As Michigan’s boating season has cooled way down, boat show season is heating up across the state and watercraft dealers are making plans to show off their latest products.
Over the past decade, an unlikely boating industry segment has unexpectedly outpaced all other types of recreational vessels: pontoon boats. A 2021 study by market reporting company Stratview Research reveals that pontoon boats now represent about 20 percent of the boating market.
With sales expected to grow by 4 percent this year, while other boat types might see half of that figure, pontoons have become a hot item among buyers looking for a comfortable, versatile vessel.
No longer resembling a front porch with an outboard, pontoons have evolved dramatically since they first appeared on Great Lakes waters in the early 1950s. Today’s pontoons are no longer stuck in the entry-level market; they’re well represented all the way up to the luxury markets. Affordable models are available for under $25,000, while high-end boats can hit prices above $200,000.
Much like shoppers in the new car and truck markets, today’s pontoon buyers are faced with an overabundance of choices. Although they’re versatile by nature, before searching for a pontoon it’s recommended that you decide what you want the boat to do, as someone looking for the ability to enjoy a leisurely cruise along the shoreline may not need the same features as someone who wants the horsepower to pull skiers and wakeboarders.
Built on a foundation of twin or triple tubes, each hull type can support different needs. Twin-tube models can’t handle the weight and torque of many higher-horsepower engines and are generally rigged with smaller outboards for basic cruising, swimming, fishing, and exploring. Tritoons, much stronger boats made with three tubes instead of two, can handle the demands of power packages like twin 450 horsepower outboard engines that can push boats more than 70 mph.
Twin-engine tritoon models are aimed at the water sports crowd — boaters who are looking for the ability to tow a wakeboard or skier while still owning a vessel that’s capable of taking 10 to 15 passengers on an evening cruise.
Other important questions are: Where will the boat be used? How many people can it accommodate? What options are critical, and which would be nice to have?
And, of course, what do you want to spend?
John Conrad, sales manager at Elk Rapids Marina, regularly introduces buyers to Manitou, Montara, and Avalon brand pontoons. He advises that potential buyers educate themselves on the different manufacturers and models before committing to any purchase. “Go look on their websites at what you want,” Conrad says, “and then go put your hands on the products and arrange to go for a ride when it’s possible.”
With so many dealers to choose from, Conrad also believes finding the right sales team is important. “Find someone who will help you buy a boat, not just sell it to you,” he says.
As a new Michigan boat show season kicks off with the 65th annual Detroit Boat Show at the city’s downtown Huntington Place convention center Jan. 14-16 and 19-22, boat shoppers have an opportunity to see a large selection of new pontoon brands under one roof.
Other shows around the state include The Lansing Boat show at Lansing Center from Feb. 3-5, and The Grand Rapids Boat Show at DeVos Place Feb. 15-19. There are additional shows in a variety of locations around the state, such as Novi and Traverse City.
With new features like color-changing LED lighting, touchscreen navigation and audio control systems, and accessories for the connected crowd such as inductive chargers and strategically placed USB ports for charging mobile devices, many new models can be found with enough standard features to satisfy buyers without driving up the price.
However, the evolution of the pontoon boat has also created lots of optional features. Popular extras that enable a buyer to spend more and customize their boat to better fit their needs or to represent their own personal style include diving boards, privacy stations that can double as bathrooms, and underwater lighting.
With three of the Great Lakes bordering the state’s more than 3,200-mile-long shoreline and countless inland lakes big enough to support a pontoon boat, it’s easy to see why so many buyers choose to pass over more traditional V-hull power boats for the ability to take more people along to enjoy a day on the water.
New pontoon boats are fast, big enough to tackle a day on the Great Lakes, and versatile enough to support a day of fishing or wakeboarding. They’re also luxurious enough to accommodate a group of sunset cruisers equipped with fine wines, craft brews, and tasty treats.
The pontoon boat has become a favorite of buyers from older and younger generations alike. No longer considered a novelty item, the floating porch is here to stay.
Michigan Boating Industries Association