What is a Pontoon Boat?

People who do their boating on lakes and other inland bodies of water have long known something that coastal boaters have only recently begun to find out: For sheer comfort afloat, combining an ideal platform for swimming, lounging, and partying with enough speed and maneuverability to tow skiers, tubers, and wakeboarders, it’s hard to beat a modern pontoon boat.

This Premier Dodici 31 carries triple 300-hp Evinrude outboards, which can push the boat over 60 mph.

This Premier Dodici 31 carries triple 300-hp Evinrude outboards, which can push the boat over 60 mph.

Unlike the old-fashioned kind that were basically just platforms fixed on top of two floating pontoons, the new designs often feature three pontoons (also called tubes or even “logs”) that are hydrodynamically shaped and efficient in the water, with the middle pontoon lower than the two outboard ones to promote banking and steering that can often rival that of monohulls. Combined with high-powered modern outboards, the new pontoons routinely skim over the water at top speeds well over 40 mph, making fast passages between home and fun zone. They’re still relatively uncommon in areas where the water can get downright rough, but they’re certainly gaining momentum on the coasts. Meanwhile, inland boaters are experiencing increasingly refined fun aboard their pontoon boats, not only with higher speed and maneuverability, but with pop-up changing tents, enclosed heads, built-in coolers, outdoor cooking and refrigeration, and ever-better ergonomics in seating and swimming areas.

Who are the major players in this game?  Harris FloteBote, Cypress Cay, and Lowe are all owned by the marine manufacturing powerhouse, Brunswick Corporation. Harris and Cypress Cay operate out of Fort Wayne, Indiana; Lowe out of Lebanon, Missouri — all in the heart of pontoon boat territory. Other makers include Bennington and Aqua Patio/Godfrey of Elkhart, Indiana, Sun Tracker, of Springfield, Missouri, Princecraft, of Princeville, Quebec, and Premier, of Wyoming, Minnesota,

Elements of Pontoon Boat Design

The pontoon tubes, usually made of welded aluminum, provide buoyancy and support for the deck, and for the heavy weight of the engine or engines. As mentioned above, these tubes are much more advanced today than they were years ago. Now they’re arranged to provide improved steering control and often storage and tankage space under the deck, Many are fitted with lifting strakes to help raise them out of the water and improve both speed and economy.

Cross-bracing and longitudinal elements attach the tubes to the deck structure. Note the storage space and fuel tank in the center tube.

Cross-bracing and longitudinal elements attach the tubes to the deck structure. Note the storage space and fuel tank in the center tube.

The deck area is the pontoon boat’s main selling point. Even smaller models boast an impressive fun-to-footage ratio compared to narrower boats of similar length. Decks can be fitted with all sorts of comfort factors, from lounge chairs and wraparound settees to bar areas,  galleys and grills, and even showering and head facilities.

The tubes and deck are connected by aluminum cross-braces and longitudinal supports. These are welded to the tubes below and screwed or bolted to the deck, which is usually made of high-grade plywood and covered with carpeting or another decking material.  The better constructed this bracing system, the smoother and more solid the boat will feel in choppy water and in hard turns. The plywood and fastener points need to be carefully waterproofed by the builder to prevent eventual delamination and rot.

Before the tubes and deck come together, some elements of the fuel, electrical, engine, and steering systems may be installed.

On deck the helm station, lounges, seats, and other amenities are added according to the design and customization available, and around the perimeter of the deck aluminum safety rails (called ‘fencing’ in the pontoon boat world) are installed, usually with gates for easy access to the bow and stern areas and to the dock from amidships.

Pontoon Powerplants

In the old days when pontoon boats were known mainly as plodding party barges, the outboard engines that pushed them tended to be fairly humdrum. The new pontoon designs, though, have been mated to more and more powerful engines, multiple engines, and even purpose-built engines like Evinrude’s Pontoon Series motors, optimized with larger props and lower gear ratios to work with the turbulence created by the tubes, and with the extra weight of heavily loaded boats.

Of course, more powerful engines come with the trade-offs of greater initial cost, lower fuel economy, and more costly maintenance charges, so new owners should be as clear as possible about their intended purposes on the water. Lounging and fishing don’t take much horsepower or speed, while waterskiing does.

Evinrude’s Pontoon Series engines are designed to work in the turbulence created behind the tubes.

Evinrude’s Pontoon Series engines are designed to work in the turbulence created behind the tubes.

Pontoon Models and Customization

Pontoon boat builders can build a variety of models on the same basic platforms, with layouts and equipment optimized for a particular waterborne activity, or for maximum relaxation, or for a  combinations of owner interests. They can also equip boats with a big variety of options, from more powerful engines, to joystick docking controls, to tow-sports equipment and even water slides. Buyers of new boats can usually choose from different decking materials, color schemes, upholstery fabrics, graphics, stereo equipment, lighting arrangements, and more. And like car makers, pontoon boat builders often have interactive websites where prospective customers can “build” their own boats online to get an idea of how things will look and what the price tag will be.

Specialized Pontoons

The ability to go fast means that today’s pontoons can serve the needs of tow-sports enthusiasts — tube riders, skiers, and wakeboarders. Some are purpose-built and outfitted with towing pylons or arches, racks and under-deck stowage for wakeboards and skis, and sporty graphics packages.

Similarly there are pontoon designs that are optimized for fishing, with uncluttered main decks and minimal structures up high that might snag lines when casting, plus installed livewells, tackle boxes, rod holders, and more.

The Manitou Xplode 23 SRS SHP is rigged with beefy towing support and easy access to the stern for waterskiing, wakeboarding, and tubing.

The Manitou Xplode 23 SRS SHP is rigged with beefy towing support and easy access to the stern for waterskiing, wakeboarding, and tubing.

And at the top end are the luxurious pontoons designed strictly for comfort and easy partying, with truly cushy high-end upholstery, top-notch grilling and galley equipment, and full bar facilities.

Again, almost all these designs can be customized by original buyers, so that families who want to have fun together on the water only have to decide what kind of fun they’re aiming for.

Whether you’re interested in pontoon boats as someone entirely new to the boating game, or you’re coming from a different design type, just be aware that pontoons, like all boat types, offer their own set of handling challenges. Ask any friends who have pontoon boats for real-world advice, and make sure you sea-trial any boat you’re considering for purchase.

View listings of pontoon boats on Boat Trader.

 

 

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