Once upon a time, we imagined a world where computers would fit in our pockets, movies would play in 3-D and scientists would concoct pineapples that tasted like coconuts. In the future, we'd wake up, strap on our personal jet packs and zoom off to work.While science has delivered handily on the first three, over the past few decades, jet packs seemed to be having, well, a terrible time getting off the ground. Until now.
Strap in and hold on. Captain CJ's Jet Pack Adventures has officially brought jet pack rides to Naples.
If you go
Captain CJ’s Jet Pack Adventures
What: 30-minute water-propelled flights
Where: 1345 Fifth Ave. S., behind Joe’s Crab Shack in Naples
When: Flights are offered daily from 8:30 a.m. until sunset, but call in advance to book a time.
Details: Right now the company is offering a special introductory rate of $150 per 30-minute ride, $225 if you buy two sessions. To book a ride, call 239-389-9538.
"We were in Pennsylvania and we saw an article in the AP that Snookie's friend (star of the reality TV show "Jersey Shore") had done this on TV. We thought, well, we already have a tourist business, this might be the perfect thing to add," said Barry Berger, co-owner of See Manatees Guaranteed, an eco-tour company and now the new jet pack company.
A trip to the Fort Lauderdale-based JETLEV, which produces the personal flight systems, convinced the Berger and his wife, Carol, that this was their next business move. After purchasing two units at $100,000 each and putting a few employees through the JETLEV training school, the Bergers were ready to bring big air to Southwest Florida's waters.
That's right; jet pack flying is a water sport. Basically, the JETLEV is a backpack apparatus attached to a modified Jet Ski motor (which stays in the water). Your levitation is made possible because two streams of water whoosh out of the pack at between 800 and 1,000 gallons per minute. Floating beneath you, the modified jet-ski apparatus — to which the pack is connected via a 33-foot hose — takes in water and pumps it, via a 240-horsepower engine, up and into the pack.
According to JETLEV's website, Chinese-born Canadian inventor Raymond Li got the idea from watching James Bond movies. Inspired, he sketched his original concept on a Post-It note. More than 10 years later, his invention is the latest watersport craze.
"Our customer is generally pretty adventurous, but really anyone can do this," manager Dick Vincent said.
Captain CJ, who is in his mid-60s and barely 100 pounds, chimed in, saying, "I've done it, and if I can do it, anyone can."
Right. Anyone can do this. That's code for, "Try it, reporter, and we'll tape you falling on your face!"
But since I've always wanted to be an unfortunate YouTube sensation, I thought, "Why not! What could go wrong?"
The good news is because this is a water sport, even if something does go wrong, the worst that happens is you'll end up belly flopping into the water. The bad news is that it's going to be hilarious to everyone on the shore.
But after watching Vincent don the pack and float with the greatest of ease—even doing a few tricks for good measure — I was convinced it couldn't be all that hard.
It almost takes longer to wiggle into the wetsuit the company provides than to get fitted for the jet pack. After zipping up your life jacket, the crew instructs you to straddle a bicycle seat as they snap you into a five-point harness and dole out a few basic instructions. A helmet with a radio communication system is clunked over your head and after you practice pulling the emergency shut-off key a few times, it's into the water.
As I bob rather helplessly (the whole thing floats, but not very gracefully) I notice an osprey eyeing the whole operation suspiciously.
William Rivera, one of the company's employees, swims out to me and teaches me how to "turn turtle." It's an ultra-submissive pose where you roll onto your back and, with all four limbs up in the air, wait to be rescued. It's the last of a handful of safety lessons you're given, a tactic aimed at making you feel completely under control. With all four of my limbs sticking awkwardly out of the water, I'm not sure the tactic is working.
With a start, manager Matthew Hamilton fires up my jet pack's motor. I feel the pack hop to life as water pressure pushes me from shoulder deep to knee deep. The first few minutes of the ride are spent at this level, with your knees still in the water.
While skimming through the water halfway submerged is not particularly glamorous, it's probably for the best. Controlling the pack takes some serious getting used to. By raising and lowering your arms, you adjust the angle at which the water streams make contact with the water's surface. This angle ultimately changes the altitude and the camber of the pack. It's is what allows you to ascend, descend and turn (or try to turn).
Small adjustments can make big changes, so getting exactly where you want to go takes some finesse. When my arms fail to direct me where I want to go, I kick my legs wildly, hoping it will help (it doesn't, as Hamilton, talking through the speaker on my helmet, keeps reminding me). Behind me, the pod-shaped, partially submerged motor follows everywhere I go, like a trained and tethered pet manta ray.
After you've managed to turn both left and right a few times, Hamilton adds more fuel to the fire. The increased water pressure pushes you up to where just your ankles are in the water. Tilt your arms up a bit to gain altitude and you can walk on water (although, again, I still resort to kicking my feet feverishly when the pack moves in a way I don't expect, making it appear like I'm tap-dancing — badly — on the water).
With a little more juice, I'm officially levitating and I can't help but smile. The osprey, still watching, seems unimpressed. The crowd on the dock, however, cheers. A boat full of early booze cruisers gawks.
With about 15 minutes of practice, I'm zooming 5 feet about the water, sculpting perfect serpentines as I swoop from left to right and back again. But while flying is undeniably fun, it's not effortless.
"It's a 30-minute ride but a lot of people get tired and want to come back in after about 15 minutes. You don't use your jet pack muscles every day," Hamilton quips.
For me, the sheer concentration it takes to stay aloft and not catapault myself straight into one of Joe's Crab Shack's bay windows is what fatigues me. I make it back to shore without a YouTube-worthy incident, but I'm ready for a nap.
As I clamber out of the water and back onto the dock, I'm pretty impressed with myself. For a moment I even contemplate striking a Buzz Lightyear-inspired pose. I've got one arm up — muscles flexed — when the osprey sails silently by, gliding effortlessly through the sky.
I look at him as he looks at me, both of us thinking the same thing: "Showoff ... "