Understanding How to Program a Sea-Doo Key and Why it’s Important

Your recent purchase of a Sea-Doo personal watercraft is easily the best decision you have made. You can’t wait to hit the open ocean. Before you can go anywhere though, you have to figure out this key.

It’s not anything like a car key. Sea-Doos don’t even have an ignition that you can see. You may have also heard that the key needs to be programmed. So how does one program a SeaDoo key? 

A licensed Sea-Doo dealer or repair shop will have to program your DESS key for you. If you purchase a used personal watercraft or need a replacement key, you can buy a new blank key. If you want to do the programming yourself, you will need to purchase a device like a CandooPro.

What Makes Sea-Doo Keys Unique?

There are so many personal watercraft on the market. Jet Skis, WaveRunners, and Sea-Doos all require the use of keys to operate them. 

Knowing this, why do Sea-Doo keys require an entire how-to article? In short, Sea-Doo utilizes radio frequency (RF) technology in their PWC keys. This makes it electrically more complex, but infinitely more secure.

What is a Sea-Doo?

Sea-Doo is a name even those who don’t ride them can recognize. It’s practically a household name, but why is this?

Sea-Doo has a reputation for being ahead of the curve in the PWC game. The company boasts a list of industry firsts, including the advent of the DESS key, an on-water braking system, and a PWC suspension system (source). 

Being an early adopter of technological advances is always nice, but that alone doesn’t draw in the Sea-Doo fanatics.

Sea-Doos are the number one selling personal watercraft on the market. These personal watercraft cost, on average, 20% less than the competition. Also, Sea-Doos rate higher in fuel efficiency than similar PWCs (source).

Likewise, Sea-Doos are tough. They are made with Closed Mold Technology or CM-TEC. This keeps the hull strong without adding weight. This will help reduce the risks of cracks and leaks in your hull, so you’re less likely to have to drain the hull of water.

DESS Keys

Significantly, Sea-Doo was the first company to produce personal watercrafts with DESS keys. DESS stands for Digital Encryption Security System. 

Sea-Doo keys are attached to brightly-colored lanyards with a claw-style key on one end, and a clip on the other one. 

The claw-style key attaches the round DESS post found on the Sea-Doo. The DESS post is the key’s ignition. The clip is then attached to the rider, for example, on a life jacket.

If you’ve ever spent any time on a treadmill, you would recognize the concept of a “kill switch.” In the case of a treadmill, it’s a magnet attached to the treadmill with the other side of the lanyard attached to the runner. 

Similarly, if a Sea-Doo rider is thrown from the personal watercraft, the DESS lanyard will detach from the personal watercraft and turn off the engine automatically. This emergency stop is vital to the safety of the rider.

The other end, the claw-style key, is more distinct. This shape key was introduced with the 2014 Sea-Doo SPARK model. Since then, it has been standard on all new Sea-Doo personal watercrafts (source). 

Prior to the claw key, DESS keys were made in a bucket style. The hollow “bucket” was inserted into the ignition, similar to a car key.

The need for such a programmable key arose from rampant personal watercraft thefts. Obviously, all water vessels fetch high resale values and, while boats are stolen regularly, personal watercraft are stolen more often (source).

The company first released its innovative key in the 1990s. The 1996 Sea-Doo models featured a more advanced electrical control system that included the DESS key, and this addition was a hit with consumers.

In 2015, the claw-style key was introduced. This DESS key now also utilized RF, or radio frequency technology.

This meant the key connected easier to the PWC. By 2016, the RF DESS key was standard on all Sea-Doo models (source).

Why Would You Need to Program a Sea-Doo Key?

Clearly, the DESS key is an important feature of any Sea-Doo. Your personal watercraft will not work with any other key except the one programmed for it.

If you buy a Sea-Doo new, the dealer will include programmed keys. Commonly, you’ll get the main key and a spare. In this case, you’ll have two usable keys — don’t lose both of them!

Not every personal watercraft is bought new, however. If you decide to purchase a pre-owned personal watercraft, you may find yourself needing a new DESS key. 

Why would a previous owner not include the personal watercraft’s DESS key in the purchase? A few scenarios could result in such a case. 

First, the owner could have lost their DESS keys. They are easy to misplace, unfortunately.

It does go without saying that you should thoroughly vet any watercraft purchase.

Don’t take the seller’s word for it if they claim they lost the key. A personal watercraft for sale without a key could signal it is stolen.

Aren’t DESS keys supposed to end theft? Unfortunately, they can’t entirely prevent theft. Thieves can be smart. 

If you do go through purchasing a stolen Sea-Doo and then try to program a key for it, the dealer or technician will soon find out.

If you trust that the DESS key is truly lost, you’ll have to procure one on your own. There will be more on that subject later.

Second, maybe you just aren’t comfortable with not changing the DESS key once the personal watercraft is yours.

After all, after purchasing a house, wouldn’t you want to change the locks?

The previous owner could still have a spare DESS key in their house that is programmed to your personal watercraft. For safety purposes, it is best to replace your DESS key. 

How to Program a Sea-Doo Key

Now you have an understanding of the basics of a Sea-Doo key and why you need to program it.

The next part must be the easy part then. Unfortunately, no. Programming a Sea-Doo key isn’t as easy as contacting a dealer on the phone. You can’t program itself without special equipment.

There are three ways to program a Sea-Doo DESS key. A dealer can program it for you, or a repair shop technician can. If you’d rather do it yourself, you can purchase a piece of equipment to do.

Have a Dealer Program It

If you purchase a new Sea-Doo personal watercraft from a dealer, they will handle the DESS key programming for you.

Your personal watercraft’s DESS key will be given to you pre-programmed and ready to go.

If you need a new key for a pre-owned Sea-Doo, a dealer can also help you with that, even if you didn’t purchase the personal watercraft from that location.

All Sea-Doo dealers sell DESS keys and can program them. The average cost can range anywhere from $25 to $150. This includes the price of the DESS key itself and the charge to program it.

Dealers cannot program a DESS key without the actual personal watercraft in their presence. There isn’t a phone or online option, and you can’t provide a VIN and get a programmed key in exchange.

While this may seem inconvenient, it’s the manner of the DESS. It’s also another anti-theft measure. When you bring in your personal watercraft, they can check their system to ensure this PWC isn’t reported stolen (source). 

Thankfully, Sea-Doo has dealers and shops almost everywhere. To find your local Sea-Doo dealer, use the Sea-Doo dealer locator found here.

Through a Repair Shop

A dealer may not be a viable option for you. If none are nearby, look for a repair shop. A repair shop may also be able to program a DESS key for you. 

Not every watercraft repair shop is equipped to program DESS keys, so it would be worth your while to check with the shop via email or phone beforehand.

The Sea-Doo will still need to be brought to the repair shop in question. There’s just no way around this inconvenience if a third party is programming your key.

The repair shop will likely also make sure the personal watercraft isn’t stolen. Remember, personal watercrafts are a major target for thieves. 

Third-party programming requires transporting your PWC, but what if a third party wasn’t involved? What if you could program itself at home?

DIY with a CandooPro Diagnostic Tool

Before any readers get too excited, this method is not free. No, you won’t have to pay a programming fee, but you will have to spend more money upfront though.

Certain diagnostic tools allow you to program a DESS key yourself. The CandooPro, for example, is a highly recommended diagnostics system. Produced by CandooPro L.L.C., the original CanDoo product was made for use with Sea-Doo personal watercraft.

The company has expanded its product line to include CanDoo models for other brands, including Yahama, Kawasaki, and Honda (source).

Independent repair shops have their own versions of this tool and, for a shop, this tool costs almost $2,000 (source).

You might be experiencing sticker shock at that price. After purchasing a personal watercraft, you probably aren’t willing to spend another couple thousand dollars on a tool for it.

No worries – as you aren’t a business, you can purchase an at-home CandooPro. 

The home version of the CandooPro runs for around $400. For the most reliable product, you should purchase directly from the manufacturer. These devices can be found sold at other online retailers or even second-hand though. 

You’re most likely thinking that $400 isn’t worth it to program a Sea-Doo key. You may be right. However, that’s not all this device does.

What are the advantages of owning a diagnostic tool like the CandooPro?

You have the ability to program multiple DESS keys for one or more personal watercraft without dealer fees. You can also self-diagnose issues with your Sea-Doo for DIY repairs.

Once you’ve decided on purchasing a CandooPro, how easy is programming a key? Surprisingly, it’s pretty simple.

As always, consult your product manual. If you’d like a visual of how to program a DESS key with a CandooPro, this video covers it well:

Here is a brief step-by-step of the process.

  1. Connect the CandooPro diagnostic box to your computer via USB cable.
  2. Load the software on your computer.
  3. In the program, choose your PWC’s model (i.e. Sea-Doo SPARK).
  4. Using the included cables and adapters, connect the box to your PWC’s electrical control unit.
  5. Start the PWC.
  6. Under the “Vehicle” menu at the top, select “Read Vehicle.”
  7. Go to the “Keys” tab.
  8. There is a button for a Normal Key, a Rental Key, and a Learning Key. Choose what key you will be programming. Most likely, it will be a normal key.
  9. Attach your new key to the diagnostic box post.
  10. Go back to the “Vehicle” menu and select “Write Vehicle” to save the programming.

Once you have saved the programming, you are done! You should now test your new key to make sure the process worked.

How Can You Test a Sea-Doo Key?

Testing a Sea-Doo key is actually a basic process. Consider a car. If you wanted to make sure the key worked, what would you do? 

To test a car key, you’d insert the key into the car’s ignition and ascertain that the key can start the car. 

With a Sea-Doo, you’re going to want to run the same test. If a dealer or repair shop programmed the key for you, you should check the key before leaving.

If you programmed it yourself, just check as soon as you’re finished.

Hopefully, the technician at a facility would have checked for you. Still, you should always be sure before paying for their service.

Before leaving, start your personal watercraft and attach your DESS key to its post on your personal watercraft. 

A properly functioning and programmed DESS key will prompt a double beep from the Sea-Doo personal watercraft.

When starting a Sea-Doo, you’ll press the red Start/Stop button typically on the left handle.

The control panel’s screen will greet you with a welcome greeting. Once you see that, use the DESS key.

If you plug in your DESS key and are not greeted by a double beep, there is an issue with either your DESS key, DESS post, or even the electrical component of the PWC.

If you’d like to see a video of a Sea-Doo personal watercraft being started properly, check out this instructional video from Sea-Doo.

Can You Replace a Sea-Doo Key?

Yes, you can replace a Sea-Doo key. Items like keys are easy to lose, so you might find yourself in need of a replacement key.

You can always buy a replacement key from an authorized Sea-Doo dealer. For an additional fee, they will program it for you when you purchase it.

You can actually buy Sea-Doo keys online. For example, Amazon has a lanyard key for around $50.

A key such as this can be used with any Sea-Doo PWC, as long as it utilizes the DESS. Both bucket and claw DESS keys are sold online, so choose the correct one.

Remember, though, this key will not automatically pair with your personal watercraft. It will still need to be programmed to your particular watercraft. 

Once you’ve bought your replacement key, you’re back at the beginning of this process.

You can visit a dealer or a repair shop for programming. You can also program it yourself with a diagnostic box.

Can You Bypass the Sea-Doo DESS?

Short answer: no, you can’t. You cannot bypass a Sea-Doo DESS key. There is no way around it.

You can’t hotwire your Sea-Doo personal watercraft like a car. No slick maneuvering of wires will start the PWC without the DESS key.

No key, no go. You should appreciate this though! It may be a slight annoyance for you, but it’s what protects your PWC from theft. 

If it was easy to bypass a DESS key, then it would be easy for a thief to take off with your Sea-Doo.

Final Thoughts

Always at the forefront of technology, Sea-Doos are the only personal watercraft to utilize DESS keys. 

DESS keys use radio frequency technology to personalize each key to only one personal watercraft. This prevents theft but also makes replacing a DESS key a challenge.

It is possible to replace a lost DESS key, but it is not possible to bypass the DESS.

Since DESS keys are so specialized, you will need a Sea-Doo dealer or a repair shop to help you program your key. This requires your personal watercraft to be at the shop.

If you own a diagnostic tool, you can program your key at home. CandooPro is a device that can be used to diagnose issues with your Sea-Doo and program DESS keys.

If you can afford to purchase a CandooPro, it would be a wise investment. It can save you significant time and money during the lifetime of your Sea-Doo personal watercraft.

When you’re out on the water, press the start button and attach the lanyard to your person.

After plugging in your DESS key, be sure to listen for that double beep. The two beeps are your signal to enjoy your ride!

Articles contain affiliate links to Amazon. As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases. The site is also an affiliate for other brands covered in our the content. We may earn a small commission when readers purchase through these links at no extra cost to the buyer.

Tim Conner, M.D.

Tim Conner, M.D. started boating in 1974. He has been involved in recreational boating continuously since then. Dr. Conner has been active in boating and watersports safety education for decades. He rode his first jet ski in 1997, and rejoined the personal watercraft arena in 2012 with a Sea-Doo GTX 155, followed by 2 supercharged SeaDoos. Scuba certification came in 1988, and he and the family have traveled the world snorkeling and scuba diving for decades. The family has recently taken up paddle boarding. Click the photo for a lot more.

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