Pontoon boats have been among the most popular models for the past few years and there are no signs of that trend slowing down. Manufacturers are listening to consumer requests for more performance, more styling and more luxury. Regardless of whether a family is looking for a boat to putt around the lake at sunset or a do-everything model that can run fast enough to surprise some bowriders and tow watersports, there are some features that we would want in any pontoon boat.
1. Match Boat Size to Number of Guests
A smart captain knows how many people he’s going to have aboard. As boats increase in size, their passenger capacity usually goes up. For example, Sun Tracker’s Party Barge 18 DLX is 20’ (6.0 m) long and it is rated for nine people. Step up 2’ (0.6 m) and the passenger capacity goes up by one. In other words, it’s a good idea for a captain to know how many passengers he’s planning to have on board before deciding on a size. Most boats have a capacity plate. Check it to verify a boat’s passenger capacity. Do not exceed it.
2. Seating Configuration
Not only should owners know how many people they are going to be carrying, but they also need to know what their passengers want to do when they’re on board. If maximum numbers are the priority, get as much seating space as possible. If the family is made up of teenage girls who like to sunbathe, get a boat like the Regency 220 LE3 that has aft-facing chaise-style lounges. Got some kids who like to fish? Get a fishing package that has two fighting chairs up front.
What grade of captain’s chair is required? They vary wildly from the basic to the super luxurious.
Where to put the wheelchair? Pontoon boats are ideal for old salts, but you will need a gate wide enough to get them aboard and then once aboard a place to lock them in place.
3. Raised Helm
A captain needs to be able to see over the passengers sitting in front of him, so we prefer boats with a raised helm like the one found on the Regency 220 LE3 Sport. The captain’s chair mounts to the elevated fiberglass console, putting the driver in a position that gives him better all-around sightlines.
4. Boarding Gates
Pontoon boats are about convenience and one of their most attractive attributes is that they are easy to board. Most have a minimum of three gates, bow, stern, and port (or starboard) side. Additionally, you should also make sure that side boarding gates are wide enough (32”) to accommodate a wheelchair.
Gate latches can be easy or somewhat difficult to operate. Make sure you like the device on the boat you buy.
5. Bow Deck
It is surprising how many pontoon boats are on the market that have no bow deck. That is to say that the fencing or superstructure goes right up to the bow so there is no deck upon which to walk to tie-up or to set an anchor. Obviously, this has been done to maximize seating space and keep costs down. That is a trade-off we don’t recommend. Every boat needs a bow deck and a 12” (0.3 m) minimum fore-and-aft measurement for this purpose.
6. Provision for Storing and Setting an Anchor
Every boat should have an anchor and a dedicated place to keep it. That includes pontoon boats. Yet, virtually no pontoon-boat builder makes provision for one. Obviously, one reason for this is that most users take their pontoon boats from dock to dock, or from the launch ramp, back to the launch ramp — and don’t anchor out much.
Required for Safety. Nevertheless, there are times — even on protected lakes when going from marina to marina — when an anchor might be a required item of safety equipment. What if the engine fails and the boat is being blown onto a rocky shore, a marina, or toward a dam on a water reservoir? What if the boat is being used in a river, the engine has failed, and the current is strong? The times when an anchor is necessary are too numerous to mention.
Further, there is no boating pleasure quite so fine as anchoring in a cove for lunch or anchoring for sundown cocktails with family and friends. It cannot be done without an anchor.
We recommend that the forward, portside seat locker be used as the dedicated anchor locker. Be careful to keep the rode coiled properly and not tangled with the anchor. Most pontoon boats have small cleats for mooring lines on the two corners of the bow, and they will have to do, as we almost never see a proper anchor cleat on the bow centerline. We would like to see a stout pull-up cleat for this purpose. Alternatively, a bridle using the port and starboard cleats will probably work best.
7. Re-Boarding Ladder
The American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) guidelines call for a re-boarding ladder on all boats to extend 22” (0.56 m) below the waterline. So that is the minimum requirement. Additionally, we’ve seen ladders made from sturdier material and larger stanchions with heavier-duty grabrails. Not everyone is an agile 150-lb. (68 kg) teenager and having a heavy-duty ladder makes it easier for a larger number of people to use it.
There is a great difference in the ladder and re-boarding apparatus from one boat builder to the next. Check them out before buying.
8. Two Pontoons or Three?
Recreational Pontoon boats had just two pontoons in the beginning, but 20 years or so ago builders started introducing tri-toons. Tri-toons cost more but they have many advantages when it comes to load capacity and speed.
Twin-pontoon boats rarely can plane and generally are design for slower displacement speeds. They are fine for cruising around the lake at sedate speeds and to provide a stable platform for swimming and entertaining. Putting large engines on a twin-toon boat will make it go marginally faster, but generally, it will not provide satisfactory performance for tow sports.
Tri-toons, if properly powered and propped, can go as fast as most sport boats and can get on plane fast. These boats make good platforms for tow ports, but don’t expect them to make big wakes for wakeboarding. However, they are fine for waterskiing and tubing.
9. Match Outboard Engines to the Task
Twin-toon boats require little power, depending on the load and the speed required. Outboard engines of 50- or 60-hp can generally push an 18’ to 20’ (5.4-6.0 m)twin toon at 15 or 16 mph. That is about as fast as they will go and putting a larger engine on and winding it up will make the boat go a little faster, but it will do little more.
For those who want to go fast or tow skiers and tubers, we recommend a tri-toon with a 150-hp outboard or larger. Larger tri-toons can easily handle 300-hp engines and some models now handle two large outboards, and we have even tested a 32’ (9.75 m) tri-toon with three large outboard engines.
High Torque Matters. . All pontoon boats are hard to get moving fast and this fact places a premium on outboard engines that have high torque in the low RPM ranges. Owners who want to engage in tow sports would do well to consider 2-stroke engines or those with superchargers. Both are well-known for creating greater torque at the low end. That, together with four-blade props will probably provide the best performance for nearly any pontoon boat application.
10. Pontoon Tube Size Matters
Pontoon boats obviously get their buoyancy from the pontoons, and the greater their diameter generally the more satisfying the experience. 23” (0.58 m)pontoons are about the smallest diameter we see and they are generally on smaller boats, those under 20’ (6.0 m). More typically we see 24”-25” (0.6-0.63 m) pontoons on both twin-toon and tri-toon vessels. Occasionally, on some of the more expensive boats, we will see 26” (0.66 m) toons.
In some tri-toon models the center toon is of a greater diameter. This aids in turning with a slight inward lean, as well as giving the boat the buoyancy it needs to go fast.
The greater the size of the diameter of the pontoon the more stable the boat will be and the faster it will go. All pontoons should have three or four air-tight chambers. This not only gives the tubes more integrity but also provides a measure of safety should a chamber be punctured.
11. Bimini Tops Are a “Must Have”
Virtually all pontoon boats have a Bimini top available either as standard or as an option. They are important to the guests’ comfort and we recommend getting the biggest one available. Look for one that is easy to deploy. Some boats even have power Bimini tops. Make sure to operate the Bimini prior to purchase as some can be aggravating to set and put in their boot when it is time to call it a day.
All boats should have canvas to protect the upholstery from UV degradation to say nothing of the soot and grit that might be in the air. Those living near highways will be familiar with the light rain of tire rubber and unburned diesel carbon that settles on everything. While a playpen-style full cover might seem like a good idea (they are certainly the cheapest), individual seat covers are much easier to deal with. Unless a boat is stored in an area where the deck can get covered in leaves or pine needles, go with seat covers.
12. Comfort Amenities Are Important
Boaters should think about family and guests and ask themselves how they can get the most enjoyment out of the boat they plan to buy. Heading our list of welcome amenities is the changing curtain so that guests can wiggle out of wet bathing suits and get into dry cloths. Most builders make these available as an option, if not standard. Also, a Porta-Potti can be fitted in some of them, but not all.
Other convenience items worth mentioning are portable cup holders that sit on the seats and pedestal tables. Generally, the pedestal tables are small and are limited to drinks and snacks. Those wanting to serve dinner al fresco will need to find a boat with a proper table and a grill.
These days builders of pontoon boats are providing more and more amenities. Sinks, running water, refrigerators, gas grills, and more are available in the premium-level pontoon boats.