History of the Jet Boat
If you'd been touring New Zealand's South Island around the farming village of Fairlie, in the first few years of the 1900s, you may have come across a young boy hiking along a riverbank with his dog behind him, faithfully pulling a trolley loaded with a kayak. Probably a slightly unusual sight, but this was Bill Hamilton's first attempt at making it easy to move up and down one of New Zealand's many fast flowing and shallow rivers. He'd kayak downstream and then the dog would do the hard work when it came to having another go. The idea of building a boat that could navigate these knee-deep rivers with ease was kept as a dream in the back of that boy's mind for decades to come.
Bill Hamilton, or Sir Charles William Feilden Hamilton as he would later be formally known, always had innovation and excellence in his blood (not an uncommon trait amongst us Kiwis!). At the age of 21, he purchased the 10,000 hectare Irishman Creek Station (‘station' is the Kiwi name for ‘ranch'). The farm is actually just a few miles from Braemar Station, where we stay on our Rimu trip, and a short distance from the hiking trails of Mount Cook National Park. In addition to the sheep station, he quickly built his own workshop and powered it with a hydroelectric dam that he constructed on the property. To build the dam, he also developed his own type of excavator, which was later used for local earth-moving projects.
Bill was a self-taught engineer and often solved problems with unusual solutions. During the Second World War, Bill's workshop expanded and they produced munitions as well as a range of earth-moving equipment. The demand for the excavators and other machinery continued after the war and Bill decided to open a manufacturing plant in Christchurch to produce excavators, bulldozers and other hydraulic equipment. This move allowed him to convert the workshop at Irishman Creek Station into a research and development facility – sort of a Kiwi non-military version of Lockheed Martin's ‘Skunk Works'.
With time to develop ideas, Bill returned to his childhood dream of the shallow-water speed-boat and in the early 1950s developed his first jet boat. The concept was to have an inboard jet unit at the rear of the boat that sucked water up and then squirted it out of a narrow nozzle at the rear. This would push the boat forward, but without requiring a propeller deep beneath the water that would hit rocks and other obstacles in the shallow rivers. Initial attempts at the jet boat were somewhat unsuccessful, but a breakthrough came when Bill decided to move the nozzle so the jet of water came out above the waterline. This reduced drag on the boat enormously, and modern jet boating was born. Bill quickly pushed the capabilities of his boats and introduced the now famous “Hamilton Turn” (a full spin at speed) of the boat. Bill's jet boats quickly developed, with the steering nozzle rapidly improving.
In 1960 his son Jon was amongst the crew that were the first to take some jet boats up (and down) a 740 km (460 miles) stretch of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Unfortunately, Bill couldn't make it because he had broken his arm while jet boating in New Zealand a few weeks before. Jon Hamilton was the only driver on that expedition able to conquer the infamous Lava Falls stretch of the Colorado River. In 1974, Bill Hamilton was knighted for his “services to manufacturing” and on March 30, 1978, one of New Zealand's great inventors and engineers passed away.
Nowadays, jet boats can be found all around New Zealand and the world.Improvements have been made to the jet units and modern jet boats are now both highly manoeuvrable and fast.
One of the best places to see jet boats operating – or go for a jet boat ride – is right here in Queenstown, New Zealand, where there are a number of companies running jet boat trips on the local rivers. Perhaps the best known is Shotover Jet, where the boats are run through a dramatic narrow rock canyon just inches from the surrounding rocks and passengers are treated to several exhilarating 360-degree spins.
Jet Boat Racing
Jet boat racing has also become a popular sport with a wide range of events from very fast marathon boats running long distances up our local rivers to jet sprints where small ultra-manoeuvrable high-power jet boats complete a short course circuit in an effort to beat the time of fellow competitors.
Mode of Transport
Sports aside, many New Zealanders use jet boats to access some of the less accessible hiking tracks, national parks or trout fly-fishing spots amongst the South Island's Southern Alps. You'll have the opportunity to experience a jet boat ride yourself on our Tui trip where our hikers are transported down the Wilkin River after trekking from the Siberia Valley in Mount Aspiring National Park.
Tui Essence of the South Island
- 8 Days
- South Island
- From US$3999 + tax
This is an action-packed adventure where you’ll explore some of New Zealand’s most iconic and remote wilderness. It works well if your vacation time is limited, since you can fly from North America on a Friday evening, sleep on the plane, and be back at work ten days later to share your photos and stories on Monday morning. For a great way to see the North Island too, combine this trip with our 11-day 'Kauri' (5-day 'Kauri' options available).
Activity level: The ‘Tui’ suits people of a wide range of fitness levels and outdoor experience, particularly if you enjoy a variety of activities. Typically hikes on the ‘Tui’ trip range between two and six hours to complete.