Our US correspondent Elliott Maurice explains the burgeoning popularity of pontoon boats and takes a look at some of the newest models on the market...
A dominating factor over the past few years in the US boating market has been the rise of the pontoon boat.
The first pontoon boat is believed to have been created back in 1952, when a farmer from Minnesota tied a wooden deck to a pair of surplus WW2 bridge pontoons, leading to the first production pontoon boat named The Empress.
The result may not have been very stylish but it was a stable, spacious, low draft platform that could be adapted for any number of different uses.
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Today’s pontoon boats still possess those same qualities but have evolved into far more sophisticated party platforms that now dominate the market for inland and bay-based boating across the US.
Why are pontoon boats so popular?
The significant upsides of the pontoon boat design are a very shallow draft, low wetted area (allowing for impressive performance with relatively low power) and a very stable, flat ride.
The fastest recorded pontoon boat Tooned In, a South Bay 925CR with twin 330hp Promax engines, achieved an average speed over a mile of 114mph back in 2013.
The luxury end of this segment has a number of manufacturers vying to create the perfect pontoon boat for its customers.
With prices ranging from just over $30,000 to north of $400,000, the level of performance and luxury can be tailored to suit any budget.
There are options for fishing, water sports, lounging at anchor and of course long-distance cruising – the 5,500-mile Great Loop from Florida to the Great Lakes and back has been completed on pontoon boats on more than one occasion.
More focused examples of the breed include the fishing-orientated pontoon boats from the likes of Ranger and Sun Tracker.
These feature live bait wells, dedicated rod and tackle storage, electric trolling motors and ground anchors, providing the perfect boat for sneaking into shallow and hard to access fishing holes.
The low wetted area allows for fantastic acceleration and any engine option over 150hp will give more than enough performance for tubing, wakeboarding or water skiing.
Although not offering the tracking of a purpose-built ski boat, high-end Benningtons or the more sporty M3 CRS Sylvan can offer plenty of towing power as well as drinks coolers, built-in grills, masses of storage for watersports kit and enough deck space for up to 8 people to lounge around in comfort.
The easy-driving and boarding characteristics afforded by these more sporty pontoon boats have carved out a new niche. And with such low drag characteristics, they also offer impressive performance and fuel economy – with a 300hp outboard on the transom, a 25ft pontoon boat can easily achieve 50 mph on flat water, while the fastest production pontoon boat, the twin 400hp South Bay 925 Supersport, can sprint from 0-30 mph in around 5.5 seconds and reach 90mph flat out.
However, it’s the sheer amount of deck space and amenities that can be packed into a relatively short hull length that accounts for the astonishing rise in the popularity of pontoon boats.
With copious amounts of sitting and sunbathing space, refrigerators, cooking grills, state of the art stereo systems, deck showers and more, they have become the party boat of choice.
It’s this unbeatable versatility along with reliable outboard power and relatively low purchase and running costs that has transformed the humble pontoon boat from a basic workhorse to an object of desire.
5 of the best pontoon boats on the market right now
Best luxury pontoon boat: Bennington QX
At the high end of the spectrum, the Bennington QX offers performance and luxury in equal measure. The starting point is a 23-30ft aluminum trimaran hull, available in a choice of 8ft 6in or 10ft beam, that supports a spacious deck capable of accommodating up to 13 people. This can be ordered in multiple color options or with a complete custom paint job.
The deck itself is fully configurable with everything from a refrigerated bar area with ice maker, sink and BBQ, to chaise lounges, rotating bucket seats and stowable tables.
The options then move to interior colors and quilting options with the fit and finish to compete with any high-end luxury yacht builder.
Other options include underwater lighting, color-changing cockpit and feature lighting, and a hydraulic sport arch.
Flatscreen electronics with engine integration are standard and high-end stereo systems can be specified to suit even the most discerning audiophile.
Power options range from single outboards up to 600hp on the 8ft in beam, or twin outboards engines up to 900hp on the 10ft beam model.
The fastest versions can easily reach speeds in excess of 75mph, and prices start from just over $100,000 to more than $400,000 for an ultimate spec package.
Best all-round pontoon boat: Harris Crown 270 SL TE
Still at the high end of the pontoon boat world, the 29ft Harris Crown is available with up to 800hp on tap from a pair of Mercury Racing outboards.
Although falling into a similar price range as the slimmer of the two Bennington beam options, the option of twin rather than single engines provides a little more security as a saltwater proposition as well as a more road-friendly narrower beam.
Optional hydraulic jack plates on all engines allow for more secure handling in open water by dropping the engines lower in the water at the touch of a button. With the engines raised it also draws a mere 15in, giving the Harris the ability to sneak into shallow bays and creeks.
With outstanding quality and a huge range of customizable options, a Harris Crown fitted with twin 300hp Verados giving it a top speed in excess of 55 mph starts from just under $290,000.
Best fishing pontoon boat: Sun Tracker Fishin Barge 20 DLX
With a starting price of just under $30,000 with a 90hp single outboard, this easily trailerable fishing pontoon boat provides excellent value for money and proven reliability.
Opt for the full $40,000 fishing package and it also includes a full road trailer as well as an almost silent electric trolling motor, fish finder, GPS, aerated livewell, rod holders, dedicated fishing chairs and removable table and stereo system, making the Sun Tracker arguably the best way for 6 people to enjoy a day’s back bay fishing.
Best watersports pontoon boat: Bennington 25 RX Sport
The 28ft 2in Bennington 25 RX Sport is available with single Mercruiser sterndrive power options from 300hp to 430hp rather than the usual outboard engine.
With a capacity up to 17 people, depending on the layout, a highly specced example will cost upwards of $275,000. There’s more than enough speed for barefoot skiing and its multiple sun pads and chaise longues offer the ideal sunbathing platform.
A 8ft 6in wide bathing platform allows for easy boarding and the Bennington 25 RX Sport can be optioned with everything you need for a full day on the water.
Best cruising pontoon boat: Tahoe 2585 Grand Tahoe QL
The Tahoe offers the best all-round features to make it an excellent cruising pontoon boat. With a single Mercury Verado 300hp outboard, the Tahoe tops out at around 45 mph, with an effective range of just under 160 miles at 15mph.
Starting at just under $110,000, the Tahoe can be specced with innovative lifting strakes on its three hulls that help promote an efficient cruise and soft ride.
The Tahoe is brimming with standard equipment but the few upgrades you’ll need to cater for cruising include an electric roof, Garmin MFD and ottoman cooler.
Even allowing for all those upgrades you will end up with change from $125,000, so it’s hardly surprising that Tahoe’s flagship is a favoured touring pontoon for family and friends.