Making Waves

Fast leaving the grinds of routine in their wake, high- performance pleasure boats made in Michigan are offering buyers more than ever before.
Avalon Pontoon Paradise
The industry’s strongest pontoon hull, retro styling and plush furnishings characterize Avalon’s Paradise pontoon. // Photography Courtesy of Avalon Pontoon

Boating is one of those elemental pursuits: full of sunshine, fresh breezes, clean water and fun. Little compares with the peaceful sound of waves lapping against the hull while lying at anchor, nor the exhilaration of putting the throttle down and swiftly slicing across a flat, shimmering lake.

With an abundance of inland and Great Lakes waters, Michigan is well-known as a boating mecca. There were 922,856 registered boats in 2012, making the mitten state Number 3 after Florida and Minnesota. Boating contributes nearly $4 billion to the state’s economy, according to a 2007 Michigan State University study that found it supports 52,000 direct and related jobs.

But the benefits of boating go beyond bottom lines. Pleasure boating provides a healthy dose of sun and water, an opportunity to socialize and reason to leave schedules and routines behind.

“When you boat, you interact with others,” said Nicki Polan, interim executive director for the Michigan Boating Industries Association (MBIA). “You are face to face with people and connect in a better way than on Facebook. You don’t create memories online, but you do out boating.”

Manitou Pontoon’s X-Plode SHP
Manitou Pontoon’s X-Plode SHP (Sports Handling Package) includes an oversized center tube and lifting strakes for sharp maneuverability and larger motors for higher speeds. // Photography Courtesy Manitou Pontoon

Made in Michigan

Michigan’s power boat building history can be traced to the early 1900s when wood boat building companies like Chris-Craft, Hacker, Gar-Wood and the Century Boat Company catered to people’s need to be on the water. The complexion of the industry began to change in the 1960s with the advent of fiberglass boat building techniques.

Today there are eight boat manufacturers anchored around the state and a sprinkling of craftsmen who still build wooden boats. Their vessels include $20,000-plus runabouts, $2 million luxury live-aboard cruisers and everything in between.

In the middle is a new generation of pontoon boats — no longer the plain platforms of Grandpa’s era.

Avalon Pontoons
Top: LED docklights, new for 2013, are a standard feature on all of Avalon’s DECO and C Series boats. Bottom: Theodora, designed and built by Van Dam Custom Boats, features planking hand-selected from wood that came from a single tree. The windshield frame and other hardware was designed and built in Van Dam’s own metal shop. // Photography Courtesy of
Avalon Pontoon (top); Van Dam Custom Boats (bottom)

Equipped with full bars, plush upholstery, electric wine racks and even electric loungers, today’s pontoons offer amenities for entertaining friends or whisking the family away for a day wakeboarding, exploring and fishing. High-performance models come with three specially-engineered pontoons that reduce drag and improve cornering. Fifty miles per hour is not out of the question.

“Pontoons are the new luxury boat,” said Henri Boucher, with Showspan Inc., producer of the Grand Rapids and Milwaukee boat shows. “No one expected people would pay $80,000 to $100,000 for them, but more and more pontoons are being shown and sold.”

Pontoon manufacturers agree that people increasingly are looking for multi-purpose designs, a boat that can do what it once took more than one to accomplish.

Taking its style cues from the roadsters of the ’60s, Glastron’s GT 200 is a sporty 20-footer tailored for family adventures. This versatile model is equipped with ample ski and wakeboard storage, a Sony stereo/MP3 adapter and walk-through transom. // Photography courtesy of Glastron

Manitou Pontoon Boats based in Lansing ( is one company that builds high-performance models. The 1985 start-up gets credit for the innovations that changed the pontoon market in 2005. Manitou patented its “V-toon” technology, a larger diameter center pontoon engineered to provide lift so the boat would come up on plane. For boaters that means short turning radiuses and quicker trips across big waters like Torch Lake and Lake Charlevoix.

Avalon Pontoon Boats is another luxury brand ( The Alma-based company began building in 1972. Avalon boats are known for plush amenities and plenty of get up and go when needed.

Runabouts and sport boats more typically fill the go-fast niche. Their sleek molded hull designs, deck layouts and vivid colors are as varied as the customers that buy them.

Tiara Yachts doors
Tiara Yachts’ 5800 Sovran includes a tempered glass aft deck entry. // Photography Courtesy of Tiara Yachts

Four Winns in Cadillac is well-known for its quality ( The company builds boats from 18-foot runabouts to 49-foot express cruisers, but its brand is largely associated with runabouts. The company’s racy Horizon RS Series Sport boats were introduced this year with wide acclaim.

Glastron, a Four Winns sister-company also Cadillac-based (, specializes in runabouts with a line of boats from 16 to 28 feet. Its new GTS 205 has been referred to as closed-bow “roadster” for the go-fast crowd, with graphics to match.

When it comes to luxury living on the water, the name Tiara resonates with boaters ( The Holland-based company started in 1976. It produces some of the finest boats found in Michigan. Life aboard is full of creature comforts and modern design. Tiara’s largest cruiser is the 5800 Soveran, which offers a sophisticated blend of modern materials and styling. It has an upper deck salon, quartz countertops and electric cook-top, master and VIP staterooms and lower level sleeping quarters. At 58 feet, it’s a boat that turns heads.

Tiara Yachts
Top: A molded-in wrap-around lounge and an upper-level salon featuring abundant natural light, large L-sofa, one club chair, a 40-inch LCD flat screen TV, Denon® AM/FM stereo system with DVD player and iPod® docking station, drawer-style refrigerator/freezer and teak hardwood flooring. Bottom: Tiara’s 4500 series’ salon includes an L-shaped lounge/dinette with removable table. // Photography Courtesy of Tiara Yachts

And Michigan’s wooden boat heritage remains alive and well in Boyne City, where Steve Van Dam builds them. He owns Van Dam Custom Boats ( and is renowned for finely-crafted wooden vessels and one-off designs that blend the flavor of old with modern materials and plans. Van Dam founded the company in 1977 thinking to build sailing yachts, but the business evolved to building power boats exclusively.

Look for bright varnish finishes that gleam in the sun and show-off superior woodwork as the boat streaks by.

“We make Steinway pianos you drive at 100 miles per hour,” says Van Dam.

Making memories is left to the boats.

The Little Power Boats That Can

In Michigan, new power boat sales climbed 20.87 percent ($549 million) in 2012, following a 29.5 percent jump in 2011. One new trend that’s boosting buyers nationwide: the creation of innovative, more versatile boats falling within the 15- to 26-foot range which cater to a spectrum of interests and budgets. This category of smaller vessels — including pontoons, aluminum all-purpose boats, fiberglass bowriders and ski, fish and jet boats — make up 96 percent of the 12.4 million registered boats in the United States (

What They Cost

From activities and passengers to propulsion and price range, DiscoverBoating (presented by the Recreational Boating Industry) provides filters to help you find your perfect ride, a beginner’s guide and other tips to get you off your dock. Price range varies depending on size, make and model of the boat. For more details about boating types, brands and manufacturers, visit

Four Winns parts
Efficiently designed by Four Winns with first-time boat buyers in mind, the versatile 18-foot Horizon 180 sport runabout offers spacious seating, a walk-through windshield, deep-reach swim ladder and bold color scheme. // Photography Courtesy of Four Winns

Bowriders. Ideal for families with handy swim platforms and spacious open bow seating, these boats are the most popular in the runabout/sportboat category. Price: $4,000-$240,000.

Cabin Cruisers. Recreational by nature and generally equipped with cooking, sleeping and bathroom facilities, cabin cruisers feature the sun above and blue below. Price: $28,000-$900,000.

Cuddy Cabins. Cuddy cabins are ideal for day cruising, watersports and other on-the-water activities such as fishing and swimming. Price: $23,000-$800,000.

Pontoon Boats. Pontoons give families with younger boaters a secure place to enjoy the ride or toddle about when at anchor, thanks to wide decks and “lay pen-like” side rails and gates. When equipped with larger engines they can be as quick as runabouts. Price: $5,000-$85,000.

Deck Boats. Deck boats have wide deck to carry eight to 12 or more passengers (like pontoons) but look and perform more like runabouts. They are powerful, too, making them excellent boats for skiing, tubing and wakeboarding. Price: $15,000-$80,000.

Fish & Ski. This family recreational boat has enough power to pull a skier or two, and to get to the fishing spot in short order. Price: $12,000-$56,000.

High Performance Boats. Marrying big horsepower with sleek hulls, these are the sleek sports cars of the boating world, offering high speeds and precise handling to those who prefer their thrills full throttle in ocean swells or tearing up inland lakes. Price: $25,000-$1 million.

Motor Yacht/Cruisers. Large boats equipped with powerful single or twin engines, these craft are ideal for ocean cruising, navigating large rivers or the Great Lakes, as well as entertaining at the dock, and can stay on the water for days. Price: $200,000-$1 million.

Inboard Ski/Wakeboard Boats. Fast, wet and wild — inboard propulsion delivers the power and speed fans of water sports such as skiing and wakeboarding need. Price: $15,000-$150,000.

Jet Boats. Like bowriders and deckboats, they offer comfortable seating and sunning areas, plus a speedy and exciting ride. They are distinguished from runabouts by their propulsion system, which is enclosed inside the hull. Price: $20,000-$100,000.

Award-winning writer Howard Meyerson resides in Grand Rapids.

Facebook Comments