The evolution of pontoon boats in cottage country

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Published: April 6, 2020 · Updated: June 25, 2020

If you grew up spending summers at the lake, you might remember pontoon boats as grandpa’s comfy cruiser of choice—the boating equivalent of a 1975 Pontiac Grand Ville out for a slow Sunday drive. But over the past couple of decades, pontoon boats—and people’s perceptions of them—have changed drastically. These days, you’re more likely than ever to see a decked-out pontoon boat skimming along your cottage lake.

To chart the evolution of these versatile boats, and to see how they’ve become perfectly adapted to cottage life, we spoke to Scott Brundle from Town and Country Marine in Lakefield, Ontario. As a dealer specializing in Harris pontoon boats (the company that invented them), he’s had front-row tickets to the humble pontoon’s evolution from grandpa’s practical barge to a cottager’s do-it-all status symbol.

A deck with a motor

In the early days, the pontoon boat was a hauler for getting people and stuff across the lake without much fuss. “Boat manufacturers started fabricating these barge type-things with an X-top and an outboard motor,” says Scott. “That’s sort of how the pontoon boat started. It’s usually two aluminum pontoons with a deck on it, so it’s almost a glorified dock.”

For years, that “barge” design didn’t budge, because it gave a lot of cottagers everything they wanted. “Probably 90 percent of the pontoons we sold in Ontario cottage country were 20 feet long, about 8 feet wide, and had 40, 50, or 60 horsepower engines on the back,” Scott says. “They were fun because grandma and grandpa could walk on them easily, and they kept the kids in nicely with life jackets—they were almost like playpens.”

For cottagers who were used to sharing cramped quarters with weekend guests, the appeal was obvious. “You could tie them up to the dock and they became like a dock extension,” Scott says. “So when you’re down there in the afternoon and the kids are swimming, people can lounge in the boat. It gives you more space to hang out and congregate on the water.”

The Harris 210 Cruiser offers a Mercury outboard up to 175HP, storage under almost every seat, and seven optional floor plans.

The need for speed

Whereas the first pontoon boats eased cottagers across the lake at the speed of a tiny fishing boat, consumer demand propelled a change in performance. “Things really started to change when people wanted to go faster, especially on some of the larger lakes,” Scott says.

But at first, when manufacturers started building pontoons with more powerful engines, they still couldn’t hit the speeds many boaters wanted. “What they found was that they could get them to go faster, but there was definitely a ceiling as to how fast they could get them to go based on the design,” he adds. “You could keep throwing horsepower at them, but physically the boat wouldn’t go any faster.”

To feed the need for speed, builders had to tweak the basic “barge” design. “Engineers started experimenting with what are known as lifting strikes,” Scott says. “They’re like little fins, so as you started to go a little faster it would allow the boat to lift in the water a little bit. With less friction from the water, those larger 90 horsepower engines that were achieving speeds of 12 to 14 miles per hour were suddenly going up to 26 miles per hour.”

The Harris 230 Sunliner Pontoon offers a Mercury outboard up to 200HP, upgraded stitched interior cushion accents, and an optional ski tow bar.

But as you might expect, boat buyers still wanted more speed. “The next big breakthrough was the triple pontoon,” he explains. “They added a third one in the middle, and they put lifting strikes on all three pontoons, so suddenly there was more buoyancy and more lift.”

Boaters vote for versatility

Once a pontoon boat had the power and speed to pull water skiers, a whole new group of cottagers took interest. “We then had this pontoon boat that was still good for putting around with a cup of tea after dinner at the cottage or for sitting on while the kids are swimming on the dock,” says Scott. “But because it could go faster, you could take it to the far end of larger lakes and back, and you could add water sports into the mix.” Suddenly, cottagers were wondering why they needed the bowrider tied to the other side of the dock. With the do-it-all pontoon, they could consolidate and stick with just one boat.

That versatility was a huge boon to the pontoon’s rise. “With pontoons, you also have flexible interior configuration,” Scott explains. “So if you wanted to do some fishing as well, you could rearrange the interior so you could do a combination of fishing and cruising. As they became more versatile and customizable, that’s when you really started to see the boats exploding in popularity.”

Luxury takes to the lake

How could pontoon-boat manufacturers improve on a design that already did it all? The answer, according to Scott, was to add a touch of class. “They really started blowing up in popularity when they came out with fancier interiors,” he says. They added flowing rail designs and external mounted skins, and the interiors became like living rooms with $4,000 stereo systems in them.”

Luxury features on the Harris 270 Crowne include your choice of marine-grade vinyl upholstery, a Polk six-speaker stereo system, and optional powered Sport Arch.

As with anything that offers high-end versions, status has become a factor in the pontoon-boat world. What was once a practical barge has become the next big luxury purchase for many cottagers. “As you start to get into some of these more luxurious boats with bigger engines and higher horsepower, they’re becoming status symbols,” Scott says. “It’s like driving a Lexus SUV. People want the nicest pontoon boat on the lake, with the biggest engine, so some of these boats are moving around the lake at 50 to 70 miles per hour. They’re fast, they’re attractive, and they’re a bit of a status symbol.”

Customization for cottagers

From “family barges” to high-end status symbols, pontoon boats have come a long way. But with all those options, from models that emphasize comfort and versatility to those with enhanced performance and luxury, which one is right for your cottage?

“We start with a needs assessment,” says Scott. “Obviously, budget is the first thing. From there, we look at what they’re using the boat for, along with the size of their lake.” He points out that in his area, there are plenty of cottages on lakes that are three miles long. For them, a smaller boat is fine. But on larger bodies of water that allow for longer trips, a bigger boat with more speed is a good idea. “When your trip is two and a half hours back and you’re only going 13 miles per hour, it’s a bit painful,” he says.

Choosing the right boat generally comes down to finding the sweet spot between function and style. “Do they plan on pulling a 200 pounder on skis, or are they just occasionally pulling a kid on a tube?” Scott asks. “Once we know what they’ll be doing, we can home in on the right choice.”

To learn more about finding the perfect pontoon boat for your lake, visit tcmarine.com.