Not Your Father’s Pontoon

Today's pontoons are far better than those of a decade ago (or less) due to advances in design, performance and technology.

Aqua Patio 250-1304 copyThe good old pontoon has long been the workhorse of the lake resort rental fleet. History credits Ambrose Weeres with inventing the pontoon boat in Minnesota in 1952, and over the decades pontoons proved their worth as stable and spacious — yet often woefully underpowered — boating platforms. It always seemed the wimpiest outboard possible was bolted to pontoons I rented in the 1980s, and we spent the days mushing around the lake looking for a place to hang out and swim.

After all, the “hang out and swim” aspect is one of a pontoon boat’s greatest attributes. With space for coolers and lounges, there’s no better friends-and-family platform for the summer months.

However, improvements in pontoon design and performance have turned these once-docile craft into fun machines with way, way more oomph for watersports and cruising. Pushing the envelope back in 2010 was a 27-foot PlayCraft powered by a 1,280 hp sterndrive engine. Owned by Ken Gouty, it was the first pontoon to touch 100 mph. The same day, Brad Rowland tied the record with his South Bay 925 equipped with triple Mercury 300X outboards. Rowland has since topped the 117 mph mark.

Today, pontoons can be built with up to triple 300 hp outboard engines, tube bottoms featuring strakes and chines, and even sleeping cabins. How have all the changes made today’s pontoons better than your father’s? Or even yours from five years ago? Here’s a look at 14 innovations that have changed the game.

Log Construction
HOW IT USED TO BE:
Pontoons ride on what are referred to as logs or tubes (they mean the same thing). Aluminum has long been the primary material used for log construction, because its ease of manufacturing and its lightweight qualities offer many benefits.

THE INNOVATION: Builders such as Razor (Caravelle Boat Group) are making boats out of fiberglass and calling them E-Toons, a departure from traditional designs in both appearance and performance.

Razor’s patented evolutionary performance hulls (hence, E-Toon) are used on its line of fiberglass boats.

The use of fiberglass not only changes the bottom design, which features multiple lifting points, but also changes the styling aspects and interior attributes. The Razor 246FS includes two front fish chairs, two front livewells, a ski locker and a changing room.

Dynamic Diameters
HOW IT USED TO BE:
Tube diameters from 21 to 25 inches were common, and were nominally larger or smaller, depending on the length of the pontoon.

THE INNOVATION:
Much larger tubes provide a more stable running surface, and Premier’s 42-inch diameter tube on its 310 Encounter model is a revolutionary concept. A 42-inch center tube increases stability and comfort, and the 310 Encounter is powered with three Evinrude G2 250 hp outboards.

During Boating World executive editor Alan Jones’ performance test, the 310 Encounter popped on plane in two seconds and hit a top speed of 58.1 mph. The pontoon’s stability and power make it great for cruising and pulling people on toys.

Tubes Shaped Like Boat Hulls
HOW IT USED TO BE:
Round tubes, especially ones without lifting strakes, aren’t the most efficient shape for moving a boat through the water. They tend to plow through the water instead of riding on top.

THE INNOVATION:
Shaping the bottom of the pontoon like a fiberglass V-hull not only provides lift to help the pontoon ride on the surface, but it provides a smoother ride by adding a cleaving action, rather than plowing. They are so efficient, a pontoon can get three-tube performance with only two tubes. You can also get good performance with less horsepower.

Triple Threat
HOW IT USED TO BE:
Twin tubes were, and still are, the most common configuration, and the double design works extremely well.

THE INNOVATION:
Adding a third log — sometimes called a “tri-toon” — can increase stability and performance. Lowe’s Xtreme 250 rides on triple tubes and can carry up to 14 people. Engine options range from a single 60 to a 300 hp Mercury outboard.Bennington-4925 copy

Joystick Control
HOW IT USED TO BE:
Windage, bulkiness and a single propeller made docking a pontoon a challenge.

THE INNOVATION:
Joystick control is offered to ease handling around the docks and in other low-speed situations. The Yamaha Helm Master system is available on select Premier Pontoons with twin and triple engines. In addition, MerCruiser Axius and SeaStar Solutions’ Optimus 360 systems have brought joystick technology to virtually every outboard builder.

With Helm Master, when the driver twists the joystick to counter the current, back into a slip or just maneuver precisely in the marina, one engine may be kicked inward and the other outward, or one in reverse and the other in forward. Regardless of the angle, when the joystick is twisted and nudged in a direction, the boat goes that way. Powerful computers adjust each engine’s rpm, gear selection and direction precisely, so those forces result in the movement commanded by the joystick.

A host of other features come with Helm Master, including speed control, which is like cruise control for a car. Speed control locks in the rpm and then the driver can step the rpm up 15 percent or down 10 percent with the touch of a button.yamaha helm master2 copy

Luxury Abounds
HOW IT USED TO BE:
From the start, pontoons were nothing stylish: a plywood deck and a smattering of leftover lawn chairs and patio furniture. Even today, the basics of seats and a table get the job done, along with storage compartments and perhaps a Bimini top for shade.

THE INNOVATION:
Avalon’s Ambassador Entertainer Deco Series combines retro design with solid aluminum walls with embedded stainless steel designer accent grills and art deco graphics. The starboard rear galley features faux Corian surfaces, a refrigerator, a sink and a rail-mounted grill, while the port bistro bar table offers accent lighting, an electric wine rack and four luxury stools with stainless-steel backrests.

The raised fiberglass helm has a wood-grain dash panel, a metallic and Cherry steering wheel with chrome spokes, and USB and auxiliary inputs.

Angling Fun
HOW IT USED TO BE:
Even the earliest pontoons were great angling platforms, because the driver could maneuver the boat on top of the fish. Sure, wind and waves could move it off the spot, but right away the pontoon was a winner.

THE INNOVATION:
Today, all the accessories that make bass fishing boats and center console boats great also make pontoons successful fishing machines. Livewells, trolling motors, rocket launchers, T-tops and of course a host of electronics such as fishfinders and depthsounders hardly give the fish a chance.

Ride In Style
HOW IT USED TO BE:
“Styling” used to consist of white sidewalls and aluminum rails, with a short foredeck porch and wraparound bench seats.

THE INNOVATION:
Contemporary styling and wild graphics have improved the look of today’s pontoons, as well as new rail designs. The new Lowe Xtreme 210 delivers major thrills and big-time styling, with sleek graphics and premium standard amenities and even more options.

It Feels So Good
HOW IT USED TO BE:
Stick-to- your-skin upholstery was slippery when wet and downright dangerous on hot days.

THE INNOVATION:
Improved upholstery stays cooler, is UV- and stain-resistant and is much softer on the skin. For example, Avalon’s Matrix 50 Soft Touch Seat Vinyl is among the thickest in the industry, and all furnishings are mounted on aluminum lifetime seat frames with no wood or plastic parts. Even the driver gets a treat with a soft pillow-top helm seat. Seat frames feature flowthrough dry ventilation and seat-base cladding.

Hyper Hydrology
HOW IT USED TO BE:
Blunt nose cones and a smooth running surface sufficed when top speeds rarely surpassed 20 mph.

THE INNOVATION:
The manner in which water flows over the tubes can be improved with enhanced aluminum underskins and pointy nosecones. Larson’s Tapered Tube Technology is on its Escape line (TTT 21, TTT 23 and TTT 25 models), and each of the two or three tubes, depending on the model, is built like a boat hull.

A V-nosecone on each log slices waves, and reverse chines create lift for faster planing. A full-length sheeted tunnel between the tubes traps air and compresses it to create more lift, which results in less drag and a smoother, quieter ride.hyper hydro Escape25_0958 copy

Watersports Fun
HOW IT USED TO BE:
Diving off the deck or pulling a tube used to be the extent of pontoon watersports. Underpowered engines were the main culprit in making pontoons so fuddy duddy.

THE INNOVATION:
Increasing engine horsepower upped the fun factor immediately, and the advent of more advanced tubes and wakeboards was the perfect complement. Because wakeboarding doesn’t require the speed of waterskiing, the pontoon has become a great recreational platform. Adding a wakeboard tower, TurboSwing and cruise control can increase the fun factor.

Mucho Muscle
HOW IT USED TO BE:
A small outboard motor was all you needed to get around the lake. They were simple and effective, but the engine groaned when a tube was being pulled.

THE INNOVATION:
There was a day when triple 300 hp Mercury Verado outboard engines used to be an outlandish sight on saltwater center-console boats, but now the three big Verados are a viable option on Premier’s 310 Dodici Pub model.Dodici_310_19552 copy

Spend The Night?
HOW IT USED TO BE:
Stretching out sleeping bags on the deck, passengers slept under the stars and endured the rain if it came. Overnighting was possible, but only for heartier souls, and only if one trusted the forecast.

THE INNOVATION:
Now, pontoons can be used for overnighting without erecting an enclosure or pitching a tent on deck. Premier’s 310 Encounter features a cuddy cabin, for some enclosed shuteye.

Thanks to its 10-foot beam and giant 42-inch center tube, it features an honest-togoodness cabin with stand-up headroom. The cabin features a table, a V-berth and a head with a privacy curtain. It has plenty of room for sleeping overnight or just taking an afternoon nap and getting out of the sun. Entry to the cabin is through a locking smokedglass door to port of the helm. Portholes allow in light and air.

Up top are also plenty of places to stretch out, including a front bench, a bow sun lounge and a rear seating area. There’s room for 14 people or more, making the 310 Encounter a serious party platform.

For Your Feet
HOW IT USED TO BE:
Threadbare carpet offered little if any padding, was difficult to clean and, once soaked with lake water, retained a season’s worth (or more) of smells.

THE INNOVATION:
EVA foam (SeaDek), PVC (PlasDECK) and woven vinyl (Infinity Fabrics) are three leading types of boat decking. Some builders use decking products like these on new pontoons, and in other cases the owner refurbishes a pontoon with the new decking or has a professional do the job.

EVA foam, PVC or woven vinyl is either neutral in smell or infused with much more pleasant odors. It’s also super comfortable, easy to clean and reduces noise.

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