Jet Boats and Scarabs Guide

Jet boats are a great option for many boaters, and jet-powered boats of all shapes and sizes can be found from coast-to-coast. Check out our Ultimate Guide to Jet Boats to find out if one would be right for you and your family.

Although few people realize it, many of the most popular runabouts in the 20 to 24-foot range are jet boats. The reason for that can be boiled down to one simple fact: with no propeller spinning under the water, many people (particularly those new to boating) feel much safer. Especially if you and your family enjoy watersports, eliminating the prop and running gear eliminates much of the worry that can go with water skiing, wakeboarding, and tubing. That’s why jet boats make ideal watersports boats. Meanwhile, from the waterline up, most jet boats are more or less exactly like other runabouts and bowriders.

The 243 is Chaparral’s top-of-the-chart model in a lineup of six jet boats, and there’s a lot to like about it .
Chaparral 243 VRX Jet Boat

What Are Jet Boats?

Jet boats are recreational boats that are propelled by a waterjet or multiple waterjets, as opposed to spinning a propeller or propellers through the water to create thrust. Jet boats can come in single- or twin-engine models, are available in a wide range of shapes and sizes, and come in a variety of designs intended for different specific uses.

Small Jet Boats

The smallest jet boats are personal watercraft – yes, those Jet Skis are really just diminutive jet boats and are governed by all the same rules and regulations out on the water as any other boats. Some can carry as many as three people, and there are models that can be used to tow water toys, to go for long cruises, or even to take on a fishing trip. So when you think of jet boats, don’t forget about personal watercraft, too.

Another interesting class of small jet boat is the tender. There are some rigid inflatable boats (RIBs) as well as a few high-end tenders that are designed to get passengers to and from yachts that sit out away from the dock at anchor. Usually, these range from 10 to 18 feet in length. In some cases, large compartments on the yacht called “garages” open up so you can park the jet boat right inside of the big boat.

There are also many small jet boats which are skiffs or jon boats that have a jet outboard engine bolted onto the transom. Several outboard engine builders offer motors with jet drives, ranging from 25 all the way up to 150 horsepower. However, these are commonly found on fishing boats as opposed to runabouts. Most of the time, their use is reserved for rocky rivers where propeller damage is a common danger.

Aside from these types of boats, the vast majority of the small jet-powered boats out there are runabouts. They commonly have one inboard engine, an aft cockpit with seating, a helm and passenger’s seat, and a small forward cockpit with seats in front of the steering console and windshield. They’re great for zipping around on lakes and small bays at speeds up to 40 or 50 mph, pulling a tow-toy or exploring all sorts of waterways in both freshwater and saltwater environments.

Large Jet Boats

Once jet boats get over about 20 feet in length, they often have twin powerplants instead of a single engine. Still, however, the majority of the jets on the water are pleasure-craft used for recreation. In this size range, you’ll see both runabouts and jet boats designed for specific watersports. Some merely have tow-towers or raised bits for pulling water toys, while others may have jet drives or designs intended specifically for wake surfing. As a general rule of thumb even though these boats commonly have twin engines, since they’re much larger and heavier than single-engine jet boats, they still usually top-out at 40-something mph (though a few do break 50 mph).

Aside from these larger runabouts, which commonly reach around 25 to 27 feet in length, there are also some big jet boats that are used for other purposes. A handful of yachts are built with jet drives. The military uses jets on some of their boats due to their draft advantages (more on that later), and there are even some commercial ferries and workboats which utilize jet drives rather than propellers.

Types of Jet Boats

Four our purposes, of course, recreational jet boats are what we’re really interested in. We can break down the most common options into four categories:

Small Runabouts

This category of jet boats usually has little more than seats, controls, and maybe a dry stowage compartment or two. Most are simply used for joy-riding, although as we mentioned earlier there are some cases where they serve as tenders to large boats or yachts.

Bowrider Jet Boats

These are the most common jet boats on the water. They usually offer an aft cockpit with seating, a helm and passenger’s seat, and a forward cockpit with seats in front of the steering console and windshield. Larger versions may come with an arch or Bimini top, and some can be quite technologically advanced with perks like digital controls, booming stereo systems, and cruise control.

Tow-sports Jet Boats

Most jet boat manufacturers offer watersports versions of their runabout and bowrider models, which have things like elevated tow points and trimmable wakes, to make them just as good for watersports as other dedicated tow-sports boats.

Fishing boats

Along with the outboard powered jets we mentioned earlier, these are several center console jet boat models on the market which are available in fishing versions. As one might expect, these can be outfitted with equipment like livewells, rod holders, T-tops, raw water washdowns, and fishboxes.

Advantages of Jet Boats

The main perk of owning a jet boat is, as we said earlier, the fact that it has no propeller and gives people a feeling of safety. There are, however, several other advantages jet boats enjoy. Their performance is exhilarating, and handling at fast speeds is rather amazing – many jet boats can turn on a dime, even at very high speeds.

They also offer excellent acceleration and can go from a dead-stop to high speeds in a matter of seconds. And jet boats enjoy that draft advantage over propeller-driven boats, which we mentioned earlier. The jet nozzle doesn’t have to protrude far beneath the hull like an outboard’s lower unit or an inboard’s shafts and struts, so draft can often be measured in inches instead of feet.

Like any propulsion system, of course, there are disadvantages as well. The biggest is efficiency. Jet drives simply aren’t as efficient as traditional propellers and as a general rule of thumb, jet boats are between 10 and 25 percent less efficient than similar model boats with equivalent sized engines swinging propellers.

Another characteristic many people feel is a down-side associated with jet drives is their sound level and pitch. Jets generally create a high-pitch whine that can be annoying after extended periods of cruising.

There’s a lot of variation between different boats and engines on this trait and manufacturers have made strides in mitigating sound levels in recent years, so we don’t want to paint with too broad a brush on this point. But still, anyone who is considering buying a jet boat should know to listen for this potential issue.

Finally, despite their excellent high-speed handling people should know that handling jet boats at slow speeds take a lot of getting used to. It’s not fair to say they handle “worse” than a boat with props, but they certainly handle differently. As a result, many boaters have issues with docking or loading the boat onto a trailer, at least initially until they become familiar with handling a jet.

Jet Boat Brands

Jet boats are incredibly popular and many manufacturers of recreational boats have offered jet options at one time or another, but these days, the lion’s share of jet boats are built by just a few companies.

Scarab Boats

Scarab, a division of Group Beneteau Americas, builds 12 models between 15’9” and 25’0” long. They’re powered by single or twin Rotax 4-Tec engines in four different power increments and two different blocks, which feature closed-loop cooling and electronic neutral and reverse.

Yamaha Boats

Yamaha watercraft provides 23 different model choices from 19’0” to 27’0”. With six center consoles, Yamaha also offers the widest range of fishing models. They’re powered by the award-winning Yamaha TR-1 four-stroke engine platform, a new design that replaced the MR-1 in 2016.

Vortex Boats

Built by Chaparral (which has been building propeller-driven runabouts since the mid-60s), the Vortex line includes six models in three different sizes, ranging from 20’3” to 24’3”. Like the Scarab line, they’re powered by Rotax engines.

Williams Jet Tenders

Williams builds a line of 12 RIB tenders and runabout jet boats between 9’2” and 20’8”, including four models that run on diesel instead of gasoline. Most models are powered by Rotax engines, but the diesel versions are Yanmars.

Hinkley Yachts

Hinkley Yachts builds a mix of large runabouts, picnic boats, and yachts between 31’9” and 57’11”. These classic boats are powered by inboard diesels from varying manufacturers, coupled to Hamilton waterjets.

General Jet Boat Info

What else do you need to know about jet boats? How about some technical specifics, and a bit of what we know from first-hand jet boat experience?

Jet Boats Propulsion

Propulsion in a jet boat comes from the directed thrust of accelerated water. The water is taken in through a grate in the bottom of the boat, then flows to an impeller. The impeller is similar to a propeller and it spins at a very high rate of speed to blast water aft and generate thrust. In this case, however, the water exits through a nozzle at high velocity.

The nozzle can be turned to direct the thrust, which is why jet boats handle so well when moving fast but not as well at very slow speeds. The directed thrust is what steers the boat, so when the thrust is low steering suffers. But when that thrust is high, turns of the steering wheel have a dramatic effect.

Unlike most marine drive systems, rather than removing or reversing power to the driveshaft, neutral and reverse are attained by again directing the thrust. In most cases, a water-deflector often called a “bucket” is lowered over the end of the nozzle to re-direct the thrust partially (for neutral) or entirely (for reverse).

Anecdotes and Stories About Jet Boats

What have we learned about jet boats, through years and years of testing them out on the water? First off, there’s no denying their utterly thrilling nature. Nail the throttle, hold on tight, and whip the steering wheel around as fast as you dare – a modern jetboat will make you feel like you’re on a waterborne roller coaster, and ear-to-ear grins are the natural result. When we tested a Scarab 165 Ghost we thought it was one of the wettest, wildest, most thrilling joyrides we’ve ever had on the water.

Secondly, particularly for new boaters who have kids, the feeling of safety and security you get from knowing there’s no propeller is invaluable. It’s true that recreational boating is an amazingly safe activity, and propeller-related accidents are extremely rare. Still, for many people, the added feeling of safety is just as important as reality.

Another thing we’ve learned through the years, however, is that jet boats aren’t ideal for everyone. If you make long cruises, for example, a quieter, more efficient outboard or inboard powerplant may make a lot more sense. Anglers who enjoy trolling will probably want a boat that’s easier to steer in a straight line at slow speeds. And people who do their boating in weedy areas may have problems with a jet boat’s intake grate becoming clogged with some regularity.

Conclusion

The bottom line? Like any other marine propulsion system, jet drives have advantages and disadvantages. But when you get right down to brass tacks, jet boats can be incredibly fun –and if you’re looking for a runabout or bowrider that can be used for everything from watersports to joyrides, you should probably take a test spin on some jet boats before signing on any dotted lines.

Written by: Lenny Rudow

With over two decades of experience in marine journalism, Lenny Rudow has contributed to publications including YachtWorld, boats.com, Boating Magazine, Marlin Magazine, Boating World, Saltwater Sportsman, Texas Fish & Game, and many others. Lenny is a graduate of the Westlawn School of Yacht Design, and he has won numerous BWI and OWAA writing awards.

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