HOLDEN, Maine — Pontoon boats may have elicited a raised eyebrow when they first began appearing on lakes, ponds and rivers in the Northeast about 25 years ago. Today, the boats are familiar sights, moored at lakefront campgrounds, in front of cottages and puttering around lakes and ponds.
Mike Menne, an industry spokesman, said 25,000 pontoon boats were sold last year in the United States. Locally, the boats have been a hedge against the recession for dealers.
Steve York, manager of Port Harbor Marine in Holden, estimates that 40 percent of his sales are pontoon boats. And even though only two of Port Harbor Marine’s five locations sell pontoon boats, co-owner Mark Soucy says the business is on pace to sell 70 of the vessels of an estimated 400 total boat sales for the year.
The state Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife reports that last year, 4,800 pontoon boats were registered from among a total 120,000 registered boats.
Menne said industrywide, sales are up 25 percent over the last few years.
The appeal of these versatile watercraft is easy to understand.
Jim Dunn, who lives on Beech Hill Pond in Otis, bought a new 20-foot Berkshire pontoon boat this year. Other family members also have pontoon boats.
“This lake in particular has an abundance of new pontoon boats,” he said.
Dunn and his family enjoy cookouts on the boat, tying up with other pontoon boats to visit with neighbors and family, and with a ladder off the side, children “can use it like a swimming platform,” jumping off in the middle of the lake while the adults hang out and talk.
“We like the fact that we can put more people on [it] than in a regular boat,” he said. “We go out and watch the sunset just about every night.”
Not only do Dunn and his wife enjoy their evening cruises on the lake, they actually were married aboard a pontoon boat 18 years ago.
“We had two or three pontoon boats tied up together,” he remembers, and the ceremony took place on one vessel while friends and family watched the from the others.
At 53, Dunn has grandchildren and young children, and likes knowing they are “kind of caged in” by the rails on the pontoon boat, yet free to roam around the vessel.
Menne said the vessels were conceived in the early 1950s when Ambrose Weeres of Richmond, Minn., attached a wooden deck to two rows of steel drums that had been welded together, end to end.
“He was kind of an inventor,” Menne said, and wanted to accommodate more friends and family than a traditional boat could handle. Weeres is now a leading manufacturer of the pontoon boat.
Sixty years later, the boats are “kind of like floating living rooms,” Menne said, with price tags that match, up to $50,000-$70,000 depending on the amenities that come with them.
Starter pontoon boats cost in the range of $15,000 to $20,000. Port Harbor Marine’s Soucy said a comparable, traditional hull starter boat — a 16-foot Bayliner with a 60-horsepower outboard — would cost about $17,000.
“They’ve come a long way in terms of style and design,” he said, featuring curved rails that take their cue from classic automobiles.
“You’re getting some of the same comfort and quality that you get in nice cars and homes,” Menne said. “The furniture’s gotten so plush.”
The “floor plans,” as he calls them, can be customized by the buyer, with curved couch-like seating and the latest in electronics and entertainment equipment available as options.
And in the last five years, manufacturers have added two feet to the width of the decks, bringing them to 10 feet. The boats still can be easily trailered, though, because of their shallow draft and lack of a keel.
Part of the market is, and has been, baby boomers in their 50s and 60s, who are perhaps less interested in zipping around lakes and more inclined to enjoy leisurely trips along the shore or drifting or anchoring in the middle of a lake to take the sun, read or wet a fishing line.
“You can go on a cocktail cruise in the evening,” Menne said, and then host 10 people for a more adventurous day of swimming from the boat or other activities the next day.
But Menne said since 2000, many younger families are buying the boats, with the appeal being that active children are able to move around the vessel with less fear of falling off. They also are becoming popular with dog owners and with disabled people, who can roll aboard on wheelchairs.
And, if a big enough motor is selected, pontoon boats can travel fast enough to pull a water skier or wakeboarder.
Sales were strongest in the Midwest for decades, Menne said, but in recent years, growth has been seen in the New York and Pennsylvania areas. And New England also has been a growing market for the boats. There are no pontoon boat manufacturers in Maine.
Greg Moura of North Kingston, R.I., owns a camp on Escutarsis Lake in Lowell. His nephew, Kyle Moura of Cumberland, R.I., recently spent a weekend with his grandfather — Greg’s father — on a pontoon boat, visiting with the 89-year-old before Kyle ships off to Afghanistan. The grandfather is in declining health, his son said, and the pontoon boat was a good fit for the two men to spend quality time together.
Moura echoed Menne’s observation that “the pontoon is like a little floating living room,” suggesting their popularity is more than a passing fad. “The whole family is able to gather on it. It’s a stable platform to fish off of, swim off of, tow a raft.”