The first pontoon boat was designed, built and enjoyed by Minnesota farmer Ambrose Weeres in 1952; Weeres built what was essentially a wooden patio atop two welded-steel tubes, attached a small outboard motor, and headed out into one of his state's 10,000 lakes. (Since even the earliest pontoon boat floated on metal tubes, why are the tubes called "logs" by 'toon aficionados?) From that rough-hewn 'toon, first a company and then an industry grew -- builders of pontoon boats are all over the place now. (Weeres ended up in Minnesota's Marine Hall of Fame.) 'Toons have come a long way in the last 60-some years, as a look at the foursome in this roundup will show. They are four of the best models in their class. Read on to learn more.
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The Sun Tracker Party Barge 22 DLX for 2017 adds two feet of length to last year's model of the same name, stretching the popular pontoon to 24'2" (7.37 m) overall. The extra length not only adds room on deck, but stretches the twin logs, too, for more buoyancy and a better ride in chop. Our test captain found the Party Barge 22 DLX to be maneuverable and surefooted in turns, with handling typical of a twin-tube pontoon. A 150-hp Mercury four-stroke outboard, the most powerful engine option, pushed the 22 DLX to 36.1 mph top speed, with best cruise at about 16 mph. That's with two people onboard; the Party Barge is rated for 11 passengers, so expect a reduction in performance when she's fully loaded. (We'd be happy with a party of six or so.) The layout is open, with clear passage bow to stern, and a portside gate wide enough for wheelchair access. Most of the seats have stowage underneath, and the aft sun lounge hides a pop-up privacy curtain; a portable head will fit here. One person can deploy the standard QuickLift Bimini top; the optional mooring cover attaches without snaps using Sun Tracker's Rail-Lock system, an extruded channel under the fence rail that accepts proprietary clips. A trailer is also optional.
Manitou's 23 Encore SHP rides on a trio of tubes, the center one measuring 27" (.69 m) in diameter vs. 25" (.64 m) for the side logs. According to Manitou, the deeper center tube creates an ersatz deadrise effect, making the boat handle something like a shallow-V conventional hull. Combined with lifting strakes running almost the full length of each tube, and Barracuda nosecones stiffened by multiple spray knockers, the 23 Encore is designed for optimal handling at high speed and in rough water, according to her builder. (SHP stands for Sport Handling Package.) Manitou supports the tubes with extruded aluminum cross-members spaced as close as 7" (17.8 cm) on center in areas of most stress, e.g., the forward sections that feel the waves, and the aft sections that take the thrust from up to 300 horsepower. To keep those horses corralled, all SHP Manitous come with SeaStar power-assist hydraulic steering as standard, a feature we applaud. Our test boat had a 150-hp Evinrude E-TEC G2 that pushed the 23 Encore SHP to 36.8 mph; we'd like to get hold of an Encore with 300 horses on her triple-tubed transom. Best cruise for the test boat was 18.1 mph. The 23 Encore SHP comes with lots of standard equipment, including a ski-tow bar, a Bimini top, and a mooring cover, but can be customized with a hybrid tower, LED lights around the seat pedestals, and upgraded stereo speakers.
Regency's 220 LE3 Sport is another triple-tube 'toon, albeit all of the same diameter: 26" (.66 m). She has many performance features similar to the Manitou: lifting strakes and wave deflectors on each log, extruded deck supports through-bolted to full-length M brackets, a welded aluminum motor pod with built-in fuel system, and hydraulic steering. But the 220 LE3 Sport adds some upscale features, too, like a power up/down Bimini top with LED lights; multi-density upholstery foams under soft-touch upholstery; a raised helm station for better visibility, with a reclining helm seat; an 88" x 23" (2.24 m x .58 m) in-floor stowage compartment, with lighting; and, finally, an aft-facing camera. The only options are a rail-mounted BBQ and a trailer. Regency covers the 220 LE3 Sport with their 10+LIFE warranty: basically 10 years bow-to-stern warranty and limited lifetime structural and deck warranty, transferable to a second owner. What about performance? The 220 LE3 Sport can take up to 250 hp. We tested the boat with a 200-hp Mercury Verado Pro four-stroke outboard; she ran 36.2 mph and cruised at 13.1 mph, which gave a range of 150 miles on 52 gallons (197 L) of gas with a 10% reserve. Our test captain found the boat "sporty," and said she leaned into tight turns, responded well to helm input and cut through chop and boat wakes with ease, and had an "upscale" feel.
Sun Tracker's Fishin' Barge 24 XP3 is the 'toon for fishin' fools. She has livewells fore and aft four fishin' chairs with bow and stern mounts, and rod holders and lockable rod stowage for rigs up to 7'6" (2.29 m). She has easy-clean flooring for when things get messy, and can be optioned with a trolling motor and Lowrance fishfinder for not much of an upcharge. For non-fishing trips, she has most of the amenities expected in a 'toon of this class, including lots of seating, plenty of stowage, and a padded sun lounge with pop-up changing room. Her layout is clean, with a large, uncluttered area of deck forward. The Fishin' Barge 24 XP3 is the longest boat in this foursome. At 26'2" (7.98 m) she's 10" (.25 m) longer than the Regency, but weighs 480 lbs. (218 kg) less than that 'toon -- 2,960 lbs. (1,343 kg) vs. 3,440 lbs. (1,560 kg). The Fishin' Barge 24 XP3 also rides on triple 26" (.66 m) logs with strakes, and can take up to a 200-hp outboard. Given the weight difference between the boats, we'd expect the Fishin' Barge to be faster than the Regency. We haven't tested the Fishin' Barge yet, but we have tested her near-sistership, Sun Tracker's Party Barge 24 XP3: With a 200-hp Mercury Verado outboard, the Party Barge cracked 40 mph WOT. (Sun Tracker offers a number of two- and four-stroke Mercury OBs on both boats.) The Fishin' Barge is just a tad lighter than her partying sister, so we expect she'd be as fast, maybe a touch faster. Unless, that is, she's loaded up with fisherfolk and their gear; she's rated for 12 passengers. With that many hooks in the water, what chance do the bass have?
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