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Pontoons Are Back

By Jeff Lytle

I asked a neighbor who is a retired boat dealer and avid boater if there’s anything new and exciting in the marine industry. Without hesitation, he replied: “Pontoons.”

            What? Pontoons? My off-the-top-of-the-head picture of a pontoon boat is a putt-putt runabout with a flat deck and bench or folding seats covered by an old canvas canopy, all perched atop two metal tubes for flotation. However, that’d be the view of a caveman, given the redesigned, ultra-modern, spacious and powerful—not to mention beautiful—pontoon boats enjoying great popularity these days in Southwest Florida.

            Some call them party barges. Others think of them as entertainment centers. Others call them grandchildren magnets. All those familiar with today’s models (many are able to pull water skiers) know they’re not the pontoons of 1952, when a Minnesota farmer near a lake strapped barrels onto a platform of wood.

            Shawn Henderson, general manager of Marina Mike’s in Fort Myers, admits he was skeptical at first about selling pontoons. “I actually laughed at the idea. I didn’t realize what they’ve become,” with custom-covered seating, ceramic porcelain tile flooring and much more. “Now I’m all in,” he declares. He owns one that’s enjoyed by his whole family—“pretty cool.” 

          He explains pontoons are ideal for the area’s often shallow and usually placid waters, even the Gulf. The Bennington pontoons he sells draw only 10 inches, buoyed by a third aluminum tube in the middle. That means less resistance and allows greater speeds, Henderson says. He adds that 40 miles an hour is common and 75 mph is within reach for more expensive powerful models costing up to $300,000 with all the bells and whistles. (Henderson sells one of those every year, he says.)

            Because they’re lighter than other boats, Henderson says pontoons are easier to launch from a trailer and can be stored anywhere other boats are kept. Most customers are retirees, he notes, who see the seating for eight to 10 people ideal to safely entertain grandchildren, or let older grandkids drive around exploring. “We have lots of places to go around here,” he adds.

           At Bass Pro Shops in Estero, lead boat sales consultant Nick Kendall calls pontoons “living rooms on the water,” complete with couch-style seating and capable of adding big-screen TVs and refrigerators. They’re ideally suited for Southwest Florida’s key retiree demographic, he says. Pontoons are quiet, easy to operate and spacious enough to handle all visiting family members at leisurely speeds.

            Take a pontoon to watch a sunset, Kendall says, “and all your worries are washed away. I’m in my 20s and I like speed sometimes but I really enjoy going out on a pontoon, too.” His inventory is in the $20,000 to $80,000 price range; pontoons join shallow-water fishing boats as the top sellers at Bass.

           At Bonita Boat Center, sales manager Jarrod Bishop calls today’s pontoons “completely different animals” than only a few years ago, when they were small, cheap, slow and vulnerable to choppy water. Now pontoons are powerful and pricey, with his Crest pontoons—strong enough to pull tubers or skiers—ranging from $40,000 to $200,000.

          “The ride is just amazing,” Bishop says. “They ride as nicely as they look.” Typical customers, he explains, range from 25-year-olds who want to ski and celebrate, to 80-year-olds seeking to “entertain in comfort.”

          With so many models, there’s one to fit every option, making pontoons a hot ticket. Jimi Batchelor, owner of Sunny Island Adventures on Captiva, confirms his five pontoons (or tritoons if they have a third, center tube) are in demand with his rental clients. “Super comfortable,” they’re more stable and easier to maneuver than other boats. “They’re not your daddy’s lake pontoon boats anymore,” he explains, adding that their shallow draft makes it easy to island-hop and get on or close to beaches.

            Pontoon action extends north to Cape Coral, where Trent Terhaar, marketing director for that and other Boat House franchises, reports, “In general, everyone is buying them. A lot of people who used to be stern-drive boat owners are now looking at them because they can fit more people and still do all the watersports activities that were associated with stern-drive or traditional inboard/outboard boats.

          “We’re seeing first-time, young families who want to pull their kids tubing and entertain friends as well as second- and third-time boat owners who want something that has low maintenance and a lot of luxury and comfort. We’re also seeing retirees embrace pontoons because they’re stable, easy to board and still allow room for the extended family to join them.”

            Local dealers speak to Florida being the No. 1 recreational boating state, racking up $23 billion a year in sales, storage and equipment. California is a distant second with $13 billion. Boating makes a $170 billion economic impact in the United States, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association. It says about 95% of U.S. boats are made domestically.

 Lee County boasts the second-largest number of registered boats (48,000) in Florida, topped only by Dade County. Pontoons routinely pace motorboat sales nationwide, with 56,000 sold in 2018. “A combination of better engineering, fuel efficiency, speed and all-around versatility make pontoons a kind of SUV, do-everything type of boat for consumers,” according to Peter Houseworth, an analyst for Boating Industry magazine.

            The growing legion of pontoon owners already know how versatile they are. The rest of us, now armed with a working knowledge of pontoons, can have some fun trying to separate pontoons from other motorboats when we are on or around the water. You might learn that you have seen plenty of pontoons without knowing it.

            Who knew they are so nice now? Maybe the answer is, “Everybody but me.”

Jeff Lytle is the retired editorial page editor and TV host from the Naples Daily News. He now lives in Bonita Springs.