Apex Marine president and owner Mark Dupuie has always been about providing sensible, quality pontoons to boating families. Anyone looking for a well-built 'toon to take fishing or cruising with the kids will do well to look at the GillGetter and Qwest series of boats from Apex, as these offerings give you the comfort of a traditional pontoon with a pleasing pricing list.
Apex's boats are not only easier on the pocketbook during the initial purchase, but provide better gas mileage than your average pontoon, paying dividends throughout the boating season. Qwest owners are known to have smiles on their faces when they fill up the tank at the dock.
But there was a problem. Where to go from here? Sure, Dupuie and his associates could work on getting even more quality for your dollar, but gains in this area may not be as amazing as a loyal customer base might expect. This is definitely a viable strategy, but Apex wanted to take a bigger leap than anyone would see coming.
And that leap is the Paddle Qwest pontoon boat, 14 to 16 feet of 100 percent green boating with the added benefit of being a cardiovascular savior. Dupuie is humble enough to give credit for this idea to another.
"It was the idea of one of our dealers," he explained. "Burt Ahlstrand, owner of Ahlstrand Marine near Chicago, knew about a lot of electric-only or low-horsepower lakes in the area."
Ahlstrand saw a business opportunity in selling boats that met the strict criteria of these lakes.
"I didn't know such lakes existed at the time, but apparently there are quite a few in the area," Dupuie said.
Some lakes even have rules against electric-powered boats, making all but rowboats and paddle boats outlaws. Both of these concepts appealed to Dupuie and his crew, and the brainstorming began.
Creating an electric pontoon is not quite breaking new ground, but it is definitely a new frontier with plenty of room for growth. Making a commercial paddle boat, capable of seating up to eight passengers, however, is boldly going where no boat manufacturer has gone before.
Apex general manager Brad Lemerand saw this as an example of how Dupuie and others strive to listen to everyone in the Apex family.
"I think one of the great things about Apex is that we are fun guys to work with, and we try to really pay attention to what our dealers/customers are looking for," Lemerand said.
This is not to say there wasn't some early skepticism about the plan to take the classic swan paddle boat seen on lakes and ponds from Walt Disney World in Florida to Germany and turn it into a serious, family-oriented boat for long excursions on the water.
"When the idea was brought up, I was a little skeptical at first," Lemerand said. "But I liked the fact it was unique and a good fit for our 'compact pontoon' philosophy."
Testing & Tweaking
The simple goal for Apex was to create a boat that was easy to paddle, but also featured a speed of 2.5-3 miles per hour.
"We went on a quest to meet that goal, and we did," Dupuie said.
The first breakthrough came with the realization that they could take the existing 613 and 615 pontoon models and convert them into a paddle-driven boat fairly easily. Designing a boat for up to eight passengers (depending on the seating configuration), along with all the amenities expected in a pontoon boat was the next step. Apex's engineers put their minds to the puzzle and came away with a prototype ready for testing.
"We spent a long time on the gearing system," Dupuie said. "The boat was just so much larger than conventional paddle boats that we had to find the right gear ratio."
An incorrect gear ratio would mean either the boat was much too hard to paddle or much too slow.
"We did different weight distributions to make sure it was easy to paddle in all situations," Dupuie said.
After settling on what they felt was a good compromise, Apex sent the prototype to Ahlstrand for testing and feedback. Once the results were in, the engineers made the requested changes and tweaks, and again sent it to Ahlstrand for testing. This entire process took around a year, but in the end, after all that work, Apex had a completed version of its Paddle Qwest pontoon for its August 2010 dealer meeting.
"The dealer show had some on-water exhibitions at some lakes and the Paddle Qwest went over extremely well," Dupuie said. "People lined up to ride the thing."
And the positive response didn't end there. Apex brought the paddle boat to several winter boat shows, and boaters from all over the country have expressed great interest.
"We were surprised to find that it's not only popular for restricted lakes, but popular for any kind of lake," Dupuie said.
"I am amazed at all the different reasons people want one," Lemerand said.
And why not? The Paddle Qwest is a quality product that is carefully designed and built to Apex's strong quality standards. It offers the stability and amenities of a traditional pontoon, all while not requiring a motor (goodbye noise and gas bills) and being simple to operate.
The boat has two sets of paddles, but is operable by a single paddler.
"At our dealer meeting we had an 8-year-old boy out on the water, paddling all by himself," Dupuie said.
For parents who would like to send their older children out on the water by themselves, but have misgivings about trusting them with a 200hp outboard, this is a great compromise.
Apex also offers an electric motor as an add-on to the Paddle Qwest, for times when paddling back to the dock seems a bit too much to handle. They also sell a model with the electric motor and no paddle wheel.
Dupuie plans on offering an even larger model of the Paddle Qwest in the future, but for now the available sizes are from 14 to 16 feet in length and six feet wide.
"They're not cheap, but callers who are surprised by how much they cost change their tune when they actual see the boat and can inspect the quality," Dupuie said.
Dupuie estimates they'll easily manufacture and sell 200 units of the Paddle Qwest, and demand will continue to increase.
If you live near a restricted lake and thought your chances of ever pontooning on its placid waters was a pipe dream, the Paddle Qwest might just well solve that problem.
To learn more about the Paddle Qwest or any of the boats Apex offers, visit them at www.gilgetter.com or call 260-668-2469.