Story by Nancy E. Spraker
Pontoon boats have really changed. The days of put-put boats chugging at a snail’s pace are over.
Pontoons with two floats and, increasingly, tritoons with three now are towing water skiers, tubers and wakeboarders. They can travel up to 50 mph and round a buoy with ease. Updated amenities include mood lighting, remote controlled stereos, refrigerators, bars and sinks, upper decks and even sliding boards.
Tim Chambers is the pontoon man at Singleton Marine at Lake Lanier, the No. 1 Harris Pontoon dealer worldwide. Recently he took me for a spin on a middle-of-the-line Harris Cruiser 220 tritoon with a 150-horsepower outboard motor.
It should be known that the pontoon I am most familiar with is my sailing club’s 1987 Harris-Kayat race committee boat, with no amenities to speak of. Its 60-HP motor’s maximum speed is 20 knots. Aboard the Cruiser, I pleasantly sank into a sumptuous lounge chair as Tim cranked up the motor. It was so quiet I barely knew it was running. He tells me that the 350 HP is even quieter.
He put the boat in gear and, once past the no-wake buoys, we sped up to 35 mph on a plane. It was such a smooth ride. Being a weekday, there were only a couple of other boats on the water. A speedboat created some wake that Tim decided to cross. We sliced through the waves with only a couple gentle bumps – no major splashing, pounding or rattles.
The boat was still quiet enough to continue conversation with the motor at three-quarter throttle. Tim made some tight turns facilitated by its keel and lifting strakes, blades of aluminum that run the length of the pontoons underneath. His pinkie easily turned the wheel with the aid of power steering. The boat hardly heeled and the bow obediently stayed level.
We briefly beached the craft on a nearby sandy shore with no need for an anchor. Draft was only 8 inches with the motor raised. It’s only 1.5 feet with motor down. All too soon, it was time to head back to the dock.
At the Singleton Marine offices, Chambers shared his passion for and knowledge of pontoons and tritoons with me. According to him the size of the boat, size of motor and whether to get a pontoon or a tritoon all depend on what the boat will be used for. A pontoon is fine for fewer especially if no kids are included. He says if three or four people just want to go “puttin’ around on the lake” a pontoon with a 150 HP is just fine, but “you need an extra log to carry the heavier motor” for more people and watersports.
He says the trend is going toward tritoons because of their capacity to do more. The tritoon can travel up to 45 or 50 mph with a larger motor. He recommends a 250 HP or 350 HP to travel 45-50 mph. These motors can maintain these speeds even with 14 people on board. However, he says that the 150 HP is very popular and can speed up to 38-40 mph and will pull a skier.
One boat does not necessarily fit all. For those who fish, the Fishing Cruiser pontoon boats offer a center walkthrough seating arrangement, built-in tackle boxes, rod holders, a dedicated fishing chair, live well for live bait and a trolling motor. Pontoons’ shallow draft lend themselves to the fishing lifestyle. Bar boats are great for entertaining with sit-up bars for food and drinks, sinks and refrigerators.
The beauty of a pontoon or tritoon is ease of maintenance. Ninety percent of the boat is aluminum and can last a lifetime. Engine maintenance is usually an annual oil change on the upper unit and every other season on the lower unit. Winterizing is unnecessary since all water drains out.
Vinyl upholstery has UV protectant, is double stitched and just needs an occasional spray and wipe with 303 Protectant. Cleaning is handled mostly with just soap and water. Typical flooring is stain, mold and mildew-resistant vinyl teak and woven vinyl seagrass that essentially only need hose-downs.
Below deck are seven layers of marine plywood that’s “made to get wet” says Chambers. Deck cross-members are spaced closer together especially in the engine area for structural integrity. The pontoons themselves are larger, thicker and multichambered now. Each pontoon is made of several compartments so that if punctured, it won’t completely fill with water and sink. Larger splash guards keep cockpits dry and surging is minimal since bigger pontoons increase freeboard area.
One nice thing about a pontoon is that you can go to different lakes. Chambers says “I can virtually load up a pontoon boat in one minute.” You just need a double-axle trailer with brakes on each axle. Trailers are very light and most boats with trailers can be towed with a family SUV.
Now for the bells and whistles: Rope lighting at seat bases, underdeck lighting, lighted biminis, lighted cupholders and speaker lighting are all available. A wide variety of mooring covers and biminis plus complete enclosures are possibilities. Since the head on pontoons is usually a porta-potty, a pop-up changing room with curtains is a welcome feature.
Several styles of cushy seats, a variety of ladders, a ski locker in the middle pontoon, cupholder upgrades, bars and grills, Bluetooth stereos, a multitude of floor plans and an extensive palette of color choices aim to please.
Harris has many models of pontoons/tritoons from basic to posh. According to Chambers the midrange Solstice 220 (23 feet, 6 inches) and 240 (25 feet, 4 inches) with 200 or 300 HP motors are most popular. The luxurious Crowne 250, almost 27 feet long, has a teak articulating table, tilting automatic swim deck, remote stereo controls and an optional touch screen controlled helm with GPS-based cruise.
The Crowne 250 bar boat is on display at the 2016 Atlanta Boat Show as well as the new Cruiser 220 with two decks and a slide.
Now that I’ve experienced the newer pontoons/tritoons, it may be hard to return to the old Harris race committee pontoon boat. But you do have to give it credit for lasting 28 years!