clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

WINDJET MANIA: S.L.-BASED AEROTRANS EXPECTS SALES TO SKYROCKET, THANKS TO INNOVATIVE BOAT.

U.S. senators ride its underground "people movers" between their offices and the Senate Chambers.

Vacationers in Las Vegas climb aboard its refurbished monorail cars to go to the MGM Grand-Ballys hotel.Visitors to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles ascend the steep hill to the museum aboard its cable-activated, air-levitated tram cars.

Passengers at the Tampa (Fla.) International Airport ride to the terminals aboard another version of its shuttle cars.

Residents of Jacksonville, Fla., will soon be riding its light-rail cars downtown.

AMTRAK passengers see the USA in its interior modules and visit the rest room in its lavatory modules.

And owners of "personal watercraft" (PWC) - those one- and two-person machines that resemble snowmobiles more than boats - can now take the whole family along in the new and startlingly innovative Windjet - a 21-foot boat that uses two PWCs for the motors.

All of those projects and more have come out of Salt Lake-based AeroTrans, a company that manufactures a broad variety of composite products from fiber-rein-forced plastic, more popularly known as fiberglass.

Located in a 56,000-square-foot facility at 2001 N. 900 West, just off I-15, AeroTrans has 70 employees and sales last year of some $6 million. G. O'Brien Garrett, general manager for the Windjet project, said he expects sales to top $7 million this year and soar as high as $25 million in two years.

Why the anticipated big jump? One word, says Garrett: Windjet.

Although its various transit modules have been AeroTrans' bread and butter since its founding in 1986, Garrett and Norman J. Van Skyhawk, president and chief executive officer, are convinced that it is the one-of-a-kind, six-passenger Windjet pleasure boat that will make AeroTrans a familiar corporate name across the nation and the world.

The 10-year-old company is currently privately held by a group of some 70 shareholders. The board of directors, which holds a majority of the shares, is comprised of Van Skyhawk, Garrett, a Los Angeles attorney, a New York investment banker and three Israelis.

Garrett said the company is currently in the process of making a private stock placement, which "probably" will lead to AeroTrans going public next year. He believes it is the "sizzle" inherent in the Windjet that will make the stock attractive as a public offering.

Why all the fuss about a motorboat? Because it is unlike any motorboat ever seen before. In a way, Windjet is an aftermarket product. Its appeal will be greatest to the nearly 1 million people who already own personal watercraft and enjoy running about the oceans and lakes on them but almost invariably face two major problems:

1. PWCs have limited range compared to a full-size boat so it's difficult for riders to get away from the madding crowds at marinas and near the shore.

2. Not everyone in the family, or their friends, thinks slamming through the water on a seagoing motorcycle is fun. For them, staying high, dry and safe in a boat is the only way they want to see the water.

Windjet solves both those problems, says Garrett, and if you don't believe him, just ask any PWC owner who has seen it.

"We took it down to the Miami International Boat Show, and the response was tremendous," said Kelly M. Barnett, chief financial officer. "The immediate reaction from people was, `I've gotta have one.' "

Scott B. LeFevre, marketing and sales manager, found a similar response in Orange County, Calif., where Windjet was the only new innovation at the recent Newport Boat Show. The owner of Newport Boats was so impressed - no small accomplishment in an area that has seen it all when it comes to watercraft - that he signed on as the first Windjet dealer in California.

"People just go nuts when they see it," summed up Barnett. "We have a guy from Kuwait who wants 20 of them." When people living in the Arabian desert want your boat, you know you're on to something.

Plaza Cycle, 1379 W. 3300 South, which sells Bombardier Sea Doo personal watercraft, is the Salt Lake Windjet dealer.

Windjet had its beginnings four years ago when Dennis Talbot, Garrett's son-in-law, built the first prototype of a boat that could be powered by two personal watercraft. Talbot (who now works on special projects for AeroTrans) took it to Lake Powell, where the interest it generated got him thinking.

When he told Garrett about the excitement the boat caused at the lake, Garrett didn't hesitate: "Let's park it where people can't see it and apply for a patent," he advised.

They did just that and then formed a company to build it, called Hydrodynamics. They constructed a dozen or so prototypes - some of which, including the first, admittedly crude example, now reside in AeroTrans' back lot - and then Garrett had a long talk with Van Skyhawk.

The result was Hydrodynamics being acquired by AeroTrans last August. Van Skyhawk, a graduate of the Art Center in Pasadena, Calif., used his skill and experience in designing fiberglass people movers and train car modules to completely redesign the Windjet. The current version is a sleek dart, capable of speeds up to 40 mph.

By itself, the Windjet is a shell. Power comes from the two PWCs (although it will run on just one) that are literally driven into a pair of slots at the rear of the boat. Attaching the steering gear, accelerator and electrical connections takes from one to two minutes.

Once accomplished, the PWCs then act as engines for the boat, which is driven from an onboard console and steering wheel that is nearly identical with that of a standard boat with inboard or outboard motors. Detaching the PWCs to ride them individually merely requires reversing the process.

So far, Windjet will accommodate only the Bombardier Sea Doo and Yamaha PWCs, but Garrett said they are working on expanding the attachment gear to include other models. However, Barnett noted that Sea Doo and Yamaha together represent 70 percent to 75 percent of the $5 million in annual sales of PWCs.

Windjet is one of those ideas that, when seen, everyone says, "Why didn't I think of that?" So far, there are no known imitators, and AeroTrans keeps adding to its patent to try and assure there won't be any.

"We have a really good patent," said Barnett, noting that the key to the patent is the control system. Any attempt to control PWCs from a remote point on a boat - as does Windjet - would likely be in violation of the patent.

Now the big problem, all agree, is building enough Windjets to meet demand.

Garrett said AeroTrans will build 400 to 500 boats this year and hopes to boost production to 1,000 in 1997.

"The market is just so huge for personal watercraft," said Garrett. "There were 200,000 of them made this past year alone. If we get just 1 percent of that market, we'll be inundated."

Windjet retails for $13,900. A special trailer required to tow it runs another $1,800 to $2,100. Two personal watercraft, if the buyer doesn't already have them, will run another $5,000 to $7,000. The total outlay is comparable to the price of a "regular" boat of similar size.