Where Are the Brakes?

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Where Are the Brakes?

The man lying on the ground is wearing a bright orange T-shirt, baggy shorts and a navy blue cap. Fiddling with a 10-year-old Polaris TX3V89S boat has turned his grey gloves grimy. His grubby outfit gets wet and then dry again, at least three times a day.

Jeong Han-soo, 45, is the manager of Banpo Sports Club. His job description includes fixing personal watercraft, rescuing stalled boats and teaching jet skiing classes. As loud as his shirt is, he is mild-mannered. As fast as his jet ski can rip, he speaks slowly; having lived most of his life in Seoul, there is no trace of a drawl from Taegu, his hometown.

He sits up and leads the way to a nearby rickety building. The walls are thickly decorated with posters that depict Mr. Jeong's lifestyle - a Suzuki Outback, personal watercraft like the Thor II and Eric "The Cyclone" Malone, Mr. Jeong's hero of freestyle riding.

Most people start jet skiing for a simple reason: the need for speed. Jet skiing is like race car driving, but over water. Others, like Eric Malone, prefer to dance with their watercraft, plunging it into the water and lifting it out to turn a somersault in the air, like a dolphin performing tricks. But whatever style you like, jet skiing is undeniably a loud, powerful adrenaline blast. And you can even experience that aquatic thrill in the midst of Seoul.

There are 15 competing amateur jet skiers at the Banpo Sports Club facilities, including Mr. Jeong. Nearby, to the east, the Designer's Club in Jamwon-dong sponsored an international jet skiing competition earlier this month. It ended as many jet skiing competitions do, with a blow-out accident. Two jet skiers collided with each other and were hospitalized with broken jaws. "It's a dangerous sport," Mr. Jeong says, "but I've never been in an accident."

Physical danger is just one of several reasons many speak negatively of jet skiing. Those who oppose the sport point to the noise, the smell of fuel and the danger created by irresponsible jet skiers. In June, the Australian government banned jet skis from Sydney Harbor. In order to combat these concerns, since last year, the Korean government began enforcing a license requirement to drive personal watercraft.

The club offers classes to obtain that license. After a written exam, test takers must drive a boat around an obstacle course.

In addition to jet skiing lessons, rentals and license classes, the club has water skiing and wake boarding. There are about 120 personal watercraft vehicles, from a 700 cc Virage to a 1200 cc Polaris Genesis i. Some watercraft hold one person, others can hold up to four.

Renting one of these jet skis costs 100,000 won ($78) an hour, which, while still steep, is almost half what Mr. Jeong paid when he first started.

In the early 1990s, Mr. Jeong paid 30,000 won for a 10-minutes jet ski ride. He was then a Honda Accord dealer who also raced motorcycles. Bitten by the thrill of maneuvering a jet ski, he imported 30 jet skis, and eventually started working more and more with personal watercraft. About three years ago, he took a job at Banpo Sports Club. The club, which opened in the mid-1980s, began organizing jet ski lessons about five years ago.

The club is most crowded on weekends. On this weekday afternoon, four junior high school students have dropped by. Once they have put on their life vests, Mr. Jeong takes them down to the dock and chooses a two-seater Kawasaki 750. Half of the dock is shaded by a make-shift ceiling. To the left are two dozen jet skis. In the middle, four boats bump gently against the dock. To the right, five people sunbathe.

When the boys become stranded by the dying Kawasaki engine, Mr. Jeong hops on a jet ski and tows them ashore. "I've done this before, but the engine just shut off. I don't know what happened," one of the boys says sheepishly.

Mr. Jeong takes out another Kawasaki and offers a ride. The lesson is simple. Wrap the safety cord around your wrist. Press the start button. Go.

The club has rights to the water between Banpo and Hannam bridge, so beginners are allowed to drive here without a license. Mr. Jeong rides the waves, focusing on one spot in the distance, the 63 Building. Even at 30 kilometers per hour, the wind has a whip.

Over the noise, Mr. Jeong yells that the safety cord is attached to the ignition. "There is no brake. So if something happens and you fall, the boat will stop."

Scary words?

Not to a jet skier.

For more information, call 02-535-3362.

by Joe Yong-hee

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