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People from Portland Oregon – Get to Know Clayton Jacobson

By PDX People

One of the most well-known “toy’s” that many people use on lakes in Oregon during the summer months if the jet ski but few people know that it’s inventor, Clayton Jacobson was born in Portland Oregon

The Birth of The Jet Ski

Born in 1933 in Portland Oregon, Clayton was a child who was fascinated by airplanes, engines and technology. Once he graduated from high school he joined the Marine Corps Reserve so he could work closely with jets, learn drafting and understand jet engine technology.

During the early 1960s Jacobson had become a very serious motorcycle racer and frequently found himself in the Mojave Desert heat while riding. One somewhat dangerous way to beat the heat and gain some psychological advantage was to ride with no padded leather jumper or sleeves.

One day on the way home after a minor crash on the racetrack, Jacobson found himself taking a break in an irrigation ditch to have a beer with a friend while picking the gravel out of his wounds and lamenting that there had to be a way to enjoy the exhilaration and excitement of a motorcycle without the inherent danger of falling onto hard ground at high speeds.

That night Jacobson sketched his “motorcycle for the water”; which, at the time, looked like a sort of powered water ski.

By the mid-1960s Jacobson had quit his work in finance to pursue developing his jet ski concept full-time. The first prototype was up and running by 1965.

This fixed-handle pole, stand-up design was constructed out of aluminum and powered by a Westbend two-stroke driving a Berkeley jet pump.

A second prototype, built in 1966, caught the attention of what was, at the time, primarily a snow-mobile manufacturer, Bombardier Recreational Products; and prompted the licensing of Jacobson’s patents for the sit-down version of his jet-propelled personal watercraft that would become the Sea-Doo.

In all, Jacobson would eventually build 12 different stand-up prototypes. His development of the stand-up models continued through the late 1960s and early 1970s resulting in additional patents for a pivoting handle pole and a self-righting function.

A 320cc Rotax engine was used for development.

The Rotax engine required a larger planning surface and sufficient induction for its air cooling, so Jacobson developed an entirely new sit-down model to adapt.

Jacobson applied for a patent on the sit-down model in February 1968 and received the patent a year later in February 1969.

Still Going Strong in His 80’s

Like most PDX People, his sense of adventure and love of the outdoors has kept Clayton Jacobson vibrant in his 80’s when many people have slowed down or stopped doing the things that they once loved to do in the past.

“I’m at an age, where taking care of yourself is important,” he said. “I feel strong and healthy, you can’t ask for much more.”

 He attended the Lake Havasu Jet Ski Championships in 2013, which happened to fall on his birthday. He was taken by boat, waved to fans, and over a loudspeaker the announcer said, “Today is Clay Jacobson’s birthday, the inventor of the Jet Ski.”

The crowds cheered and sang “Happy Birthday” to him.

“It was surprising and fun,” Jacobson said. “When I returned to the area where I was selling my book, all these young girls in bikinis wanted to have their picture taken with me. I enjoyed that!”

In his book, “Jet Ski Inventor Autobiography Clayton Jacobson II,” Jacobson had a footnote: “Raised in the introduction, ego is defined as ‘appropriate self-worth.’ This is a good thing, mine is about the size of my Ford F250 pickup truck.”

In the 1960s, Jacobson was in the banking world, made money, had fun, lived in Malibu and loved building and racing motorcycles in Southern California.

He said he liked to socialize and network, “No matter what, every Thursday evening with the Manhattan Beach crew, we’d have dinner, drink and talk.”

He added, “Eventually, some of the Manhattan Beach people moved to the Parker Strip.”

He is the inventor of the personal watercraft—it was called jet ski (before Kawasaki copyrighted the name) or wet bike. He formulated one of water recreation’s best-known activities.

Jacobson was in Parker recently and sat down to talk about different aspects of his life. He lives in Australia and likes to come home to Parker to visit relatives and friends on the Parker Strip.

He explained how he got the idea for a personal watercraft.

“I had been racing dirt bikes as a hobby. It was a form of stress relief for me. However, as you do know, when you crash a dirt bike, the ground isn’t very forgiving. That’s why and how I came up with the idea for a personal watercraft, what I was looking for; sort of a motorcycle for the water.”

According to his book regarding the design of the jet ski he stated, “I built it with the materials, which I was familiar aerospace, and from aluminum, the first jet ski in my garage in Rolling Hills. My first engine was a Yamaha motorcycle engine that I adapted by sawing off the transmission, putting a propeller in a tube in the back. Nothing worked well; eventually I got it so it operated.”

It was the first stand-up PWC.

“The first sit-down personal watercraft I built in my studio in Los Angeles. Because of the size, the 320cc Rotax engine that Dauoust (president of Bombardier’s Sea-Doo company) sent me required that the hull have a large planing surface than my prototype. The air-cooled engine also needed sufficient air induction; these were the two primary factors that contributed to me developing the first sit-down model.”

Jacobson applied for a patent on the sit-down personal watercraft Feb. 19, 1968 and nearly one year later was issued the patent.

Jacobson Engineering continued into the joint work of Sea-Doo. He was not happy with the partnership. He had given his patent to the company and when problems arose in development Jacobson’s input was ignored. The licensing contract ended in 1971 and Kawasaki signed an agreement to license his invention.

In a published report Jacobson stated, “My agreement with Kawasaki was to give them an option period at which time they could study what I had done and what I had built.”

 In 1973 Kawasaki introduced the first production stand-up personal watercraft—the Jet Ski. In published reports it was called “power ski.”

In 1976, Jacobson received a letter from Kawasaki informing him they were canceling the agreement. This began several years fighting in court between Jacobson and Kawasaki.

He received an out of court settlement from Kawasaki and the amount was not published.

The book is full of accounts of his travels, stories about the Parker Strip, especially when it was “wild and wooly” back in the late ‘70s. He’s extremely honest in his views and adventures.

Jacobson stated, “I’ve spent 40-plus years on the Parker Strip and part of that is 20 years in Australia. I like Australia, where I live the weather is cooler, cool, warm and warmer.”

He is an engaging person and can talk about the history of the Parker Strip for hours and it will not be sugar coated. He is direct.

Jacobson and wife, LeeAnne, have been married for 30 years; both are pilots.

Jacobson II and Jacobson III constructed homes on the river. This includes his home on the river, which has a sod roof.

“I’ve had my taste of big houses, I got a nice, smaller home near here on the ranch and the house in Australia. I don’t have many complaints about life,” he said.

Any long time Parker residents will recognize the characters in Jacobson’s book. It’s a good read and definitely part of the Parker Strip history.


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