The rise of pontoon boats

Pontoon boat

Last summer, Ken and Angela Westheuser added a Harris FloteBote Sunliner 220 pontoon boat to the small fleet at their cottage on Salerno Lake in central Ontario. They’ll make a pot of coffee in the morning, go into a bay and anchor, have breakfast, and read the paper. Their 27-year-old son, Mark, uses the boat for fishing. But the surprise lies in its performance. Its 90 hp outboard motor quickly gets it up and running at 30 mph. So when a friend asked if he could be towed on his wakeboard, Westheuser happily obliged.  

Creature comforts and performance are the major factors in the surge in pontoon boat sales in Canada: This isn’t your grandpa’s glorified swim raft with hard bench seats. According to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, from October 2011 to September 2012, pontoon boats led a rebound in new boat sales in Canada with a 23 per cent increase in unit sales. In all, 4,525 pontoon boats, about 10 per cent of total new boat sales, were sold, and about 40 per cent of them were sold in Ontario.

“People are looking for extra performance,” says Donald Dubois, the president of Princecraft Boats in Princeville, Que. The company’s Vogue line sells outboards of up to 300 hp, and its SVX series has wakeboard packages. “You can now bring many of the comforts of 
home with you,” he adds. Not to mention 
up to 12 people (and dogs). Westheuser agrees. “A pontoon is like a floating living room,” he says. “It’s very relaxing.”

The main reason pontoon boats are catching on with cottagers is “bang for the buck,” says Paul Jenkins, the owner of Bancroft Sport & Marine in Bancroft. “The cost per square foot of usable space is probably the lowest of any boat. The comfort factor is very high, and they’re extremely versatile.” A typical model he sells is a 20′ Starcraft Marine Stardeck with a bimini top and a 50-60 hp outboard that pushes 20 mph, for about $20,000. Manufacturers are also introducing models designed for both day cruising and fishing, featuring a deck area forward with bass-boat-style pedestal seating. “These pontoon boats are almost crossover vehicles,” Jenkins says.

Legend Boats of Sudbury has been busy keeping up with the growing demands for per-formance and amenities, increasing its number of pontoon boat models from nine to 
20 in 2013, with base prices ranging from $10,000 to $34,000. “We want to compete in that high-end area,” says Maurice Beland, Legend’s creative director. He adds that the company’s most popular entry-level model 
is a 21′ Genesis Fusion with a 50 hp outboard that starts at less than $20,000.

Scott Brundle of Town & Country Marine in Buckhorn, Ont., says that most of the sales growth has come in performance packages. Increasing the horsepower and adding strakes to the pontoons’ tubes (or “logs”) gets speed to 30 mph—and faster. Some performance pontoon boats with a third, central tube can even reach 50 mph. “That opens up watersports,” says Brundle.

A popular model for Brundle is a $50,000 Harris FloteBote Grand Mariner 23 with 
a 150 hp outboard capable of 40 mph, but “we’re doing deals now in the $65,000 to $80,000 range.” Amenities at the higher end include luxuriously upholstered lounges, kitchenettes, tables, stereo systems, swim platforms, barbecues, and marine heads with holding tanks (or chemical toilets).

“The biggest misconception,” says Jenkins, “is that pontoon boats are for older, retired people. The demographics are going down, down, down.” And the performance, versatility, and luxury are going up, up, up.