Last Summer

March 20, 2011
By , Center Point, IA
At the beginning of last summer, I bought a pair of jet skis. It was basically an impulse buy, and one I would later regret. I spent $3,000 on a 1997 Ski-Doo 720cc, a 2000 Polaris 1200cc, and a trailer. I was told by the man that sold them to me, that the Polaris needed to be reassembled, but once I did that, it would run great. With a quick inspection, that appeared to be true. When I took the engine apart, however, I realized that it could not be used. The previous owner had run the engine for an extended period of time with no oil, which is a seriously bad thing to do.
At this point I had two options. My first was to bore the engine, a process in which the burned portions of a wrecked engine are drilled out and replaced, similar to having a cavity filled. While this usually worked, there was no guarantee that it would, or that I would be able to find new parts for such an old engine, especially since Polaris no longer makes watercraft of any kind.
My second option was to replace the engine entirely. I decided to go with this option, another decision I regret, as this was another $2,300 down the drain.
A few weeks later, I received a large and extremely heavy box. I knew it could only be a new engine. The swap was a long and challenging task, but I had so much money invested in this project I couldn’t focus on anything else until it was complete. It took at least 13 hours, which is much longer than an engine install should take. I stopped only to take eat, and then it was back to work.
After the painful removal of corroded nuts and bolts, the lifting of the large block of aluminum and steel out of the engine compartment, and answering countless questions about the how a 2-cycle engine works from my dad, the hard part was finally done. The installation of the new engine went fairly well.
I barely slept that night as I couldn’t start the engine until various sealants and glues dried. I couldn’t stop thinking of all the things that could go wrong. It was the first time I had ever worked with a 2-cycle engine that size, and I hoped it would be the last. It’s the largest engine ever made by Polaris and barely fit into the relatively tiny engine compartment, making it difficult to work on. The simplest of tasks requires the removal of unusually large and cumbersome parts.
To my relief, the engine started and ran perfectly the next morning. Within the hour it was in the Cedar River. The engine ran great, it’s recommended to break the engine in at no more than half throttle for up to ten hours. I couldn’t wait that long, and went to full throttle. By the time I got as far down river as I could, I was going close to 70 miles per hour. Since most jet skis or any watercraft for that matter have no brakes, the best way to stop quickly is to turn sharply. As I did this, the deceleration caused what would become a major problem. The piece that starts the engine when the key is turned, called the idler gear, had a broken spring. When I stopped, it flew out of its place and lodged in the flywheel. This did two things, neither was good. The first thing it did was kill the engine. This would not have been a problem, except for the second thing. The gear had been completely removed by the spinning flywheel, which prevented the engine from being restarted.
I was in a bad situation; I was in the middle of the river, with trees preventing me from being seen by anybody passing by. My dad was on shore, with the Sea-Doo on a trailer nearby, but he was sleeping, and had no reason to believe anything had gone wrong. My phone was in a compartment in front of me, but had been smashed against other things in there by the waves and no longer worked. I had an air horn, but it wouldn’t do any good, nobody could hear it. I was floating slowly but surely towards the 1st Street Bridge, which is a dam. I wasn’t really concerned about going over the damn, but more about the safety cable before it. If enough tension is applied to the cable, it triggers an alarm. This causes the fire department to deploy a search and rescue boat to get you off of it. That was something I really wanted to avoid.
I didn’t really know what to do, so I just sat there for awhile expecting something would happen. It didn’t. By now it was coming very close to a train bridge. I knew the current would increase because of the support pylons restricting the water flow. This would make it impossible to control an already challenging situation and I would likely slam into the dreaded safety cable.
I decided it was time to improvise. I unlatched the rear compartment and put inside the front compartment. This allowed me to open the engine compartment. I removed the hinges and took the whole seat off. I thought maybe it could be used as a paddle. It worked, but not very well.
Eventually, I was able to paddle my way to Quaker Oats. I still don’t know why they felt it was necessary to build a stairway that went into the river, but I’m glad they did. I tied off to the railing of this mysterious stairway. I walked over to the loading docks and asked some guy if I could use his phone. I don’t think he understood how or why I was there, but he let me use his phone. I called my dad, who somehow managed to put the Sea-Doo in the river by himself. I sat on the mystery stairs and waited, using my feet to keep the Jet Ski from smashing into the rocks on the bank. Eventually I saw my dad. We tied up and started the long drive back to the ramp. The smaller 720cc Sea-Doo had trouble pulling the much larger Polaris, but we made it.
After both watercraft were on the trailer, and later back in the shop, we started to troubleshoot the problem. At the time nobody knew exactly had happened. It didn’t take long to find out what went wrong. A new part was ordered and it was back on the water a few weeks later.
We still needed to break in the engine, so we decided to take it to the Coralville reservoir, where there are no bridges, dams, or safety cables to worry about. There are also plenty of boats around in case we had a similar problem.
As it turned out, we did, need a tow, but not very far. This time the Polaris started and ran fine, but the Sea-Doo wouldn’t start. While we waited for the gas to evaporate from the flooded engine, I sat on the Polaris at a dock. As I waited I noticed the lights had gone out on the instrument panel of my Polaris. I tried to start it…nothing, not even a solenoid click. As I reached for the tow rope in the back compartment, I realized the back end was underwater. I yelled a lot of things I won’t type and threw a rope to shore. It was quickly tied to the Sea-Doo, which pulled it in range of the trailer winch.
We moved the trailer over to the parking lot away from the busy boat ramp. When I took the engine cover off I saw, to my horror, that the entire Jet Ski was completely filled with water. The plugs in the bottom of the hull that were used to drain small amounts of excess water had been left open, allowing water to fill it completely. I assumed all was lost, but after the water drained and an hour passed over lunch, it miraculously started. Unfortunately there is water in the engine, which currently causes it to stop revving at 4,500 RPM, less than half of its potential. This is a problem to this day, but hopefully it can be resolved with the thawing of spring

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