Since 1986, Yamaha has led the world in pioneering the development and growth of today’s personal watercraft market. Through a continuous programme of cutting-edge design and engineering innovation, matched with exploitation of the very latest electronic and power technologies, Yamaha has created today’s awesome WaveRunner line-up – surely one of the most exciting and exhilarating ways of enjoying yourself on the water. We are very proud to be celebrating 30 years of achievement in this unique market – and of course, our research and development effort will continue to be as forceful as ever. Because we are never satisfied.
One man who is never satisfied – not even now - was there at the very start of the WaveRunner success story. As the chief designer of boats and water vehicles, he not only invented the world's first sit-down type of PWC, but also the company’s twin engine-driven Jet Boat. His name is Neil Kobayashi.
The WaveRunner story is a fascinating one, especially seen through the eyes of the man who, way back in 1986, was the company’s Development Manager, and who, thanks to his deep involvement and passionate dedication to the development of these products, has become known throughout Yamaha as " WaveRunner Papa ".
So let’s hear that story in his own words …
People, water and the environment in harmony
The first small PWCs (personal watercraft) were produced in the 1970s in the USA and were designed for solo riding. They were also quite difficult to control and not everyone could master their handling. In 1986, in order to offer a PWC that more people could ride and enjoy with ease and confidence, Yamaha introduced the world's first PWC designed for tandem riding – and a craft developed with reliability, fun and functionality as its key attributes. This is how Neil Kobayashi recalls the road to the launch of that first revolutionary vehicle, the WaveRunner.
“For me, it all began in the early 1970's in Shonan”
I was stationed in Shonan, which was the centre of Japan's marine leisure industry in the 1970's. At this time, as there was no need for licenses or certification on small watercraft, people were free to use the water however they chose, taking responsibility for themselves.
Shonan, being close to Yokohama and Yokosuka, was an easy place to launch boats and other craft into the ocean very freely and there were many different types of craft available, such as scaled-down versions of small boats, surfboards fitted with propulsion devices and underwater wings etc.
At the time, marine leisure pursuits were thought of as not being available for everyone - and products were really aimed at the elite. I remember thinking about the possibilities of providing this type of enjoyment in easier ways, and of making it accessible to more people.However, as I had only just joined the company, on a technical level, I was not in a position to exercise any authority. Even so, I felt that I would one day like to make a craft of this type. I thought this was the opportunity to create a ‘WaveRunner’.
Development in tough times - and failure in America
After this, development of small watercraft was very popular overseas, but with only a small number of companies producing W/V-type craft at a manufacturing level - and then in 1979, a limited number were brought into Japan. By now though, there was an obligation for even small watercraft to be licensed and certified, So of course, legal technical standards had to be set, so the Ministry of Transport (Now the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism) requested co-operation from the Japan Marine Industry Association.
However, when it came to the company's development of personal watercraft, there was a mindset at the time that "Yamaha only makes motorboats" and so, while I was able to assist in drawing up plans for the legal side, I did not receive any permission in regard to their deployment.
Then in around 1983, the company became unable to develop the business by focusing solely on its key products, so an opportunity emerged within the company to create new products with a more competitive edge. During this period, I was responsible for experimentation and managed to complete current work using only 80% of our capacity and I was able to free up 20%, enabling us to carry out development of the personal watercraft as a brand new product.
Through repeated trial and error, we completed our prototype of what we called the "Power-Ski." It was around this time that we received a request from YMUS (YAMAHA MOTOR CORPORATION, U.S.A.), one of Yamaha Motor's overseas group companies, that they would like to see a presentation - a request that came from a friend and superior I had worked with in my Shonan days, who was now stationed at YMUS.
In September 1984, with models from other companies using 15hp pumps, Yamaha revised the boat for the American market, changing the engine for a 25hp option. However the results were far less successful than expected. The “Power-ski” - being a small, lightweight model with a small engine - just didn't suit American drivers who usually exceeded 100kg! The 25hp pump simply did not have enough power, causing most would-be riders to give up while trying just to get onto the craft - let alone use it.
At the post-test meetings we had a really difficult time keeping up good relations with the Americans while searching for good points to talk about!
Our “Power-ski” was a lightweight 65kg. On talking with the locals, the general feeling was that the craft did not need to be light enough to be lifted up by hand, could be towed around on a trailer, and that it would therefore be no problem if it weighed around 130kg. Furthermore, I remembered my time at Shonan and felt confident that I could handle the request from the Americans for machines which provided "fun for solo or tandem riding".
So in February 1985, and with the backing of YMUS, the in-house MMV (Mini Marine Vehicle) project formally began and development started on the single and tandem models in accordance with YMUS requests.
“We will just have to make do with 30hp!”
At this time, our development needed to focus on the simultaneous production of engines and their related jet propulsion devices, so we held talks with Sanshin Industries who (at the time) were carrying out engine development for outboard motors.
We thought that if we could achieve 50hp, we could create a very enjoyable watercraft. However out of all the outboard motors that we could have chosen to function as our base engine, the upper limit was only 30hp, so we started engine development with the thought in our minds that "We will have to make do with only 30hp".
As we would only be able to offer power up to 30hp, one option that came to mind was the combination of double chines to be incorporated into the Shallow V hull. To achieve increased speed with less horsepower, we used double chines at the optimum width on the inner side in order to cut through the water. That way, we created a hull that would simultaneously bring static stability (through the fitting of outer side chines) and provide the thrill of controllable fast speed turns when the center of gravity moved forward, but also provide sharp edge turning when the hull was tipped to one side.
After this phase, came a series of repeated cruising adjustments - almost on a daily basis - which finally resulted in a new type of handling and agility that immediately captivated people the world over.
They all just raised their thumbs and said “Excellent”
In July 1985, we gave a presentation to YMUS that we knew could not fail. The test riders were experienced motorcycle and snowmobile riders who had also attended the first test rides. This time, the test riders that tried out the tandem models just wouldn't get off - when they finally did actually get off, they all just raised their thumbs and said "Excellent!" Everyone was really excited, and kept lining up to test ride the different products.
There was almost no time to get any other type of feedback, the response was so great. But the thing that sticks in my mind most clearly, was when one motorcycle rider who had given us a scathing review at our first test at YMUS - and had said that what we wanted to produce was impossible with our company's technology - this time gave us the highest praise "This is what I've always wanted.- it's ideal" he said.
With that, the tandem model became a tentative production project and "WaveRunner" was chosen as the model name.
At the same time we were making presentations to YMUS of the prototype "WaveJammer" watercraft, with the same boat-shaped construction as the tandem model, but designed for solo riding.
From this point onwards, with the need to improve marketability and reliability, we coordinated with the other departments in charge of design, testing, quality assurance, service - and almost every day was a continuous programme of test rides and inspections.
After major efforts across the company as a whole, production began in October 1986 on the tandem model, the WaveRunner 500 (Marine Jet 500T) and in February 1987 came the WaveJammer 500 (Marine Jet 500S).
Following these launches, there were strong inquiry levels from many different countries, and all of a sudden it was a popular addition to beaches everywhere.
Actually, I feel these were craft that could only have been built by Yamaha, a company with a unique combination of many years of small-engine expertise in motorcycles and outboard motors and equally deep experience and know-how in boat design and construction. Ever since, Yamaha has continued to develop and refine its technologies to achieve harmony between what our customers want in a modern watercraft - and what is good for local communities and the environment.
What are we hoping for from the next generation of engineers?
Those 30 years have flown by since I started in development and the thing I consider most unfortunate is that the fundamental ‘concept’ of the personal watercraft has not changed from what it was when I started to get involved.
It is my wish that Yamaha maintains its traditional “Spirit of Challenge” attitude by looking again at the concept that has been used until now and looks to create something brand new and enjoyable that excites people even more … I have high hopes of this happening!