Innovators in Boating- BRP & Sea-Doo Personal Watercraft
By: Richard Crowder
Sea-Doo personal watercraft hit the water in Canada over fifty years ago, and have since become the source of arguably the most prolific pleasure boat innovators in the world with over two hundred and fifty patents to their credit. To date, Sea-Doo has been recognized with ten prestigious National Marine Manufacturers Association Innovation awards.
It all began in 1937 when Joseph-Armand Bombardier of Valcourt, Quebec was granted a patent for the first-ever vehicle to travel on snow. Many models and designs followed, mostly for commercial use, and in 1959 he launched the Ski-Doo snowmobile powered by a Kohler air-cooled 2-stroke motor and designed for personal use. The result was the introduction of what would become a worldwide recreational sport anywhere there was snow.
Joseph-Armand’s son-in-law, Laurent Beaudoin, joined the company in 1963 as Controller and became President in 1966. With the phenomenal growth and excitement in the new sport of snowmobiling, Laurent became determined to bring that same excitement to the water. Coming from a slightly different angle, a California inventor named Clayton Jacobson had concurrently wanted to transform the excitement of motorcycle riding to the water and had the first patent for a personal watercraft.
Laurent Beaudoin bought Jacobson’s patent for Bombardier and proceeded to have it redesigned under the direction of Sam Lapointe, Director of Design, Styling, and Ergonomics, and by Gilles Houde, Manager of Advanced Concepts. In 1968, they launched the Sea-Doo -- the world’s first production water-jet powered personal watercraft. It was a two-seater marketed as a the Jet-Powered Aqua Scooter and powered by a single cylinder air-cooled 320 cc Rotax engine.
That summer, as a genius marketing idea, Laurent, Sam, Gilles, and head of engineering, Gary Robinson, together each drove a Sea-Doo the 430 miles (almost 700 km) from Montreal, through Lake Champlain, and down the Hudson River to New York City, bringing with them enormous media coverage for Sea-Doo. In 1969, a slightly larger water-cooled two-cylinder Rotax engine was introduced. At this point, the snowmobile market was booming, both commercially and recreationally, and taking up an ever-increasing proportion of Bombardier’s R&D and production resources. Meanwhile, the Sea-Doo personal watercraft market was slow to catch on.
Sea-Doo was shelved for almost twenty years. In the meantime, Bombardier purchased Rotax engines of Austria in 1970 to give themselves a proprietary source of engines for their recreational products. Laurent Beaudoin became Chairman and CEO in 1979, and his son Pierre, eldest grandson of Bombardier founder Joseph-Armand, joined in 1986. With the added encouragement from Gilles Houde, who had since left the company, Pierre was directed to re-design and bring to market a new iteration Sea-Doo.
Sam Lapointe’s son, Denys, joined the company in 1985 as a junior product designer to help work on the new Sea-Doo. Denys is currently Senior Vice-President, Design, Innovation, and Creative Services for BRP and graciously answered many questions for this article both by e-mail and telephone. In 1990, Pierre Beaudoin became Vice-President of Product Development for the Sea-Doo/Ski-Doo Division, and then President of Bombardier in 1994.
Bombardier re-launched the Sea-Doo in 1988, powered by a 55-horsepower 580 cc Rotax water-cooled 2-stroke engine featuring rotary valve technology. But the biggest change was in its revolutionary model 5801 hull design – the first with a semi-V design and with lifting strakes designed for a smoother ride and easier planing. Bombardier had also developed its own proprietary jet pump by this time.
This was quickly followed in 1990 with the introduction of not only the world’s first three-seater personal watercraft but the first with reverse capability. The Sea-Doo GT was borne, and it even included a spotter seat for waterskiing. The first high-performance Sea-Doo, the XP model, featured twin carburetors, tuned exhaust, stainless steel impeller, and mechanically adjustable trim. It was introduced in 1991 and carried an impressive top speed of 42-mph. Electric trim was offered the following year.
1995 saw the introduction of the world’s first suspension seat in the HX model, which not only absorbed the pounding from the water but also lowered the centre of gravity to permit more aggressive cornering. Denys Lapointe is credited as co-inventor of this seat following an exhaustive ride on the St. Lawrence River back from Quebec City.
Also in 1995 came the re-energized XP powered by the 785 cc RAVE® (Rotax Automatic Variable Exhaust) engine coupled with the new tuneable X4 hull and adjustable sponsons. This allowed riders and racers to create a personal riding style with more or less lean. The XP785 together with the even more powerful XP800 became the winningest personal watercraft of all time. In the same year, Sea-Doo was also the first to introduce the D.E.S.S. (Digital Encoded Security System) key for both theft prevention and as a safety ignition shut-off lanyard.
The ”Watercraft of the Century” as named by Watercraft World Magazine in 1997 was the Sea-Doo XP. Its suspension seat and revolutionary hyperbolic hull design reduced bow spray while holding the hull to the water to keep the water pump engaged. In 1998, Sea-Doo introduced two more innovations in the GTX RFI model; Rotax Semi-Direct Fuel injection to reduce emissions, and the much lauded D-Sea-Bel sound reduction technology.
Over the next several years, Sea-Doo introduced 2-stroke direct injection technology, Off Power Assisted Steering (O.P.A.S.) for better steering control while coasting, four-stroke engine technology in the GTX 4-TEC, and the four-seater LRV model in 2000 that later became a fisherman’s favourite.
The Learning Key of 2000 added to the D.E.S.S key’s functionality with electronically programmable features that worked with different Sea-Doo models, and with other BRP products, as a theft prevention device. It also allowed users to set general or individual performance criteria including their desired speed for water skiing or tubing, or to configure the settings for maximum fuel efficiency. The system also acted as an electronic performance limiter to control the rate of acceleration and top speed for new or young drivers.
While the race-inspired 2001 RXX claimed to be the fastest 2-stroke watercraft ever, the supercharged 2004 RXP 215 produced the first personal watercraft with over 200 horsepower. Also in 2004, an all-new 3D model offered three operating modes; standing up, motorcycle-style seating, or regular down low seating. In 2005, a kneeling position was added along with a way to lock the pivoting handlebars into one position.
Bombardier had grown over the years into a multi-national organization and a world leader in rail and air, as well as in a wide range of recreational craft. In 2003, it sold the Recreational Products Division to an outside group of investors including the Bombardier and Beaudoin families. The shareholders in the new Bombardier Recreational Products (BRP) had no corporate affiliation to the former Bombardier company, which itself had also become a separate entity specializing in commercial and business aircraft and sophisticated rail systems. BRP then became a publicly traded company.
As BRP, the year 2009 upped the technology ante for Sea-Doo with the launch of the electronic iControl (intelligent Control) features on the GTX Limited, including iBR (the first-ever intelligent Braking and Reverse system), iTC (intelligent Throttle Control), and iS (intelligent Suspension) self-adjusting suspension system. All of this was packaged in the first-ever stepped hull design on a personal watercraft.
In 2010, Sea-Doo management realized its buyers were getting progressively older and its models were accumulating more accessories and amenities with corresponding price increases. An internal team was established to “go back to basics” and build a fun and affordable PWC to attract a new and younger demographic to Sea-Doo. The result appeared in 2012 as the SPARK, a light, efficient, fun, and affordable machine that attracted a whole new generation of riders.
In 2012, the RXP-X 260, with 260 g-force inducing horsepower, introduced the new tight-turning, T-shaped T3 hull that, along with the rider Ergolock System, allowed the rider to use their knees and legs to literally “hug” the machine for better cornering and tighter turns. Sea-Doo’s website says that “the RXP-X has been undefeated at the USBA World Finals in the Pro Open and Pro GP classes since its introduction.”
The three-cylinder Rotax 1630 ACE (Advanced Combustion Efficiency) engine introduced in 2016 produced 300 horsepower and set new benchmarks in Sea-Doo performance with 0-60 mph (zero to almost 100 km/h) acceleration in under five seconds.
As various Sea-Doo models offered more storage and accessories, and even a Bluetooth® audio system, in 2018 Sea-Doo introduced its proprietary LinQ accessory mounting system along with over two dozen accessories including storage and cargo bags, fuel and tool caddies, coolers, drinkholders, and more.
Arguably one of the most remarkable innovations for Sea-Doo was the introduction in 2021 of the Switch pontoon boat -- a truly unique jet-powered pontoon with incredible adaptability and functionality. The Switch had been in development for several years and uses three pontoons, all uniquely constructed of Polytec 2.0, the same plastic/fiberglass-like material Sea-Doo uses for some of its PWC's. The pontoons are foam-filled and the running surface of the centre pontoon is shaped like that of a PWC -- mounted considerably lower than the outer two pontoons to allow the Switch to “lean” into corners. As the first-ever pontoon to be jet-powered, it is available in 100, 170, and 230 horsepower and offers three sizes in 13, 16, and 19 feet across the Sport and Cruise trim lines.
The Switch features iBR (Intelligent Braking and Reverse), as well as Sea-Doo’s new iDF (intelligent Debris-Free) mode which reverses the impeller to flush out any debris in the jet pump. One of the most adaptive innovations on the Switch is its utilization of Sea-Doo’s LinQ mounting system that allows seating and accessories to be reconfigured easily to reorganize the interior layout. Another major innovation is Sea-Doo’s choice of PWC-like handlebars for steering. The idea is to help younger pontoon boat buyers feel comfortable when moving into this boating segment.
Sea-Doo’s 2022 offerings include 14 PWC models across 6 categories, plus of course the Switch pontoon boat models. BRP recreational products spans nine popular brands, including Sea-Doo, Ski-Doo, Lynx, Rotax, Can-Am Off Road, Can-Am On Road, Quintrex, Alumacraft, and Manitou. In addition to the enormous number of sub-brands and models associated with these brands, Rotax engines currently power eighty percent of the world’s ultra-light personal aircraft market.
BRP's annual sales are currently in the 6 billion dollar range, and it operates 11 manufacturing facilities in 6 countries and employs 14,500 people. Its products are handled by over 3500 dealers in 130 countries.
As a Senior Vice-President involved with all BRP brands and working in the largest design centre in Canada, Denys Lapointe reflected on what we can look forward to in the future. He says BRP will be investing $300 million over the next 5 years in electric propulsion conversion with the intent to offer an electric model in all of their product lines by 2026. We can no doubt look forward to more innovation from BRP, one of the most forward-thinking companies in the world.