In late 2017 or early 2018, Carl Yoder, the general manager of Lippert Components in Elkhart, Ind., had an idea. He owned a pontoon boat, and the company he worked for built slide-outs for recreational vehicles and motor homes. Why couldn’t he put a slide-out on a pontoon boat and extend its deck space?
“We have an ongoing R&D list,” says Jarod Lippert, vice president of marketing at Lippert. “It was always one of those projects, and as we got closer to a product release, we said, ‘Who is our target partner?’ ”
The likely partner was Barletta Boats, a pontoon builder that’s also headquartered in Elkhart, which is basically the RV and pontoon capital of the world. “These guys take risks. They take chances. They like to be different,” Lippert says.
It helped that Barletta president and co-founder Bill Fenech had a longtime friendship with Jason Lippert, the CEO at LCI. Lippert called Fenech and told him that LCI had something worth taking a look at. “They didn’t present it as what it was,” says Gene Chastain, vice president of operations at Barletta. “They said, ‘We want you to come take a look at it.’ ”
Chastain, Fenech and Mike Klebeck from Barletta went for a ride with Jason Lippert on a pontoon boat that could be widened to about twice its original beam using RV slide-out technology. “It needed the Barletta touch for sure,” says Matt Gardenour, vice president of engineering at Barletta. “We could see there was something there.”
The companies agreed to work together on developing a pontoon boat that can be widened using slide-outs, and Barletta has the exclusive on the technology. Yoder took the lead from the Lippert side and worked closely with Chastain. The name for the new series is the Slide-Toon.
The first change was to switch from a twin-pontoon hull to a triple. A length of 23 feet was chosen because it represented the most popular size dealers were selling and renting. The Barletta EX23Q is powered by a single 150-hp Mercury outboard. “We built one and took it out and were surprised by how well it performed,” Fenech says.
The boat’s beam starts out at 8 feet, 6 inches, so it fits on a conventional trailer or lift system. When expanded, the boat has a beam of 14 feet, 10 inches, and Chastain says it can run in the open position. The extra beam actually improves the ride, he adds, similar to an outrigger canoe.
In the collaboration, Lippert makes the structure to support the three hydraulic slide-out cylinders that mount on the outboard sides of the center pontoon. When the system is activated, the cylinders push out the outboard pontoons, and sections of the deck automatically fill in.
Lippert builds the chassis for the system. The riser brackets have been widened from 3 inches to 24 inches at the bow, and to 60 inches at the stern. Because the slide-outs, and all their hoses and plumbing, have already been proven on RVs and motor homes, no modifications were needed. The weight is similar to a conventional triple pontoon because fewer brackets are required.
“We know what we’re doing when it comes to hydraulics,” Jarod Lippert says. “We’re pushing slide-out rooms, and on the big fifth wheels and motor homes, some of them have kitchens in them.”
Jarod Lippert and Fenech both say the Slide-Toon is just the beginning when it comes to adapting slide-outs to pontoons. “It just takes one,” Lippert says. “It’s going to innovate so many things that can expand with it.”
To prove the system’s durability, Fenech went to Mercury and had the engine company put the boat through its validation program. The EX23Q ran at wide open for more than 200 hours in the closed and open positions. “They’re a good third party,” Fenech says of Mercury. “We wanted actual live data with testing under real-world conditions. We want it to have full use and run wide open all the time.”
Chastain says the added beam makes the Slide-Toon extremely stable when the boat is at rest. While boats at a marina or pulled up on a beach rock and roll when vessels cruise by and throw a wake, the extra-wide stance lets the Slide-Toon ride the waves smoothly.
The EX23Q made the rounds at boat shows in the Midwest. While Fenech isn’t revealing pricing, he says that when people saw the sticker, most were surprised that the boat wasn’t more expensive.
Every time Chastain has had the boat on the water, he says, “People come out of their house and wave me down to go for a ride.”
Barletta took the EX23Q to a poker run and carried as many as 12 passengers. The company also added a diving board, making the boat even more versatile.
Looking back, Fenech recalls when his companies first started with slide-outs on fifth-wheel camper trailers. “It transformed that industry,” he says. “I, as a user, didn’t think I had a need for more floor space.”
He sees the Slide-Toon technology expanding, so to speak. On larger lakes, the boat becomes a base of operations for the day, which is why Barletta deliberately didn’t put in a bunch of accessories that will take up space on the wider deck area. “We left it a little bit basic, and we’re finding that customers want to do their own thing,” he says. “They can put up a playpen or games.”
And while social media may be used to spread the word about trends, Fenech says the Slide-Toon’s popularity will grow using older marketing methods. “It’s going to sell from trying it and word of mouth,” he says. “It does everything a regular pontoon boat does, and it just goes wider.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue.