Riding Personal Watercraft for a Living

Inside every watercraft rider's dream job

16th August 2000.
By Joel Johnson

Had Kelly Kvick been a fisherman, he probably would have just gone back to bed. He also would have stayed dry. Outside a steady rain beat a drumbeat on the roof of his cabin, and the dawn was shrouded in the low lying clouds.

But Kvick didn’t have the luxury of going back to bed. Rain or shine, he had to be out on the water, and as the leader of Tigershark’s field test team, he had to make sure that his fellow test riders were up and getting ready as well.

And that, more than anything, was why he was wet. You see, Kvick didn’t have to go outside to get soaked. All he had to do was open the door between his half of the cabin and the next, and a bucket of water, perched above the door frame, would serve as the wake-up call.

Call it just another perk of being a field test rider.

It sounds like the greatest job in the world. Riding watercraft every day. Riding the latest equipment. Travel. Winters in Florida, summers in northern Minnesota. Camaraderie. Laughter. Decent pay.

But the life of a test rider — a field tester as their called at Tigershark — isn’t all fun and games. There is the riding, yes, but five hours of riding a day, seven days a week, can wear on your body and your mind. There is rain and cold and some of the worst riding conditions known to man. There are twisted ankles, blown knees and stiff and sore muscles nearly all of the time.

On top of that, there’s the paperwork, pages and pages of it, long hours and endless nights on the road far away from home.

You also have to put up with buckets of water perched above door frames, fellow riders who relish the chance to hose you with their jet pumps, especially if you fall, and the constant reminders of any mistakes you might make both on and off the water, all of which can be good or bad depending on how fondly you remember your high school days.

“It’s a pretty good job,” Kvick said. “It gets in your blood. It’s definitely a job after awhile, but I don’t think any of us would be out here if we didn’t like it.”

And according to Fred Bernier, the man who runs the field test teams for Arctic Cat, Inc., the manufacturer of Tigershark watercraft and Arctic Cat snowmobiles and ATVs, whenever any field tester decides he’s had enough and doesn’t like the job any more, there are between 80 and 100 Arctic Cat/Tigershark employees lined up to replace them.

“We post any openings simply as field tester, so the applicants don’t know whether they’re applying for watercraft, snowmobiles or ATVs. Typically, we’ll get 80 to 100 applicants for every opening. Then it’s just a process of winnowing them down,” Bernier said.

The first ones winnowed out are the faint of body.

“That’s the first thing we look for,” Bernier said. “This is above everything else a physically demanding job.”

That is especially true on the watercraft side.

“I did some test riding on the snowmobile side and watercraft is definitely harder on your body,” said Troy Taggert, one of the eight riders in the field test team with whom we road.

“With snowmobiles, you’ve got some suspension to soften the ride. With watercraft, the only suspension you have is right here,” he said, slapping his thighs.

And those shock absorbers take a beating. Field testers ride whenever the conditions allow. About the only time they don’t is during hurricanes, tornadoes or similar extreme weather. And the hurricane one is iffy.

“It’s always fun to get out and play in the surf,” said Kvick of their home away fromn home, the Tigershark test facility in Daytona Beach, Florida.

On the day we rode with test riders, they admittedly took it easy with us, though the ride gave a hint of the extremes of which they are accustomed. We arrived at their secret test facility (Ballard’s Resort) on the Rainy River (fitting name) in northern Minnesota at around 9 a.m. The rain had stopped, but the sky remained the color of slate. The temperature hovered in the mid-60s, about the same temperature of the water in the river and nearby Lake of the Woods.

“I’m glad the rain stopped,” I said to Kvick. “We wouldn’t have been able to go out otherwise, huh?”

Kvick looked at me as if I had stepped off a space ship from Mars.

“Actually, we would have been out on the water a couple of hours by now,” he said. “We were just waiting for you guys to show up.”

We spent the morning riding on the river, travelling between Canada and America. (The Rainy River serves as the border between the two countries.) The water conditions were fairly good, with little or no chop, but it was cold and the rain started falling again, the drops stinging against your cheek. Still, the river ride was for us. Had we not been there, the field test team would have headed immediately to giant Lake of the Woods and its forbidding chop. Even on the best of days, riding on Lake of the Woods is a challenge. The giant lake, which makes up much of the border between Ontario and Minnesota, is relatively shallow and when the wind whips down from the north, it turns the water into a churning soup of 3 to 5 foot waves.

The hardest part is that there is no rhythm to the waves, so you ride to the staccato bursts of the pump loading and unloading. However, the field testers take it all in stride. As one of them commented when we got back from our short ride on the lake in the afternoon, “It can get a lot worse.”

It couldn’t have gotten much worse for Taggert, however, who fell off his craft as we were mustering together for photos. As soon as he hit the water, Taggert’s fellow test riders began circling his boat, whipping up a wicked chop.

Then the dousing began. Riders would slip in close and then snap the handlebars, whipping the back end of the boat around and drenching Taggert with spray from the pump. By the time he got back on board, he probably had been hit with over a thousand gallons of water.

I gather these water fights break out often with the test riders, probably just to break up the tedium of riding in the same spots day after day after day. By the time we got to Ballard’s, the riders had already been there for a week and half. And that was just this year. Most had ridden here the previous summer and fall.

“We were here doing cold weather testing when it was just starting to freeze up,” one of the riders said as we took a breather below a small waterfall. “We were wearing snowmobile gear — big boots and suits — but then we realized we wouldn’t be able to swim if we fell, so we decided we probably should pack it in for the year.”

When they pack it in for the winter, they head down and ride on the same spots along the Innercoastal Waterway in Daytona. All of the test riders admitted that the first trip to Florida is fun, especially when you’re coming from Thief River Falls in winter. But then it, too, becomes a job.

It’s the tedium as much as anything that seems to wear on the test riders.

“People tell us all the time they’d love to be able to get paid to ride every day,” Bernier said. “Usually the way it works for a new field tester is that it’s a lot of fun for the first two days. They think it’s the greatest job in the world. Then for a week and half, they’re sore all over and it’s sheer misery. That’s pretty much true for everybody, regardless of how in shape they are because you’re using so many different muscles and ones you don’t use every day.

“After they get over the soreness, it’s usually a lot of fun for another week, but then it definitely becomes a job.”

Bernier said Arctic Cat, Inc. has learned over the years everything it can to not wear out the bodies of its field testers.

“That’s the biggest reason we limit the riding to about five hours a day. That’s about the limit and still have them stay healthy. The biggest thing is we want them riding tomorrow and the day after. If you go over five hours too often you start getting breakdowns.”

Still, every field tester is all too familiar with pain. Ankle sprains and twisted knees are common, though injuries are a subject they don’t like to talk about.

There is, of course, the most famous field test injury, at least among the Tigershark test riders. It seems a former field test rider got too close to shore riding in a mangrove-lined river and had his groin area pierced by an overhanging branch. The branch pierced more than his wetsuit, but he managed to ride the seven miles back to the Tigershark facility and had the damage repaired at the hospital, apparently no worse for the wear.

His sensitive co-workers did, however, give him a new nickname. Gonad.

The only other injury the group seemed willing to discuss while we were there is the shiner Taggert got a week before. It didn’t happen on the water, though.

“A couple of us were in a bar over in Warroad and pretty much everyone knows who we are and who we work for,” Taggert related reluctantly. “Well, there were a bunch of Polaris fans there and they were giving us [grief.] I took it as long as I could.”

Shiners not withstanding, the serious injury is rare. What keeps the average tenure among test riders down (typically, a test rider will last two to three years before moving on to another job in the company) is the travel. Tigershark does more than half its testing down in Florida, and test riders usually go down for three to five weeks, take a week off, and then return to Florida. Even summer testing involves a lot of travel. Amazingly, in a state which boasts over 10,000 lakes, Tigershark’s headquarters in Thief River Falls is located in the one county without a lake. Lake of the Woods, where the bulk of the testing is done, is located over 80 miles away.

“That’s usually what gets to them,” Bernier said, “the travel away from home.”

And life on the road is not all it’s cracked up to be, even when you’re in Daytona Beach and it’s 40 below in Thief River Falls. The hours are long (the typical work day is around 13 hours) and you usually are working seven days a week.

Because of the overtime, test riders do pretty well financially. “The base pay is nothing to sneeze at,” Bernier also pointed out. Still, there is no arguing that the field test guys earn whatever they get.

In addition to riding, test riders are responsible for keeping detail accounts on performance, fuel and oil consumption, rpm levels and any failures or breakdowns.

“And that’s just if their testing a production model,” Bernier said. “If it’s a test item, a new part or model, they have to keep track of all the things I mentioned before as well as inspect the individual components and log how they have done.”

Test riders are also responsible for keeping their boats running, performing basic maintenance and making any repairs that are necessary.

“That’s another thing we look for,” Bernier said. “You’ve got to have a basic understanding of two-stroke technology and a certain level of mechanical ability. There is going to be some learning involved regardless of your experience, but we need these guys up and running in a hurry once we hire them.”

There is no age limit or barrier. The field testers range in age 20 to 44. A couple have been doing it almost 10 years, though most only last two or three years. Most move onto other jobs in the company.

“With the experience they gain in field test, they are often pretty attractive to the engineering department, but they’ve gone all over,” Bernier said.

All of the test riders are male, though Bernier said that’s just the way it’s worked out so far.

“We’ve had a couple of women apply. I expect there will be a female test rider at some point.”

Once they do make it to the field test team, they’ll be rewarded with often tedious riding, lots of paperwork, difficult riding conditions, sore muscles and joints, long hours and the endless nights on the road far away from home.

They’ll also have the envy of every hardcore watercraft enthusiast on the planet.


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