2017 Marks the 65th Birthday of the Pontoon
By Steve Bull
Before I started working with PowerBoat Television and Boats&Places Magazine I had only ever been on one or two pontoon boats, if that, and always as a passenger. My initial thoughts were similar to a lot of people’s preconceptions: pontoons are slow and clunky, but are fun party barges.
After having driven dozens, my opinion is forever changed and I can confidently say I was wrong. Way wrong.
With 2017 marking the 65th birthday of the pontoon, now is the perfect time to take a closer look.
The pontoon is as close to the best of all worlds in a single day boat as you can find, at least in my eyes. You have a ton of room for guests to be seated in comfort. You have high performance capabilities and 300-horsepower, or more, is no longer a rarity but the standard in many cases. You have tow-sports capabilities, granted not for wake surfing or wakeboarding and you have all the bells and whistles you’ll find anywhere else, from BBQs to TVs.
All this at an age when you think it would be slowing down, but no, not the pontoon!
Instead of taking it easy at retirement age with a gold watch and sailing off into the sunset, the pontoon is turning it up to 11 and rocking the waters in ways you never would have dreamed of—even 15 years ago.
Most pontoons are still rooted in the standard look and layout of dual benches at the bow and stern, a starboard side helm and, sometimes, a second passenger bucket seat opposite, all contained within panels and gates and tubing.
Though the look may not have changed drastically over the years, assuming the same about the whole boat woefully underestimates the amount of engineering and design that goes into modern pontoons.
A triple log set-up is a very common option for a few reasons. It adds buoyancy and stability allowing for heavier, more powerful engines, but it also has revolutionized handling.
A two-log pontoon can run wonderfully well in a straight line. It can be the perfect platform for fishing or family fun, but when you crank the wheel, our good pal physics gets involved causing the boat to lean slightly outward. In any production ‘toon, you don’t have enough power to flip it. Though the lean is subtle, it is enough to make you feel a touch uneasy, especially when you’re used to banking into a corner like a traditional v-hulled boat.
When the centre log is added, it’s usually a little larger so when the boat is running at speed, it’s primarily on that centerline log, giving more banking power in the turns.
The luxurious amenities that can be present onboard range as widely as your imagination runs. Pop-up TVs, large grills and refrigerators, wet bars and icemakers, a cuddy cabin, livewells for fishing, or nicer upholstery than you’ll find in your car—all these options are available for your pontooning pleasure.
So how did we get here?
Back in the summer of 1952, when Queen Elizabeth II was coronated, Dwight D. Eisenhower was campaigning to become the 34th President of the United States and months before the first ever Hockey Night in Canada broadcast, Ambrose Weeres introduced the first modern, commercially available pontoon in Minnesota.
Apparently he came up with the design when trying to find a boat layout that the whole family could enjoy without constantly having to tell kids to sit down. While the size and technology of the pontoons has changed and the layouts of the decks are wildly varied, the basic concept is the same. Weeres pontoons are still being made today.
Around the same time, John Cripe in Indiana began designing Sylvan pontoons. In the 1960s he sold his shares and later started JC Pontoons that claims to be the originator of the TriToon design. Both Sylvan and JC Pontoons are still being made in Indiana today, too.
In fact, for PowerBoat TV’s feature about the pontoon, Sylvan gave me the keys to the all-new S5 Extreme Twin. With two 300-hp Yamahas hanging off the back, this by far had the greatest acceleration I’ve ever experienced on any boat. There’s so little drag and so much thrust you go from zero-to-expletive spewing in a split second.
In 1958 Godfrey introduced the first all-aluminum pontoon, the Sanpan, at the Chicago World’s Fair. Godfrey is still making pontoons, though the name disappeared for a while, and Sanpan has stayed around too. I had the pleasure of testing one out last summer.
What you most often find is something like the Harris 240 Sunliner. It’s the modern iteration of the classic layout Weeres and Cripe introduced 65 years ago. Harris wasn’t far behind, mind you, and is celebrating its 60th this year.
Stepping it up slightly to the Regency 254 LE3 Sport gives you a twist on the classic. The rear benches are replaced with rear-facing loungers and a larger swim platform. This is something I’ve seen more of in the last few years. Manufacturers are listening to customers. People like to use these as floating docks out in the water and for tow sports so rear facing seats are in high demand.
The helm on the Regency is more than utilitarian which is another nice advancement. The LED lights throughout, coupled with powder-coated pontoons, gives this a very slick and modern look.
Even further up the line of luxury you’ll find the Princecraft Vogue 27 SE.
The best analogy I can come up with is that the Vogue is like the Porsche Cayenne. It has the racing pedigree and high performance you expect from the Porsche name, but the comforts and luxury expected in an SUV package.
It’s the same story on the Princecraft. It has plush, diamond-stitched upholstery, a bar with permanent stools and refrigerator, and a 400-hp Mercury Racing Verado 400R. This is the first manufacturer to offer the SideShift bow thruster for pontoons as an option when buying new. In other words, they’ve found a way to make docking a pontoon luxurious.
Of course there are options at the other end of the spectrum and I’ve tested some inexpensive and compact pontoons for those who want entry-level pricing or just need a small platform.
Princecraft has the starter series Jazz line. Last year I gave the Jazz 180 a rip. It was nothing compared to the Vogue in terms of performance or comfort but it has solid construction and was fun in its own way.
The smallest pontoon I’ve tested was the 17-and-a-half foot 2016 Bentley Cruise 180 and the largest has been the 29-and-a-half foot 2016 Premier 290 Grand Entertainer.
The newest? The Reata by Ranger. Yes, that Ranger—the high-end fish boat people. They are in the pontoon market now.
I was able to test out the first production models of both the 220 Cruise and the 200 Fish models. The latter having a cut out in the front gate to accommodate a trolling motor and dual live wells.
The Cruise model is more traditional, but what the boats have in common is powder-coated pontoons. Aside from looking cool, the coating makes them more durable and easier to clean. What I think will become the hallmark of Reatas is the helm console. It’s beyond a basic utilitarian perch for a wheel and speedometer. Instead, the fibreglass consoles and dash are automotive-inspired.
When a company like Ranger jumps into the pontoon market, following the lead of companies like Larson, who introduced the Escape line in 2014, it’s not a last ditch effort of a struggling business. It’s a strategic move by a successful business. They saw a robust and growing market and wanted to get involved.
That’s the truth that even the haters need to understand: pontoons aren’t going anywhere. In fact, they keep growing in popularity as more people discover how great they are.
So maybe the gift we can all give the pontoon for its 65th birthday is that we drop the pejorative and no longer consider pontoon a four-letter word. They’re bigger, badder and faster than ever. I, for one, am keen to see where they go next.
This article is featured in the Summer 2017 issue of Boats&Places.