hot rods, building cars and motorcycles, and driving off-road in Mexico. He later worked with auto engineer Gerald Wiegert on the design of the Vector sports car; circumnavigated the world in a Cessna seaplane in his early 60s; and designed several buildings, including his light-filled home in Parker, Arizona, and his two-story garage in Australia, which contained “a prototype flying jet ski that never really came to fruition,” said his grandson.
He also published an autobiography in 2013, aptly titled Jet Ski Inventor Autobiography. When a person’s ego is defined as their “reasonable self worth,” he wrote, “mine’s about the size of my Ford F250 pickup. ”
His marriage to Edwards ended in divorce. He later married Lee Anne McMillan, his partner of 35 years. She survives him, as do four children from his first marriage, Karen Jacobson, Margo Orona, Tava Mericle and Clayton Jacobson III, a competitive jet skier; five grandchildren; and many great-grandchildren.
In accordance with his wishes, Mr Jacobson was cremated in what he believed to be a traditional Viking funeral. He was wearing his usual clothes: Levi’s jeans, a baggy Oakland Raiders jacket, a Parker Strip T-shirt, and a pair of clogs. Then, in what his grandson described as a nod to the old tradition, “they put his hand in a bowl of hazelnuts and gave him his Buck knife, the closest thing to a sword, and sent him to Valhalla.”