Pontoon boats have been a common sight around the Great Lakes for decades, but their popularity recently has surged. Once seen as the slow, boxy toy of older boaters, new models have been clocked at triple-digit speeds, can pull water skiers and handle like their v-hulled cousins. Modern pontoons have become the first choice of many buyers today.
A Fluke Takes Hold
The pontoon boat design first appeared in 1952, when Minnesota mill owner Ambrose Weeres fastened a wooden platform to two sets of steel drums welded end to end. Although his initial creations were crude, the result was unlike anything else afloat and immediately gained attention.
Once Weeres refined his design, orders came pouring in to his newly formed manufacturing company, Weeres Pontoons. The company he founded still builds high-quality pontoon boats today, and in 1991, the Minnesota state legislature officially recognized Weeres as the pontoon boat’s inventor.
Other builders followed in his wake. The Harris brothers tested their pontoon variation, the FloteBote, in the southeast Michigan lakes throughout the 1950s. Within a decade, pontoon boats evolved from painted wooden decks with crude two-by-four railings to aesthetically pleasing vessels with aluminum trim and upholstered seats.
Slow and Steady
Although structural limitations created horsepower restraints, early pontoon customers were more interested in passenger capacity than speed. “Pontoon boats have traditionally been popular with older boaters,” said Maurice Bowen, senior marketing director for Sun Tracker and Regency pontoon manufacturer White River Group. “Also, with people who value roominess over styling and performance.”
Aesthetics aside, little about pontoon boats changed until the 1980s when a third tube appeared below the deck. The new design increased the boat’s structural integrity and buoyancy, and allowed manufacturers to offer heavier, more powerful engines. This simple improvement attracted customers that were drawn to the boat’s passenger capacity but also wanted to pull water skiers.
“The addition of the third tube was a major innovation,” said Rhosan Stryker, whose family owns Stryker’s Lakeside Marina in Beaverton. “That really changed the game by allowing the boats to handle a big increase in horsepower.”
“People want to be different from their neighbor. They don’t want the exact same phone or shoes, it’s the same with pontoons.”
— Greg VanWagenen
More Power, More Purpose, More Features
Pontoon boats with 115 horsepower engines turned the heads of customers who swore they would never consider one. Pontoons that could comfortably carry the whole family and double as a ski boat were more versatile than fiberglass runabouts.
Boaters who owned two vessels, one for entertaining and one for water sports, could now find a pontoon model that fit both needs. However, horsepower was not the only factor behind rising pontoon popularity.
Greg VanWagenen, director of marketing and communications for Manitou Pontoon Boats in Lansing, believes customization has been one of the biggest selling points for new buyers. “People want to be different from their neighbor,” said VanWagenen, who’s X-Plode line of products come in lime green and electric orange. “They don’t want the exact same phone or shoes, it’s the same with ’toons.”
Most manufacturers allow their customers to build a boat directly on their website. Buyers can select one of several floor plans for each model and then customize the boat’s seating, power and features to meet their expectations. Several manufacturers even offer models equipped for fishing enthusiasts who want more versatility than a bass boat can offer.
Tides are Turning
According to marine trade publication “Soundings,” more than 46,000 new pontoon boats were sold in 2016, with a year over year increase in sales of nearly 9 percent. No other class of boats enjoyed that kind of growth.
Manufacturers such as Manitou now are seeing first-time boat buyers choose pontoons over v-hulls. VanWagenen said pontoons appear less imposing, and the buyer’s control over every feature provides new boaters with peace of mind. Most manufacturers offer lifetime warranties on decks and structural components as well, which maintains resale values.
Some dealers even have reported pontoon versatility makes it difficult to sell their traditional v-hulled cousins. “We haven’t sold anything else in over a year,” Stryker said. Although they also carry a popular line of fiberglass runabouts, Stryker’s Lakeside customers are choosing to buy pontoons instead.
Beryl Galer from Grand Rapids and his wife Norma have been avid boaters their entire lives. However, when Beryl retired and purchased a popular brand of fishing boat, Norma stopped going out on the water. After an unscheduled visit to a local dealership, the couple took home a 20-foot, single-engine pontoon boat.
“She quit going out because there was no place to get comfortable, or to lie out and read while I fish,” Galer said. “The pontoon boat gives us much more flexibility, so we spend more time together out on the lake now.”
Galer said his grandkids also love the boat because they can choose to swim or fish on the same trip. “We can even pull them on a tube,” Galer said. Even his fishing buddies now prefer the pontoon since it’s easier for them to get on and off.
Construction improvements have reduced maintenance needs and improved pontoon boat styling. Rubberized decks have replaced carpeted plywood, making cleanup easy with a boat brush and hose. Fiberglass helm and seating structures with newer upholstery, such as Ultraleather, keep stains and damage at bay.
Although pontoons always have been a popular choice for entertaining, newer models have gone several steps further by installing pop-up privacy spaces for changing, porta-potties, tow bars and arches carrying tube speakers and LED lighting.
Marine controls have followed suit, and pontoon manufacturers have included many of the incredible innovations on the market today. Joystick controls simplify docking and trailering maneuvers, while glass panel touchscreens provide engine feedback and control over lighting and entertainment systems.
“The addition of the third tube was a major innovation. That really changed the game by allowing the boats to handle a big increase in horsepower.”
— Rhosan Stryker
Three-tube pontoon boats, or tri-toons, have overcome a pontoon design shortcoming and improved handling and ride characteristics by creating a more traditional hull profile. Some manufacturers have taken the three-tube design to patented extremes, adding precisely designed lifting strakes and flattened transom pads that improve planing times and create a smoother, drier ride.
Although the tri-toon design seems relatively new, it has been around since the 1980s when owners began improving passenger capacity by bolting a third tube in place themselves. Today, tri-toons account for an increasing number of all pontoon sales with some manufacturers seeing three tube boats make up 70 percent of their revenue.
Back at the Dock
Weeres passed away in 1991, shortly after he was inducted into the Minnesota Marine Hall of Fame as “Mr. Pontoon.” Although the revolution had begun before his death, newer pontoon boats have come a long way from his original design: The Empress.
It’s unlikely Mr. Pontoon envisioned his creations tearing across the water at 70 miles per hour, but his design has become one of the most desirable boating innovations afloat today. Pontoons still are popular with older buyers who want to spend a day on the water with their entire families, but modern pontoons and tri-toons are attracting younger boaters in record numbers.
Part cruiser, part ski boat, and ideal for socializing, their space, speed, and versatility now make modern pontoon boats a head-turning option for buyers of all ages. After seven decades, pontoon boats have finally become “cool.”
Chuck Warren is a freelance boating writer and licensed captain based in Grandville, He’s worked around boats for 50 years.