(Published in The Caymanian Compass, Friday, 5 April, 2013)
Floating in the water with $100,000 worth of kit strapped to my back, and adrenalin pumping furiously through my veins, my finger hesitates over the power button. When pressed, it will activate a floating 250 horsepower marine engine which will pump 1,000 gallons of water a minute thorough a 33-foot hose, before shooting it back out via twin nozzles in a powerful stream behind me, effectively launching me some 30 feet in the air at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour. If you’re a seasoned professional that is. In reality, I go little more than a few feet in the air before spectacularly landing face first in the water.
I’m trying out the JetLev water jetpack, the ultimate James Bond like toy, which, with a little bit of practice can allow you to fly, walk or run across water, and do all manner of tricks and manoeuvres, such as the “dolphin” or “submarine”. Commercially launched in 2012, this impressive piece of kit was invented by Chinese-born Canadian engineer Raymond Li, who was inspired as a young boy watching 007’s famous escape in “Thunderball”.
Jetpack Cayman officially launched in December last year offering flights off Seven Mile Beach. The business is run by Chris and Roxana Thalasinos. They moved down to Cayman in October from Orlando, Florida, after training to become certified flight instructors.
“People get very excited when they first see it, especially people who grew up in the era of Buck Rogers and James Bond,” Chris says. “The ability to fly freely over the water, to be able to look down and see the fish swimming below you, there’s just nothing like it. It’s totally unique.”
It was Chris’s cousin, Mike Thalasinos, who first set them on the path to Jetpack Cayman. Mike tried out a prototype in California in 2011 and fell in love instantly. He decided to set up his own certified flight centre and turned to Chris and Roxana to help manage and run it. After a 25-minute flight they too were hooked. “We fell in love with it. We spent about 25 minutes flying and it was like nothing we had ever experienced,” Chris says.
Cayman was picked as the location for their adventure experience business, thanks to the fact that it has a healthy tourism industry, coupled with a safe, stable environment, and crystal clear warm waters.
They both embarked on a two-week flight instructor course, covering everything from theory, maintenance, flying skills to learning how to instruct people to fly. It was then just a matter of packing up and moving down to Cayman with their two young daughters.
“When we looked at the location and the wow factor of the product we knew it would work,” Chris says. So far Jetpack Cayman has flown more than 350 people, from teens to those in their 70s and from just about every walk of life. Indeed, Chris says the beauty of the jetpack is that just about anyone who is comfortable in the water can fly.
The flight experience starts with a short Jet Ski ride to the launch boat, moored just off shore in about 12 foot of water. Here Chris runs through how to operate the jetpack, before you get kitted out and ease yourself into the water.
For safety purposes – as well as to prevent adrenaline junkies from getting out of hand- Chris has control of the jetpack’s throttle via remote control. There are also two assistants with each participant in the water, while the radio helmet allows Chris to give instructions from the boat.
“Everyone is different,” Chris says. “I can never guess how people are going to fly. You can have someone who looks absolutely terrified, yet takes to it like a duck to water. It’s neat. Typically though the more you relax the better you fly.”
Before I boarded the boat I watched three other thrill-seekers give the flying machine a whirl. Chris then did a more than impressive demonstration. He whooshed overhead some 30 foot in the air, before flying just a few feet above the water. I try my best to follow Chris’s advice and take a few deep breaths, but a heady mix of nerves and excitement has taken over.
Chris says that within the first five to 10 minutes most people will get up in the air, anything up to about 6 to 8 feet. The first few attempts I struggle. I manage to get up, but have little control and invariably end up plunging face first in the water. The art, Chris says is in small, but smooth delicate movements of the machine’s controls – easier said than done. I persevered, however, and, with a little coaxing and instruction, it wasn’t long before I had mastered flying a few feet above the water and began to enjoy the soaring sensation of flying.
“The best thing is for people to relax and listen to the instructions,” Chris says. “We let everyone fly at their own comfort level, whether it’s flying with their feet in the water, their waist, or up in the air. It really is just like driving a car. You can choose the fast or the slow lane. It’ totally up to you and we never pressure anyone. We will only give people enough throttle that we know they can handle.”
Chris estimates that there are about 50 to 60 JetLev jetpacks worldwide, including ones that have recently been introduced into Cancun and Aruba. Cayman was the first JetLev authorised flight centre in the Caribbean and Chris typically takes up to 12 people out a day.
There’s a variety of flight options to choose from, including the “Mercury Flight” which covers the basics, the longer “Gemini Flight” which gives people a longer experience to try out some tricks, or the space inspired “Apollo Flight”, which allows users to reach higher heights and faster speeds.
Whichever option you choose, flying a jetpack offers a truly sensational experience – once you’ve got the hang of it.
“It’s the ultimate bucket list must do,” Chris says.