Pontoons in Palm Beach? You bet!

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I was walking past a row of boats on the hard at the Palm Beach International Boat Show in March when I did a double take over something to my left. I stopped and circled back. Pretty boat? Pretty girl?

Nope. It was a pontoon boat, and on board was a grand dame with the sort of bearing you’d expect to find at this show getting a walkthrough along this flat-decked, outboard-powered fun boat. Palm Beach, pontoon boats and a silver-haired matron? The times, they are a changin’.

Aluminum pontoon and fishing boats have been among the hottest new-boat segments since 2009 and the depths of the Great Recession. Aluminum pontoons were up 20.4 percent in 2012 from the previous year, which amounts to about 34,000 units. Aluminum fishing boats were up 9.3 percent in 2012 on more than 37,000 units. And although most categories were lagging last year’s new-boat sales numbers, pontoons were up 6.8 percent for the first two months of this year from the same period in 2012.

Trade Only associate editor Reagan Haynes looks at the many factors behind the surge in pontoons in the May issue of Soundings Trade Only. Why has a category once deemed to be the stodgy choice of oldsters become, well, sort of hip? Not only do they represent good value, but this new generation of amped-up, vamped-up pontoons also shouts “FUN” in capital letters.

We’d all do well to pay attention to a boat that does such an honest job of delivering on the promise of happy days on the water. The winning formula: affordability, versatility, a ton of space, efficiency, simplicity and lots of laughter. Pontoons do a great job of combining utility and good times for those boating on lakes and inshore waters.

Aesthetics? Don’t be a snob. And don’t let old thinking keep you from missing the boat. The customer is usually right. Are there features or “triggers” or simply a better understanding of today’s buyer that pontoon builders have hit upon that can be worked into other boats? Absolutely.

One last data point.

At the Providence Boat Show in January, I spoke with Dick Cromwell, who was part of an industry roundtable on the “next generation of boaters.” The president of the Freedom Boat Club of Rhode Island spoke of the success he had adding a pontoon boat to his fiberglass fleet.

I called him yesterday to continue our conversation. Cromwell told me that the first rental boats of the season went into the salt water a couple of days ago. “And believe it or not, one of the first boats that went out was the pontoon boat,” he said. “I was scratching my head.” Spring has been slow to come to the Northeast — the water is still cold, and the day was cool.

He was a little surprised by the early birds but not so much that the pontoon boat left the dock. “People love them,” said Cromwell, who rents boats at three locations in Rhode Island. “They’re like a floating living room. And they’re hotter than firecrackers.”

Cromwell has been trying to buy a second one to add to his 22-boat rental fleet, but he hasn’t been able to find a used one of sufficient quality. “I’m going to have to break down and buy a new one,” he says.

The Harris FloteBote Saltwater 24 has a third pontoon running down the centerline that Cromwell says is necessary when the wind pipes up on Narragansett Bay. “It’s almost like a trimaran hull,” he said. “It adds buoyancy in a heavier chop. I was a skeptic originally, but this thing rides just as well as some of the center consoles. They’re good. And the members love them.”

Cromwell has also seen the shift in attitude.

“People used to stick their nose up and say, ‘I don’t want to be seen on a pontoon boat,’ ” he said.

That’s changing, too, even in the briny.

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