The Pros and Cons of Pontoon Boats
By: Bill Jennings
This is the second in our series designed to help you choose the boat type that will work best for you. When a person buys a boat today, he or she must first decide the "type' of boat that most interests them. With the advances in design and types of boats now available, this can be tricky and buyers can inadvertently choose a boat that may not suit their needs. The more a boat is designed to fit into a specific "type" category, the less efficiently it will work in a different category. This week we take a close look at pontoon boats. The information provided, won't compare different manufacturers, or make specific recommendations, but rather give you an idea what to expect from a pontoon to make it easier for you to decide if a pontoon boat is right for you.
Pontoon boats were originally little more than a raft with supporting logs. In fact, what we now call aluminum tubes, were once called "logs." But as more powerful outboard motors became available, it became possible to build a pontoon with comparable speeds to a standard runabout. When manufactures added a few external changes to the tubes to improve lift, a whole new category of boats quickly evolved.
Every boat is a compromise and pontoons are no exception. While they do have some unique benefits, there are also some inherent drawbacks. The most quoted drawback of a pontoon is the slow speeds achievable by the average model when compared to V-hull boats of the same length. Attracted by the practical side of pontoons, many buyers purchase pontoons with a low horsepower outboard, which of course limits how far and how quickly the owner can travel in a day's cruise. So, lets first look at pontoon speed.
Referring to the many boat tests conducted by BoatBlurb, a 90 HP outboard on a 24' pontoon will generally run 18 mph top speed. With a 115 HP OB the toon should produce a top speed of about 24 mph. Move up to a 300 HP OB and your top speed will jump to 50 mph, but you will be moving in the wrong direction for economical boating. In my opinion, a buyer today looking to use a pontoon on a regular basis should order it with at least a 115 HP outboard.
While 115 HP is my minimum recommendation, there are some good reasons to consider even more horsepower. You should never buy a boat slower than the last one you owned. Your body's senses will quickly create dissatisfaction. Also, you don't want to buy a boat that you end up running at full throttle most of the time. Finally, you will never hear a boater complain that their boat has too much horsepower. Therefore, for all around pontooning, a 175 or 200 HP motor is best suited to keep you (and your partner) happy.
In addition to more horses, there are other factors that will improve pontoon speed. A third tube down the pontoon's centerline, creates a "tri-toon". This 3rd tube will add some drag, but most of that is offset by the increased flotation and ride improvements that it provides. The center tube, when set slightly lower than the outside tubes, changes cornering lean from the outside of your turn, to the inside of your turn. This "feels" more natural, improves stability, and gives the toon a higher horsepower rating.
The most important part of a pontoon boat is, no surprise, its pontoons. Almost all pontoon boats ride on floats made of aluminum. Aluminum is a ductile metal that is both corrosion resistant and very tough. Painting is optional since a corrosion-resistant film of aluminum oxide forms on the untreated surface. At 170 lbs per cubic foot, it is about one third the weight of steel. Its ductility allows pontoon tubes to deform and stretch nearly twenty-five percent before rupturing from impacts. It is also more abrasion resistant than either wood or fiberglass.
The standard thicknesses for pontoon 'sheet' aluminum tubes is .080 to .130 inch. Tube diameters on popular models are either 25 or 27 inch. The grade of the aluminum to look for is either 5052 or 5086 grade. The larger numbers being preferable for the above three cases. For best performance, aluminum lifting strakes and spray aluminum rails are welded to the tubes.
From my experience driving plenty of pontoons, I would make the following subjective ratings for this type of boat.
Life Expectancy: Good. 10 to 20 years. This is provided you cover the upholstery to protect it from the sun, as well as cleaning the aluminum tubes at least once a year.
Storage Space: Average. Most pontoon lounges have storage under the seats, but the sizes vary and most do not lock. Other boat types have sufficient storage available, to exceed what is called for in that particular 'type' of boat.
Ride Comfort: Excellent. While some manufacturers buy pre-fabricated lounge seats, most build them in-house with special pride in their comfort levels. When running through medium chop, the tubes deliver a 'catamaran-like' ride that toon owners appreciate.
Handling: Better than average. Tracking at average speeds is excellent, but when docking, wind can have a negative effect because of the high freeboard. As we know, boats don't have brakes, so a sharp turn is the best defense. Turns are wider with a toon, reducing brake efforts while also increasing the turning radius needed in marinas. Nonetheless, the controls are simple and toons are easy to drive.
Ride Safety: Mixed. While the "fencing" surrounding a pontoon makes them safe for kids, toons are not designed to handle rough water. Unlike a typical V-hull, the pontoon is not designed to maneuver in strong waves. Once you become familiar with the wave limits for your pontoon, you can select boating days where weather is not a concern. Almost all scary moments in a pontoon occur if you drive the boat offshore or through big water. Often the scare is simply stuffing water down the decks and soaking passenger's shoes. On occasion, rough water can shake and vibrate the tubes and that sound will also shake passenger confidence. For these reasons, pontoons are classed as inland water vessels. All this makes weather checks an important part of pontoon cruising.
Capacity: Excellent. Many toons are sold on the vision of taking all of the neighbourhood kids for a ride. If passenger numbers are key for you, look to a toon to provide the answer. Only comfortable seats are counted on the capacity plate, unlike some boats where small children's seats are counted as passenger seats.
Cost: Varies. Like other boat types, you get what you pay for with pontoons. A basic toon with a small outboard will get you on the water for under $20,000. A high end toon designed to show your neighbours who's boss and provide you with cruiser amenities, can cost north of $200,000.
Maintenance Required: Minimal. Thanks to the durability of available aluminum tubes and using outboard motors for power, pontoon boats are a superb choice when it comes to low maintenance. Just be sure to clean and cover that upholstery.
Buying A Pontoon:
If you are buying a new pontoon, look for the aluminum tube specifications I described in the paragraph on aluminum tubes, including aluminum lifting strakes. As for options, be sure to order a full canvas cover, a lift curtain to house a port-a-potti, and a Bimini top.
If you are looking for a used pontoon, check the aluminum tubes for any damage, signs of welding, cracks, or patches. Check the underside of the boat to be sure the laminate is smooth and not cracked or bubbled. Sit in every seat to check that the foam is firm and look for any tears or cracks in the marine vinyl seat covers. Of course, make you offer subject to a sea trial and further inspection.
Bottom Line: As a boat 'type,' pontoons are currently very popular. There is good reason for this. The majority of people boat on small inland lakes and rivers, and on these waters the pontoon class of boats provide a pleasant boating experience at an affordable cost. There is a reason for their growing popularity.