In 1992, Jim Mills, owner of Webster Marine, took a gamble after friends had encouraged him to bring relatively new motorized water scooters — called personal watercraft or PWCs — to Smith Mountain Lake.

Mills began working with Bombardier, which made the Sea Doo brand of PWCs, to qualify as a distribution outlet. He was approved for the dealership and, with some trepidation, agreed to an initial order of 30.

As it turns out, Webster sold the order, as well as a second shipment of 30 more machines, that first season. The two-seater vessels (the three-seater Sea Doos came along two seasons later) sold for $5,000 to $6,000. Since then, Webster has sold around 100 units annually, making the Moneta business one of the largest Sea Doo dealers in a three-state district.

Over the years, PWCs have become more powerful, luxurious and pricier. High-end models with 300-horsepower engines, slow-speed and reverse maneuvering assist systems, computer-controlled “panic stop” braking and a shock-absorber-mounted rider deck can cost more than $16,000.

But compared to boats, PWCs are easy to handle, don’t take up much dock space, are relatively cheap (an entry level SeaDoo retails for around $7,000) and nearly fuss-free.

Care and maintenance

To stay ready at the press of their starter buttons, PWCs need regular care.

“We can always fix one that doesn’t work right,” said Dale Runyon of Bayside Marina. “Smart owners, though, avoid problems with a bit of TLC.”

That includes burning non-ethanol gas to prevent fuel systems from clogging and deteriorating and changing the oil every 100 hours or once a season, Runyon said.

A PWC that misses, hesitates upon acceleration or won’t develop full RPM is often asking for new sparkplugs, a fairly easy, do-it-yourself project for anyone mechanically inclined. “But be sure to buy the right replacement plugs and check the old ones to see if the brass electrode on the top of each has been removed,” said mechanic John Stabil of Reliable Marine Service. “If so, screw off the caps that come on the replacement plugs before installing them or you won’t be able to reconnect the sparkplug wires.”

Stabil also offered several tips for avoiding costly professional service. “Lubricate properly (that’s full and clean crankcase oil for four-cycles, proper fuel-oil mix for two-cycles) and keep water out of the engine compartment. Many machines, especially the two-strokes, must be rolled upright from a turnover in just one direction — shown clearly on a sticker at the rear. Ignore that, and you risk flooding the cylinders with lake water.”

Chief among the reasons for professional servicing is to replace a worn wear ring, which usually results from sand, gravel or floating debris being sucked through the jet impeller. “Sluggish performance despite the engine seeming to run fine is the tip-off,” said Virgil Naff of Virgil Naff, a powersports dealer based in Lynchburg and at Smith Mountain Lake. “It’s about a $200 repair, but will make your machine jack-rabbit quick again.”

Pre-flight check

Members of the She Doos personal watercraft group pay close attention to ensure their vessels are in good working order.

“I give mine a thorough once-over at the beginning of each season, making sure all the essential equipment — fire extinguisher, whistle, first aid kit, mooring line, registration, boater education card — is back where it belongs,” longtime member LeeAnn DeMonbreum said. “I remove the seats to air out the engine compartment, then charge the battery and check the oil. When I do start it, I let it run some at the dock, then shut it down and make sure it will restart. Finally, I take a test ride, staying close to home until I’m sure all is well.”

PWC owners should pay attention to how their vessel’s starter motor cranks, said Deedee Bondurant, founding member of the SheDoos. “Hesistant or slow cranking usually means the battery is weak and will soon leave you stranded.”

Owners who get two full seasons from a battery are doing well, and even that usually requires removing and trickle-charging it during the winter months. PWC batteries can be located in hard-to-reach spaces so removing them and getting a new one secured and connected takes some doing.

Staying showroom ready

Just as with boats, covering your PWC and keeping it out of the sun will help preserve its good looks.

Fiberglass that has turned chalky from the sun’s rays can be restored to near-showroom glimmer with application of polishing compound, then wax, using an industrial-strength buffer. The job is a whole lot easier with the PWC sitting on a trailer.

Tim Wall of TNT Auto Body and Repair Service Centers in Glade Hill said a reconditioning job typically costs between $400 and $600. That price, he added, includes a PWC’s pick-up and return.

“Keeping your PWC freshly coated in quality UV-resistant marine wax will keep it looking good a whole lot longer,” Wall added.

A sun-exposed PWC can cause a vessel’s saddle to become brittle and crack, especially on darker-colored vinyls. Got It Covered Upholstery, one of several upholsterers at the lake, will re-upholster a two-person saddle for around $200, ranging up to $475 or more for complex patterns or the large, multi-tiered saddles on newer models.