by Joyce Deaton
As the jittery economy has made boat buyers slower to sign on the dotted line in recent months, one segment of the market has held steadier than others: pontoons. Dealers who sell both fiberglass models and the venerable ’toons say that pontoons account for a relatively higher proportion of their sales than in previous years.
What accounts for the pontoons’ drawing power? A variety of factors, starting with the evolution of the boats themselves. Yesterday’s pontoons were the classic party boat designed as a sort of floating living room for slow cruising with large groups. But today the “performance pontoon” handles more like a conventional runabout and carries more power.
“The market has broadened because the product is different,” says Mark Kale, owner of Lake Norman Marina in Denver, which sells Premier pontoons. “With the advent of triple-tube design and bigger engines, pontoons can now satisfy a wider variety of needs such as skiing, tubing and wakeboarding.”
Newer models are increasingly versatile with designs that allow families to choose combinations of activities – for example, a fishing layout in front with a rear section for entertaining. They also offer more amenities such as sinks, grills, sleeping couches and enclosures that encourage longer trips aboard.
Still, the utilitarian nature of the pontoon appeals to value-conscious buyers in a no-frills mood. “On average, per foot, you can get more boat for your dollar with pontoons than with most fiberglass boats,” Kale explains. They’re also cheaper and easier to maintain.
With aluminum construction, you can leave them in the water year-round – unlike fiberglass boats that will blister and discolor. Aluminum gathers less algae and gunk, so there’s no need for boatlifts or bottom paint. “They’ll still get some growth on the bottom, but because you’re usually driving them at slower speeds, you won’t notice the effect on performance,” says Kale. Since most pontoons use outboard motors, there’s also no need for winterizing.
Operating costs are lower, too, since pontoons are more fuel-efficient and typically cruise at slower speeds, using less gas. Lower horsepower engines will work fine, and the pontoons’ light weight makes them easy to trailer. Throw in the fact that pontoons are extremely stable and easy for novice boaters to drive, and it’s clear why these new-generation party boats are increasingly sighted on the Piedmont lakes.