My name is Ryota Hayami. You might remember me as the two-time Wave Race world champion, but that was a long time ago. As a young kid I was insatiable and wanted to win every competition I could find. The sights were fresh, the scene was encouraging, and everything felt so new. Lately I’ve been kicking back and enjoying my new life as a fisherman. It’s a nice relaxed lifestyle, but I still think back to the glory days quite often. Sometimes I notice the waves ripple and it reminds me of when I was 18 years old, fighting for victories on my Jet Ski. The Jet Ski scene has changed a lot since then. Jet Skis of the modern era are quite complicated designs yet “easier” to ride, and for me that completely takes the thrill out of riding. Technology is so advanced now that the Jet Ski does everything for you, with auto-correction and elevation control becoming the standard. As a result, all the big dollar manufacturers were winning year after year, and there wasn’t much demand for good riders. Being a good rider now simply means showing up to as many PR events as possible. Not my life, man.
As fate may have it, I wasn’t the only person who longed for the glory days. On Friday morning I received a phone call from Kawasaki asking if I was fit for riding. They understood the struggle of true riders today and wanted to bring back the old feel. A tournament was to be held as a test to see how many people would support a change in Jet Ski design proposed for the 2017 season. They called it a “Virtual Console” championship and they have brought back all the old Jet Skis, while securing the rights to all the old locations. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Is this a dream? “No sir, we are serious about this. We have everything in place but the riders. We need you.”
I immediately got on a plane for Sunny Beach. My fishing schedule for the next week was quite hectic, but it had to be tossed aside. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity. The airfare cost me $10 which I was quite happy with. I know, modern riders all expect their flights to be free and paid for by sponsors, but I was just grateful for the ride. It gave me a lot of time to think about the good old days. Would my old friends be there? Of course they would. My best friends were the waves.
The moment I arrived at Sunny Beach I felt a splash of nostalgia on my face, as if a rectangular black border had formed around my eyes. I could hear the waves thrashing in anticipation, they knew I was here. Hello, my old friends. The feel of the water was different to the lakes I’d be fishing at in Japan, much more aggressive and playful. There were dolphins swimming about and having a great time. It was as if they were laughing at me, daring me. I could still smell my victories in the air. The hunger was back.
The fans still looked as young and excited as ever. It turns out this Virtual Console tournament was a pretty big deal with a sold out crowd, and it was also going to be broadcast on Wave Race TV. I was a pretty big star 20 years ago, with fans in the millions. I even helped launched two lines of Jet Skis, very specific models that would kickstart new generations. However, I knew they weren’t here for me. Most of these people would be too young to remember what Jet Skiing was like back in the day, but that just made me extra determined to put on a good show. If this event goes well, wave racing could become mainstream again. I’m going to make Jet Skis cool.
The first race was at Sunny Beach and I was ready. They gave me a replica Jet Ski that was meant to be the basis for the 2017 model, and I couldn’t believe it. It felt exactly the same as my 1996 model, except with a slightly better framerate. I toggled the bars to neutral position and I was ready to tackle any course with it. People made fun of me for being the “all-rounder” rider back in the day, but that’s what it takes to be a champion. You have to focus on the waves and not yourself because that’s where all the speed comes from.
I lined up with my old friends, Miles Jeter, Ayumi Stewart and Dave Mariner. Dave was starting to look old but they were all just as excited as I was. All of us had kept fresh and I knew this wouldn’t be easy. I gripped the handlebars and braced myself. The enthusiastic announcer was back much to my delight. I always wished there was somebody to commentate my exciting fishing adventures. Alright, time to focus. 3, 2, 1!!
Off we went and it was a hard fought first lap. We all nailed the start perfectly and this really was like the good old days. The water felt soooooooo good underneath me as I rocketed forward and took the lead.
WAHOOOOO! This is amazing. I caught a massive wave and rode straight over the top with no fear. It shot me straight up and my gut tied itself in a knot. I landed and bounced back up, like the waves had just given me a big hug. The knot in my stomach untied and I couldn’t believe how amazing this felt. I felt like I was 18 years old again.
The race went great apart from one missed buoy. The optimistic commentator on the wharf said “No Problem!” through his megaphone, and I felt great about my mistake. Luckily you can miss up to 5, but these jet skis have to build up speed so your top speed suffers until you get a chain of buoys going again. I really pushed the limits of the rules as a youngin’, but right now I just wanted to feel the waves. I ended my first race with a victory and this was the happiest I had been in years.
By the time we were ready for the next race it was evening, as we took the start line at Sunset Bay. Come to think of it, it’s always been sunset every time I’ve raced here. What happens to the sun if we come here in the morning? I probably should stop thinking about it.
Race 2 kicked off and I got an average start, fighting my way from 3rd back up to 2nd place. Dave Mariner was in the lead but I was slowly catching up, and we were side by side on the final lap.
I just couldn’t get past because his top speed gave him a slight edge here. We banged Jet Skis and I almost missed a buoy. Whoa. I missed this intense racing feeling so much. I was not going to give up and that buoy gave me an idea. I had not missed a single buoy yet and with Mariner’s riding style, he surely had. I knew you could gain a huge advantage on the last stretch by skipping a few buoys and I was going to go for it. I always saved this trick for the last lap because my speed didn’t matter after that point.
My heart was racing as I watched Mariner’s craft, he was slightly ahead but I could see him turning towards the second last buoy. Thankfully he had no misses left. I continued straight and flew on by, missing the crucial buoy and taking the lead JUST at the end with my shorter line.
YEAH!! How do you like THAT? The fans went crazy, but I got a lot of flack from the officials later. They said it was “unsportsmanlike”, but I don’t see the big deal because this is clearly within the rules. It became obvious there was a whole different mindset behind riding these days, where everything had to be boring and “proper”. It seems riders these days are a bunch of wusses who cry “penalty” every time something goes slightly wrong. Know what I call that? Racing. This is how it’s done. Dave Mariner surely knew that move was coming because he’s a great rider who would do exactly the same thing. We both laughed it off that night over a drink, then went home early to prepare for the next race. We had to wake up for Race 3 at Drake Lake early the next morning.
This one didn’t go so well. I got a great start and immediately crashed into a post.
I got a mouthful of water and savoured it for a few seconds, as the taste struck me. This was the old Drake Lake. I’d seen stories in the news of fish dying and toxins being dumped in the lake, but there was no trace of it here. I don’t know how they restored it so naturally, but this is exactly how pure the water was 20 years ago. I got up and did my best to come back, but it was a lonely 4th place finish in the end. My last lap was the fastest of anyone, as if that means anything. It gave me time to appreciate the birds and beautiful lush plant life that graced the side of the track. The plants grew in such an organic way, like they were all stuck together. The sights soothed my disappointment very quickly, as Drake Lake had a certain brutality to the course layout that you just had to accept. The buoys were quite tricky to navigate and it’s easy to get lost in a course this wide. The morning fog never seemed to lift either.
The next two races were decent but not spectacular. I had another wipeout at Marine Fortress but managed to claw my way back up to 2nd. That course is tough but I took a few risks at the end and they paid off, I just love that sharp right hander at the end. The next race at Port Blue was hard fought, and I was leading until the very end when Ayumi Stewart took the lead on the final stretch. I was happy for her but also grateful for my earlier wins, because the championship had become pretty close. I have a small lead going into the final race but everyone had a chance now. This is the kind of excitement and tension I lived for.
The final race was about to begin at Southern Island. Fans had packed the stands and there was a lot of excitement in the air. All 4 of us riders were nervous, and also a bit sad that it was coming to an end soon. 3… 2… 1…
I got a great start and didn’t look back. This track brought back so many memories, it was where I won my first ever Championship. The rich blue sky made the water feel deeper and warmer, and this place had the most ferocious waves of anywhere on the circuit. It was an unlikely combination of calm skies and treacherous water. This is exactly what I was born for.
A strange feeling swept over me on the final lap, and everything started to move in slow motion. I held my lead quite comfortably, and had the Championship in the bag as long as I made no mistakes. However, I wasn’t thinking about that. I just wanted to do another lap. I didn’t want this dream tournament to be over.
I crossed the line and the fans went crazy, I had to milk this for all it was worth. I was very proud of my performance across all circuits and my opponents didn’t finish far behind. I think we all did wave racing proud. We had crashes, lead changes, and you don’t see any of this stuff in modern Jet Ski racing. The fans clearly loved it and I hope everyone who watched it on Wave Race TV felt the same.
It feels great knowing this sort of riding is still appreciated, but this was still a one-of event. Modern Jet Ski design has spiraled out of control and I would love the old designs to return, but it’s up to the fans to show support. This event was a good start, but it’s a big wide world and the big budget companies like Skiiny and Watersoft are still making the decisions for us. You can get these classic 1996 model Jet Skis for as little as $10, people treat them like trash now. I feel sad seeing them go down in value, but at the same time we need to make the most of their accessibility. If we lead a strong example, design will start heading in this direction again and Kawasaki’s 2017 prototype will be approved. Until then, I encourage every young rider to pick up one of these old Jet Skis and hit the waves, there’s no better feeling in the world.
Now where’s that fishing rod…