Boaties in the US have long known what is gradually infiltrating our waterways: pontoon boats are a fun, economical and often budget-conscious option for those looking for a boat big enough to welcome the extended family aboard, while still small and light enough to tow home.
Pontoon boats aren’t just booming because of their great people-carrying capacity, though. Powered by a midrange outboard, most models will rise to the plane quick-smart and reach speeds fast enough for a wild ride on tow toys, or even for waterskiing. And while their design makes them better suited to calm or inland waters, some models – particularly those with three pontoons – can deal quite capably with a bit of chop. However, don’t challenge them to go too rogue, as they’re not built to perform the same way a monohull with deeper draft would.
The pontoon format has its roots in mankind’s first primitive means of on-water transport: the raft. Early ‘modern’ pontoons built in the US in the 1950s were often little more than steel drums welded together end-to-end and topped by a slab of wood or a Robinson Crusoe-style raft. Folding deckchairs were soon added for passenger comfort, swiftly followed by railings, all manner of equipment at the helm and innovations in pontoon (the floating barrels) design.
What has remained true to pontoon boats throughout their development and into the 21st century is their appeal as a versatile people carrier that’s surprisingly manoeuvrable and which can go places many other hull types can’t, thanks to a shallow draft.
And there seem to be no rules as to how they can be furnished – you’ll find a wide range of models equipped with plush sofas and seating with bimini or canopy tops, others that serve as entertainment platforms with galley/bar and fancy sound and light systems, or as stealth-mode fishing boats with an uncluttered deck from which to chase fish. With their broad range of uses and fitouts, it’s clear why pontoon boats are often quoted as being the ‘least compromised’ of all recreational craft.
Budget-conscious buyers will find a wide variety of entry-level pontoon boats that come with plenty of amenities and equipment, while comfortably seating at least eight people, but without the big-boat price tag. And since they’re trailerable, many new models offered below the $50,000 mark (some even in the mid $30k range) are available with an outboard and trailer included.
At the other end of the scale, pretty much anything is possible.
A BOAT FOR ALL REASONS
The options offered by manufacturers, both in the US and Australia, know (almost) no bounds. Models produced here are designed with local conditions and flavours in mind (including for saltwater use), while Australian importers generally work with overseas manufacturers to ensure customer requirements are met, in some cases by completing the build on Aussie soil.
For example, Tweed Coast Marine, NSW, sells the American Misty Harbor range, which includes fishing, leisure and cruising models. In 2010, its pontoon specialist Peter Winks travelled to the US on a quest to find a brand suited to Aussie conditions.
“We chose the Misty Harbor product because of the willingness of the company to work with us,” says Peter. “Many changes were made on the production line, including a saltwater package and various design changes to suit the Australian market. Pontoon boats may appear to be very similar, but the quality of furniture differs greatly and the boats need to withstand a harsher environment down here.
“The demand for this style of boat is growing rapidly as people realise how good they are – what other style of trailerable boat can carry 12 or 15 people in comfort to barbecue, swim, tow a tube, or just anchor up and enjoy the sunset with a glass of wine!”
And those who’d like to waterski don’t need to compromise on deck space, power and towing capacity – with an outboard of 90hp or more on a midsized pontoon boat, says Mandurah Motor Marine’s Scott de Mouncey, they make great skiboats, too.
“We have had huge success with the Sun Tracker brand over the last 12 years, with hundreds of happy customers who want to waterski, fish and get away with family and friends,” says Scott. “I feel we’ve been able to dispel the misconception that pontoon boats are little more than a floating caravan and are actually very capable, in a variety of conditions. And they’re a fantastic way to bring families together.”
Those in the market for something akin to a luxury party platform have plenty to choose from, too. The Gold Coast’s JSW Powersports sells US marque Aloha Pontoons, which operates under the banner: “We’d rather explain the price than apologise for the quality!” Its polished boats include a sundeck model with a waterslide from the top deck, along with high-quality details and luxurious fitouts.
“We chose the Aloha Pontoon brand as it is set apart from the average pontoon,” says JSW Powersports’s Jeff McNiven. “The boats are fully welded together, so they’re built stronger, and all the luxury features onboard create a stylish boat perfect for entertaining.”
POWER TO THE ‘TOONS
All dealerships unanimously agree the best way to discover which style of pontoon boat would suit your boating style is to hop aboard and try one out.
That certainly worked for Club Marine’s fearless leader Chris Beattie. While exploring the Murray River near Echuca aboard a houseboat, Xtreme Marine’s Paul Eade arranged an outing aboard a Harris Grand Mariner 230. While Chris was forewarned, having witnessed a variety of pontoon boats during trips to the US, he was, nonetheless, surprised how nimble and manoeuvrable it was.
“Above all, I was pleased to discover how comfortable the Harris is, both as a passenger and at the wheel,” said Chris, who can’t be hoodwinked by pretty chrome details and plush upholstery. “It takes more than good looks for a boat to be classed as a great buy – pontoon boats are known for their spacious decks and smooth ride, but I was surprised how well balanced it is, even at high speeds and in turns, and how quickly passengers feel safe and at home anywhere on the deck.”
That feeling of safety and of a well-balanced hull, says Paul Eade, has to do with the construction techniques and materials used for the pontoons and the deck. Additionally, the pontoons have chambered sections, which add rigidity to the structure and also safety, should they be punctured. The sections in Harris’s pontoons are sleeved and then welded. At the front, they sport a Dolphin Nose Cone design with integrated splash fin, for better entry and reduced splash, while the unique patent ‘M’ bracket construction adds rigidity to the structure.
“Pontoon boats traditionally have two pontoons, but you’ll increasingly find models with tri-toons,” says Paul. “Having a third, central pontoon increases stability and handling drastically and has helped enable pontoon boats to head into watersports and high-speed boating, making pontoon boats the perfect all-rounder – we’ve even experienced twin outboard-powered boats that can reach speeds of 80mph (130km/h).”
STYLE YOUR RIDE
Today’s pontoon boats are tricked out with coordinated graphics, railing options, floor coverings, biminis and towers, floor plans, power packages and a slew of options that will, no doubt, satisfy even the fussiest buyer.
Anglers will be pleased to know they’re well catered for, too, with many brands offering the full gamut of fishing necessities, including the latest fish-finding equipment at the helm, livebait tanks, prep stations and cutting boards, rodholders, pedestal seats, and storage for tackle. Thanks to the generous deck size, these could easily be integrated into a family-friendly boat without compromising on other features the rest of the family might want.
Like the hull and deck construction on any type of craft, a pontoon boat’s construction will vary with different manufacturers and will depend on the vessel’s size, power, and intended use. Have a chat to the dealer about these details and ask what’s recommended for the type of pontooning you’d like to do.
And while most are trailerable and legal to tow on our roads, check the boat’s size – very large models may exceed the permitted towing width (check your state’s regulations). It’s also a good idea to check that the tow vehicle is suited to the load, and ensure there’s a safe place to park it at home or in its designated storage space.
So if you’re looking for a versatile, manoeuvrable boat with the carrying capacity of a barge and head-turning good looks, it’ll pay to visit a pontoon dealership to see what’s on offer.
Queensland’s JSW Powersports, Arundel, stocks US brand Aloha Pontoons, built since 1960. The range of entertainer pontoon boats includes the Mahalo, Tropical, and Paradise Series, which are all fitted with luxurious furnishings and sport an aerodynamic, swept-back bow design that turns the wave away for a dry and smooth ride.
The deluxe seating includes wrap-around lounges and wide, rear-facing chaise longues with plenty of storage space beneath. Some models, such as the Aloha Tropical Series 300 Triple Tunnel Sundeck (pictured), include a sundeck, which shades the lower deck and features a waterslide.
Aloha’s pontoons feature its Triple Tunnel Technology, with full-length lifting strakes on the inner-sides of the port and starboard tubes, and on both sides of the centre tube, which provide additional lift and enhance the boat’s performance.
AlohaPontoons.com, or: JSWpowerSports.com.au
SA’s Yamaha Pitmans Marine, Blair Athol, imports Apex Marine’s Qwest range of high-end pontoon boats, which includes the 14.8 to 25.2ft (4.5 to 7.5m) Qwest LS luxury series. Features include rear lounge pads, bar packages, a splash pad rear deck, rear fishing deck, or lounges that fold out to double beds.
Other ranges include Angler Qwest with serious fish-raising credentials, and the Q3 Triple Tube (TT) high-performance design, which includes lifting strakes on all three tubes for rapid planing and improved control. TT models come in 17.6ft to 25.5ft (5.4 to 7.7m) versions with 90 to 175hp outboards.
Across all ranges, the plush, lightweight seating includes handcrafted upholstery and seat ventilation, while a litany of options includes lighting packages, seagrass or vinyl flooring, entertainment systems, and full or partial enclosures.
The 23.8ft (7.3m) Qwest LS 824 Lanai Bar (pictured centre) features a rear starboard bar refreshment centre with fibreglass bar top, cooler drawer, portable cooler, and three bar stools. A portable cup holder can be added for waterside refreshments. YamahaPitmansMarine.com.au
Tweed Coast Marine, NSW, imports the Misty Harbor range, which includes fishing, leisure and cruising models from 16 to 27ft (4.9 to 7.9m). A family business building pontoon boats since 1990, US brand Misty Harbor works with Tweed Coast Marine’s team to build models that are tailor-made to suit Australian conditions and styles.
Misty Harbor offers a range of hull performance packages, including the two-tube Performance Shield Hull (the shield is a continuous surface attached behind the pontoon’s splashguards, that reduces drag), the Sportoon Hull (with a central pontoon running from the bow to three-quarters of the underdeck that keeps the bow higher in the water), and Tripletoon Hulls (a high-performance hull featuring a full-length central pontoon).
The 26.5ft (8m) Biscayne Bay 2585 CU (pictured right) features sumptuous seating for 15 people, an oval table in the rear section and a large swimplatform at the bow. TweedCoastMarine.com.au
Building a premium range of pontoon boats for 55 years, US marque Harris Boats is the brand of choice for Victoria’s Eade’s Xtreme Marine, Echuca.
All Harris boats are custom built, with a wide variety of layouts, colours, styles and power across six ranges. The slew of high-end options includes barbecues, galleys, change rooms, entertainment centres, biminis and sport arches, along with plenty of seating and storage choices. Saltwater packages are also available.
Harris says the cross-member infrastructure spans the entire deck width, adding strength and ensuring it won’t sag over time. A centre tube on the tritoon models provides a smoother, more controlled ride with great stability. The centre tube is lowered, creating a V-hull design that carves through the water.
The 26.7ft (8.15m) Harris Crowne SL 250 luxury pontoon (pictured below) has an 8.5ft (2.59m) beam and can carry 16 people. XtremeMarine.net.au
Victoria’s Regal Marine, Vermont, is the agent for Godfrey Pontoons, an American pioneer of the pontoon boat industry, with its Sanpan model launched in 1958.
Godfrey offers pontoon boats suitable for cruising, camping, watersports and fishing, with a vast range of deck layouts, design options, comfortable easy-care furniture, entertainment centres, and high-performance options.
Regal Marine stocks a selection of models across the marque’s Sweetwater, Aqua Patio and Sanpan ranges – including the 20.25ft (6.2m) Sweetwater SW 2080 BF (pictured). With room for nine people, it features an aerated livewell, table with built-in drinkholders, and bimini. Options include the pictured stern fishing seats, bow fishing seats and a trolling motor.
Noosa Boatique, Qld, says US brand Bennington is the Rolls Royce of pontoon boats. The business imports models adapted to suit Australian conditions, with features including saltwater packages, coloured sidewalls with decals, double bimini assembly, privacy enclosure, full mooring cover, and docking and navigation lights.
Bennington’s entry-level S Series comes in 16 to 24ft (4.9 to 7.3m) cruising or fishing layouts, while the mid-class luxury G Series includes cruising and fishing layouts with a range of configurations and bar/galley options. In the high-performance R Series, you’ll find a range of 20 to 28ft (6 to 8.5m) models with superb features and luxurious fitout options, while the 23 to 30ft (7 to 9m) Q Series offers luxurious club and sports models with top-shelf equipment and furnishings.
A 28ft (8.5m) Q Series 2575 QCWIO model is pictured below.
Runaway Bay Pontoon Boats
Runaway Bay Pontoon Boats, Qld, builds a range of custom-made pontoon boats, including luxury leisure or sportsfishing models. While the business builds any size required, its most popular models have 22ft (6.7m) and 24ft (7.3m) decks.
Common layouts include two lounges up front, a recliner seat at the helm and an L-shaped lounge at the rear. Storage is found under all seats. Options include sinks and food-preparation benches, pop-up change rooms, illuminated or plain drinkholders, tables with integrated iceboxes, and a portable evaporative cooler.
The 24ft (7.3m) Luxury Class model (below) features plush lounges, a full-length bimini that’s split to cover front and rear areas separately, Fusion sound system, tri-hull, blue LED drinkholders, pop-up change room, food preparation bench and sink, metallic vinyl wrap, underwater lighting, and dual batteries.
Those interested in Runaway Bay’s pontoon boats are welcome to visit the factory, where they can select colour schemes and graphics, choose the fitout and arrange sample lounges to help decide the layout.
Building pontoon boats since 1981, Sun Tracker is another US brand that builds quality, family-friendly pontoon boats with a wide variety of floorplans and fitouts. Mandurah Motor Marine, WA, stocks a large selection of Sun Tracker’s Fishing Barge, Bass Buggy, Party Barge and top-of-the-line Regency ranges.
They all boast luxurious, yet practical layouts and come in 16 to 27.5ft (4.9 to 8.4m) models to suit most budgets. There’s also a XP3 high-performance package with triple pontoons, available on most models.
The 22ft (6.7m) Sun Tracker 22 DLX Party Barge (pictured) features dual bow lounges and a rear L-shaped lounge, all with storage below, and an aft padded sundeck with popup change room. It can carry 10 people and is rated to 115hp.