Not gonna lie, it’s even more fun than it looks.
In scenic and historic Williamsburg, Virginia, the Kingsmill Resort offers visitors a chance to become a weekend warrior atop a jet ski, which is more or less the ultimate toy you hope Santa Claus will deposit under your tree this December — if your tree happened to have space beneath it for such a monstrous machine of fun.
Thankfully, the drive from D.C. isn’t too horrible today, so I make the trek from nation’s capital to the famous Colonial town in just over two hours. Passing the gates at Kingsmill, I turn left and head to the waterfront, where I am met by David Martin, the tour guide, as well as Claudia Rinaldi, Kingsmill’s marketing manager, and Richard Keurajian, VP of sales and marketing — and a fellow New Jersey native — who will be my companions for today’s aquatic adventure.
(It goes without saying, but make sure you wear clothes you don’t mind getting wet.)
David has me wade into the waters of the James River and alight upon a jet ski. As with any outdoor adventure, especially one involving a motor vehicle — yes, the state of Virginia classifies these conveyances as such — safety is the first order of business. David shows me how to attach my life jacket to a kill switch on the jet ski, meaning it will not start unless I’m so enjoined, and if for whatever reason I happen to fall off, the engine will cease immediately.
Secondly, David shows me the hand signals he’ll use to communicate when we’re flying down the James at 40-plus miles per hour, when vocal commands are useless against the roaring engines and sounds of the jet ski crashing against the surface. He’ll take point, and will indicate it’s time to slow down when he raises his right arm.
And about that speed thing: These are incredibly powerful machines, and just a little bit of opening up the throttle makes the gizmo shoot for the horizon if you’re not careful. Accordingly, David has me practice keeping my left hand cradling the “brake” handle while giving her some gas with my right hand. (If you’ve ever ridden a motorcycle, the handling will feel similar.) My early temptation is to ride the break, a habit David tries to break me of. Rather, it’s easier to simply lay off the gas and inertia, and the heaviness of the water will take over to slow things down.
But if needed, the break is always there, the lever for which drops a door in front of the engine to ebb the forward momentum quickly.
To go backwards, David says, I simply have to hold on to both handles at the same time.
After a few minutes spent on the bunny slopes of the harbor area, David waves his arm, telling me we’ll fire at full throttle for a good 5 miles before our first stop.
And go! With David at the head of the pack, I let ‘er rip, and within seconds I’m flying upriver faster than most cars on the streets of Washington could ever hope to achieve.
It’s a rough day, and the winds are churning the James into some rather hefty swells. I find that piloting a jet ski is similar to driving an automobile, only more so: You must be hyperaware of everything about you, particularly given that a moving river’s surface doesn’t provide the nice evenness of asphalt; and each wave, crest and valley is different from the ones that came before, requiring me alternately to lay off on the gas, gently tap the brake lever or both.
Remember, safety is paramount, so I have to keep my wits about me and keep my eyes open for the next apex and trough as well as David in the lead, and Cynthia and Richard in my rear-view while being on the constant lookout for other vessels.
I’m making it sound more intellectual than perhaps necessary, but it’s important to impart that jet skiing, while hella fun, is an activity that cannot be undertaken half-cocked, without one’s full concentration at the fore and a keen, constant sense of your surroundings.
Oh, and while keeping an eye on both the engine temperature, fuel gauge and the position of my team leader. But don’t forget to enjoy the lovely shorelines along the way.
After a good 15-minute run, I see David throw up his right hand. I slow my river horse to a crawl as David invites me to imagine these beaches as Captain John Smith saw them when the first English vessels entered these waters from the Chesapeake in 1607. Then, as now, animals poke furtively about the shore, although their domain has become much, much more modern in the four centuries since Captain Smith and his crew forever altered the course of North America’s ecology, manmade boundaries and, of course, the fate of the American Indians who made the Chesapeake Bay watershed their home for millennia prior to European contact.
David has us rev up again, and a few miles later we are staring at Jamestown, built not long after Smith arrived, and still the oldest evidence of English habitation in the New World. Almost nothing of the original settlement remains, with archeologists working tirelessly on excavations, while other experts have been refashioning an approximation of the Crown’s outpost as it might have appeared in the 17th century.
I’ve visited Jamestown at least twice, but seeing it from the water, much as a Native canoer might have seen it from the James River once upon a time, is an entirely different experience, and gives one an appreciation of how much this was in fact the frontier when the English landed.
A bit further upriver, David brings us to a stop near the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery, recreations of the largest of Captain Smith’s brigadiers, and which are open to the public for tours. For just a few minutes, I enjoy a swim along the shore, the squishiness of the river bottom mud reminding me of playing by my grandparents’ Toms River, New Jersey, home when I was a lad.
We rev up and cross the river to the opposite bank, which is part of a Chippokes Plantation State Park, a large nature preserve where almost no human habitation exists. David invites me on an impromptu scavenger hunt, sifting through the sands and seashells along the beach in search of sharks teeth, which he says are from prehistoric times and not recent given that, in all his years in Williamsburg, he has never heard of a fisherman yanking any of Jaws’ relatives from the depths of James.
A few miles downriver toward the bay, David points out a fleet of Navy vessels anchored and mothballed, not decommissioned but rather abandoned temporarily unless or until the United States were to call upon their use in a time of war. David relates that during World War II, the James River was home to hundreds of vessels being prepped to ship out to Europe and Asia, and many of those same ships returned here to retire. (Back at base, he shows me vintage photos of those same ghost fleets.)
Returning back to base, David has me dismount my aquatic steed and help him tie it up to others parked before the beach. I’m proud to report I’ve done well with the sunblock and the undershirt today, so I’m not burned, however, the sun really takes it out of you, especially on a hot late-summer day like today.
Accordingly, Claudia and Richard take me over to the “not-so-lazy river,” the Kingsmill’s circular aquatic path on which both adults and children chill on tubes to allow the slowly (and fastly) moving currents take them about. It feels great to chillax here after the high adrenaline and shuttling up and down the James on the jet ski, and my hosts recommend a local beer and a sandwich at the outdoor cafe to boot.
It was my first time on a jet ski, but I promise myself it won’t be the last.
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