At the Cool Kids Table

You don’t have to be a pontoon boat owner to know that today’s pontoons aren’t like the ones that used to putter around local lakes with a few extra folding chairs and Styrofoam coolers. In the last 10 to 15 years, it’s become common knowledge that pontoons are faster and much more comfortable.

We also know that the pontoon market is a hot one. After all, baby boomers are retiring en masse, and many seek to downsize and simplify their boating lifestyle while also accommodating more passengers, from grandkids to pets.

That’s true, but it’s not the real headline. For that, we need to look at the younger end of the market. Gen Xers and the first wave of Millennials are converging on pontoons, and thanks to some of the newest innovations and design trends, these versatile, next-generation watercraft are finally welcome at the cool kids’ table.

Some manufacturers, such as Manitou Pontoon Boats, are producing models with an all-fiberglass exoskeleton instead of the traditional aluminum fencing and insert panels. Not only do they offer durability, they have a sleek, bold shape that is a major departure from their predecessors. Other manufacturers use a combination of aluminum and fiberglass. The Larson Escape, for example, features solid aluminum side panels with fiberglass bow corners. And thanks to padded interior upholstery, exposed side metal is becoming a thing of the past.

Manufacturers are using fiberglass modules aboard their pontoons, which means the boat’s helm and interior furniture are integrated into a fiberglass deck enclosure. Once again, the fiberglass offers an extra measure of durability “You get the look and feel of a fiberglass boat on a pontoon hull, plus a flexible, spacious layout,” said Greg VanWagenen, Manitou’s director of marketing and communications.

Other added benefits include Manitou’s raised helm station or Cypress Cay’s built-in helm cooler.

This is an Avalon Pontoon Boats exclusive. “It protects the side of the boat, which can be helpful at the dock,” said Greg Knight, Avalon’s marketing director. “It’s also a good water deflector.”

Due to the sheer amount of space aboard, pontoon boats have always had flexible layouts. This is now at a new level, literally. The Escalante from Premier Pontoons incorporates a curved stairway to an upper deck, a layout that allows this pontoon to feature a refrigerator, a wine cooler, a sink and a hard-sided standup head. Oh, and a slide.

“In the last four or five years, we’ve moved beyond carpeting on pontoons,” said Jean- Phillippe Martin-Dubois, Princecraft’s marketing and customer experience director. “Today, boat owners can choose highend vinyl flooring that looks like wood.”

“With full wraparound windshields, a pontoon will look and feel more like a sportboat,” said Matthew Vetzner, Larson’s vice president of marketing.

Avalon’s Knight agreed. “The windshield models will feel very similar to a runabout,” he said.

Boating should be accessible to all. To that end, Larson has added a boarding door to its Escape that can easily accommodate a wheelchair. Once aboard, of course, maneuvering the chair is manageable thanks to the pontoon’s flat, stable deck.

While performance foils and lifting strakes aren’t new, the ability to carry impressive power plants on the stern is. “The big leap forward was two or three years ago,” VanWagenen said. “That’s when we were able to add a second engine, which gives you more control. You can handle rough water better with an engine on each corner; the boat is more stable and more responsive. The pontoon can perform like its fiberglass counterpart, yet with all the comfort, room and stability of a pontoon.”

Today’s polished aluminum sponsons definitely offer more than a mirror-like finish. They also are expertly designed to feature a shaped running surface with built-in chines and lifting strakes. Some, such as those from Bennington Pontoon Boats, feature oval-shaped sponsons rather than round ones.

“Today, a pontoon planes rather than plows,” Larson’s Vetzner said. “It runs more like a V or modified-V hull.”

As manufacturers have developed additional sizes and shapes of performance tubes, they’ve been able to meet greater horsepower needs. Premier’s PTX packages, for example, can support more than 900 hp on its largest models.

“Our pontoons offer horsepower ratings allowing up to three 350 hp engines when utilizing the 27-inch tubes and larger 42-inch PTX center tube,” said Lori Melbostad, Premier’s president.

As Princecraft’s Martin-Dubois noted, “Performance packages are bringing pontoon boats to another level. When you’ve got three logs and that much horsepower on the back, it’s not a party barge.”

Indeed. Now that wakeboard tower with all the watersports accessories really makes sense.

“Performance is the key,” VanWagenen said. “Boaters want that extra measure of control and handling—even at the dock. And joystick technology is a big part of that.”

For its pontoons, Lowe Boats has embraced working with another company that developed an economical power steering system that uses a mechanical cable to the power steering pump. “It’s innovative and efficient,” said Carl Rader, Lowe’s pontoon category manager. “Instead of feeling prop torque, it’ll have the same feel as steering an automobile. And if the power shuts down, you won’t lose your steering.”

Pontoons have always been able to absorb the impact of rough water fairly well, but with the deeper middle tubes that come with performance packages, they can offer an even more comfortable ride.

“You’d be amazed at how much smoother it is,” Manitou’s VanWagenen said, “and you don’t have to be interested in watersports to appreciate that.”

Lowe Boats offers a rough-water package that includes strengthened triple tubes, lifting strakes and Wake Tamer spray shields. “There was a real need for it,” Rader said. “You don’t want damaged logs, so we aggressively took that on. They can withstand the rough water that comes with weather or heavy boat traffic on a busy weekend. You won’t get beat up.”

Last summer, a 27-foot Avalon “tri-toon” with a crew of four made the trip from Tampa, Fla., to Cuba. It featured twin Mercury Verado 400s and was capable of speeds up to 60 mph. “We don’t call the boats ‘oceangoing,’ but the reality is that pontoons are getting closer to being able to replace any type of craft,” Knight said. “And an offshore pontoon is going to cost considerably less than its twin-engine, fiberglass offshore counterpart.”

Today’s pontoon boats feature all the fun gadgets, including touchscreen electronics, GPS navigation and Bluetooth. They also boast the latest sound systems with subwoofer stereos.

“It’s high end,” Martin- Dubois said. “People want their boats to be a mixture of car and living room, with that blend of comfort, convenience and color.”

VanWagenen agreed, also observing that boat owners are willing to spend more money on their boats’ stereos, speakers — even blue LED accent lighting. “They want to entertain, and that enhances the experience at night,” he said. Plus, let’s face it, the grownups still want to feel cool.

16. BARS
Speaking of cool, more pontoon manufacturers, including Premier, have added inviting bar areas. “We have more than one full-size bar with bar stools, lighted stanchions, bottle holders, a refrigerator, and even small details like purse hooks,” Melbostad said. “We even incorporated a large pub-style table on some models.”

Recognizing that pontoons are indeed on-water entertainment centers for their owners, manufacturers have focused on creating spaces for built-in galley and head facilities. Smoker Craft’s new Lounge Arm Galley transforms a pontoon’s chaise lounge into a functional galley with a sink, cupholders and a wine bottle holder. It’s available on all Sylvan, Starcraft and Sunchaser pontoons. The aforementioned Escalante from Premier is able to provide a refrigerator, wine cooler, sink and standup head, thanks to its fiberglass staircase to the upper deck.

Seats are seats, right? Wrong, at least according to Avalon. The manufacturer offers signature aluminum seat frames with decorative teak panels that are ventilated to keep temperatures in a moderate range and reduce opportunities for mold and mildew to grow.

“Plus, they have more storage,” Knight said. “We also have suspension seating that works kind of like trampoline material. When the boat moves, the cushion moves with you.”

Seating is a big deal to pontoon owners. Countless seating types and configurations are now available, many of which incorporate manually or electrically convertible lounges for greater layout flexibility. “Our walkthrough, rear-facing lounges replace what we had forever,” Lowe’s Rader said. “They’re predominant now.”

Cruising amenities such as galleys and standup head compartments have been game-changers for many pontoon owners, but not all of these innovations are abovedecks. Premier’s Encounter, for example, provides a cuddy cabin within its raised helm. The cabin features a sleeper, a convertible dining table, a head, internal speakers, a deck hatch and nearly 6 feet of headroom.

The Future
The stigma around pontoon ownership is abating with the advent of stylized fiberglass design elements, cruising amenities and runabout-style performance. Looking forward, the biggest design trends are likely to involve performance, so the boats can go even faster, handle better and tackle offshore conditions.

“We’ve gone from being the afterthought boat to the boat everyone wants, and the key is performance,” VanWagenen said.

Pontoon owners want to be able to take multiple generations of family members and friends on the water, where all of them can do a little of what they like. That means the boat must be able to handle a variety of conditions; and as usage expands in coastal areas, that includes saltwater environments.

“We’re filling in the usability gaps, developing designs that replicate and supplant other types of boats,” Knight said. “As performance continues to improve, a pontoon can be your ski-and-tubing boat and your cruising boat, as well as your bass boat and your place to entertain. You can carry more people. The kids are secure, the grandparents are comfortable, and you can do all this affordably.”

Find out more about the builders mentioned in this story and many others: (Premier)


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *