Interview with owner/partner of Captain Ron's Original & WildThing Jet Boats - Ron Yohn

For more than a decade Ron Yohn has been bringing the joy of jet boat tours on the Wisconsin River to thousands of Dells visitors annually on his Captain Ron’s Original Jet Boats. Being the first to do in the Midwest starting back in 1997, his jet boat tours give both a relaxing scenic excursion of the Upper Dells, along with an exhilarating fast paced ride of spins and power stops that quite possibly will get you refreshingly drenched on hot summer days.
Recently, I had the chance to meet with Captain Ron to discuss the history of his business, how his new partnership with WildThing Jet Boats came about, as well as getting a personal tour of the river where he let me take the wheel and taught me how to execute some of the tricks of the jet boat trade.

Tell me a little about yourself Captain Ron. Are you originally from the Dells?

RON YOHN: Actually about seventy-five miles northeast from here. A little town called Wild Rose, by Wautoma, Waupaca . . .

What made you come to the Dells?

Well, I was in the Navy for ten years from eighty-seven to ninety-seven. Right around ninety-four, ninety-five I went on a jet boat tour in Gold Beach, Oregon, on the Rogue River. I was looking to get out of the Navy and start a business, and thought well, the Wisconsin Dells needs jet boats, because I used to come here as a kid . . .

And they only had the normal tour boats at that time?


Did you always want to be a boat operator?

Well I joined the Navy, so I always loved the water. And that just moved its way forward, but actually when I was in the Navy I had nothing to do with boats, I worked with airplanes. I was a load master on DC9's, so I took care of all the balance for takeoffs and landings.

I was in the Navy already for eight years, and at that time I was just like: Well this is fun, but what’s the next step in my life? So, when I had taken the boat ride in Gold Beach, Oregon, it was such a fun trip, I said: “Boy, this would just be fantastic to bring back to the Dells!”

So, I put a business plan together, and said if it all works out I’ll get out of the Navy and do this jet boat, but if I can’t get the money and it doesn’t work out, then I’ll just stay in the Navy. I was at that halfway point, ten years, trying to make a decision whether to stay in or get out - but everything worked out.

So you were the first to start Jet Boats here in the Dells?

To start them, yep.

What year was that?


Have you always been at this location here?

No, we actually started about three miles north of here at River Bay Camp Ground - and from there we moved to the Sandstone Pub (what used to be called Hagen’s), and then this year the WildThing and Captain Ron’s Jet Boats have merged together as a partnership.

How is that going so far?

Oh, excellent! So much better. Instead of competing against one another, we’re now adding both of all our positives and making a much better business out of it.

Before this, was there a lot of competition between you two?

Oh yeah! (laughs) But you know, Jason Field (who has WildThing), him and I have always gotten along over the years. We’ve always been friends, so it’s always been a friendly competition more or less.

Was it an easy transition to now have a partner after so many years of doing this on your own?

Yes, because we’re both true believers in people’s memories. When customers come and actually pay good money for a boat ride, we’re looking for them to take home memories - not just of a boat ride, but something that their whole family can remember.

A true family experience . . .

Right. That’s the direction we are really trying to go in. I’ve always kind of had that philosophy. Originally, I named the boats - my company was The Dells Experience Jet Boats - with that whole thought process in there.

So tell me a little about the tour.

Well, we do a tour of the Upper Dells. It’s about ten miles round trip. The difference between the Lower and Upper Dells is more or less a dam. The Kilborn Dam splits the two apart - we are on the upper section of the Wisconsin River, Lower Dells of course on the lower section. It’s about an hour long tour - half slow, half fast - and we go and see all the sights. Plus, we get up and go fast - power stops, spin the boat around, splash people with water. So mom and dad still get to see the Dells and hear all about it, and the kids get some entertainment out of it too.

I know there is another jet boat company on the Lower Dells - is there any difference between you and them besides being on either the upper or lower part of the river.

Well, I think we give more of a guided tour - we give out a lot more information about the sand rock formations. I just think it’s a lot more informational, and we give a little more history on this tour. I haven’t done their tour to know for sure, but from what people have brought back is that we go a little more into the history side of things - and of the natural beauty here.

My personal thought is that the Upper Dells is prettier than the Lower Dells - there is a lot more rocky ledges, a lot less sandy beaches. So, when people ask what the biggest difference is, I always tell them just the scenery - I think it’s much prettier in the Upper Dells. I’ve actually had people ask me “Is this real? Did you guys make this?” (laughs) I’m like, no, no, no, this was all formed here - so people are really amazed on how all that works.

Is there ever any change in the routes you do?

We make it very interactive. We like to joke with the people, talk with the people. Ask if they have any questions. If we see a bald eagle, we’re over here and we see a bald eagle over there, we’ll turn around and go right back so people can take pictures. I always tell people, anything you guys want to get a picture of, or you just want to see closer up, just raise your hand. We’ll shoot right over there. You can take all the pictures from whatever angle you want. Except for one . . . the upside down boat angle! (laughs)

I was going to ask you that, you ever flip one of these things?

No, they’re impossible to flip. The reason for that is that the center of gravity is so low; it’s almost under the water. The engines are way down in the bottom of the boat, and the fuel tanks are way down to. Everything is kept as low as possible in the boat.

So what’s the lowest water depth you can go in them?

With our smallest boat here, six inches of water on plane (gliding across the water).

How fast do they go?

The fastest we have is fifty-five MPH - but we usually do between thirty-five and forty-five - that’s what our normal tour speed is.

Are they all 1200 horsepower?

Well, we have three boats that are 1200, and one boat, the smaller one, that is 800. It’s a twin engine boat. The other three boats are all triple engine boats.

How many people do they hold?

This boat here (the twin engine)  holds about thirty-two, the boat behind it we can put about seventy-six people on it, and the one that is out (on tour) right now we put about fifty-sixty. We also have one at the shop that just is about ready, it’s getting painted, and can hold about forty. So we have four altogether.

How many boat captains do you have working for you?

Let’s see (counts) seven or eight guys.

Is there extensive training involved?

Extremely extensive. Very detailed.

Have most driven boats before or are these guys fresh?

Well over the years I’ve gotten both. I’ve gotten captains that I’ve hired with Coast Guard licenses, and I’ve gotten school teachers. Most of the guys that are driving now are school teachers in the winter time and jet boat pilots in the summer. We do have a couple younger guys that we are bringing up into the ranks that are just starting out.

When it comes to training, the biggest thing we do is a lot of stick time with the boat - you drive, and drive, and drive, and drive until you can feel how the boat handles. Once we get that down pat and they can handle the boat, from there we then work on the tour.

On a microphone?

Yes, we have a PA system on the boat. We actually have music we play on the boat too – so in the spots where we don’t have a lot of tour talk, we actually will turn a little music on.

How long does it take from being hired to taking out your own tour?

Everybody’s different. Some guys have taken much longer than other guys. Some guys just catch onto it. Once we get on the boat and you start driving, you’ll be able to kind of go wow - you’ll understand how the boat maneuvers. It’s kind of more of a feel then it is a technical, so it’s not just looking at RPMs and adjusting accordingly to what you are going to do with the maneuver. It’s more of a feel to the boat, because if we have four people on, the boat acts so much more different then if you have forty people on.

So, that’s why we have the guys drive, and drive, and drive. Then, once we get their tour down, and they can drive safely, we then start by putting on just six people on the boat. We let them run with that, and then just start adding people on so that way as the boat gets heavier, they can start feeling how the boat handles. We start guys out in the twin, and then they move their way up to the bigger boats.

What’s your personal favorite part of the job?

Seeing the people happy! The awe on their faces when we do a spinout with the boat or a power stop and the kids are back there yelling: “More! More! More water!” - that’s my favorite part. That’s the only thing that really keeps me moving forward with the boats at all, is watching people have a good time. I truly believe that this is family fun. It’s all bench seating, everyone can sit together, you’re not separated by anything, and not only that, people on the boat can talk with one another too.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen over the years? Have the customers done anything stupid like wanting to jump out of the boat?

The weirdest thing I’ve ever seen? Let’s see, I had one guy that came running down the dock here (a little intoxicated) saying: “I want the wildest, craziest seat!” - halfway through the tour - “I don’t feel so good, can we pull over?” (laughs)

Has anyone ever puked?

We haven’t had any seas sickness - though I may of have had people that went out last night! (laughs) As for sea sickness, it doesn’t have that pitch or roll, so you don’t have that movement that you would have out on Lake Michigan. It’s a smooth ride.

You ever pull skiers on the back?

No, although I’d love too. I’d love to one day put a pole on the helm there and do a spin and see if the guy could come all the way around - but I’m going to wait until I retire and then that will be the last thing I do.

So besides that, do you have any future plans? Like do you want to build an empire and have a dozen boats someday?

(laughs) You know honestly, I just enjoy giving tours and making people happy. From that point, to where I am now, has all been that. And it grows. You know as a business owner you’re always progressing further ahead, because it’s always nice to make money, but I never actually started out to get rich. I really just wanted to do something I enjoyed doing, and I’ll tell you, when you see the smiles on people’s faces when they get off the boat, them thanking you - thanks for the great ride – that to me means a LOT. So what’s the plan ten years from now? Making people happy. If the business grows from that, then we’ll grow right along with it, but that’s my goal, to keep people happy and make the kids laugh. 

Sounds like a great plan! Thank you Ron for taking the time share your experiences and giving me a crash course on jet boat driving! For more information, please visit his website: