I admit I didn't know what I was getting into when I accepted an offer to take a ride on Brad Rowland's South Bay pontoon boat at the Shootout last fall. It was at the end of a long day testing and measuring and recording boat statistics, and the idea of taking a nice cruise around Lake Shelbyville in Illinois sounded pretty good to me.
Then I noticed the outboard setup at the stern of the 'toon: three Mercury Pro Max 300x engines, all in a row.
Wow. What was I getting into? Any misgivings I may have had about getting into such a beefed-up boat were overwhelmed by a curiosity to find out just how fast this thing could go.
I stepped aboard Tooned In and found a comfortable seat, along with PDB editor Brady Kay and fellow tester Clayton Ward. Rowland welcomed us aboard and spent a few minutes deciding where we should each sit, for weight distribution, he explained.
After we were all situated, we motored away from the dock and out through the no-wake zone. The sun was setting on the lake, and with the leaves on the shore changing color, the scenery was full of reds and oranges. The sound of the three Mercury outboards was pretty loud, even at only three miles per hour, and served as a constant reminder of what we were about to experience.
And then, after checking to make sure we were all ready, Rowland hit the throttles up and we took off. We quickly climbed past 40, then 50 miles per hour and watched the GPS speedometer keep going. It became clear that our sunglasses were not going to stay put on our faces if there was any crosswind at all, so we each faced the wind head on and tried to stay still.
We passed 80 mph and I started to wonder how much faster we could go! The 'toon finally clocked in at 102 mph and Rowland eased the throttle back.
With a big smile on his face, Rowland turned to face us and asked how we found the experience.
Now, if you haven't met Brady personally, he's a pretty stoic guy. Not much can get him riled up or bummed out, so when I saw the raised eyebrows and smile on his face, I knew he was impressed.
I quickly downloaded a GPS speedometer app onto my smartphone and we made another run. This time I kept close eye on the digitally measured speed, and sure enough, we broke the 100 mph mark and settled at 103 on the ride back.
It was just an amazing experience, and clearly one Rowland enjoyed sharing with others.
To be honest, the sheer sense of speed was a bit overshadowed by the fact that there was no protection from the wind. For the most part, I was just hanging on in a wind tunnel with no perspective of anything but the sensation that my ears were going to be ripped off my head.
Don't get me wrong, it was a stable ride, and at no time did I feel unsafe. But the intensity of the wind was a little distracting. Maybe another ride behind some protection may be in order.
When I asked Rowland what his motivation was for creating such a speed demon, he brought up the spirit of competition. For years at the annual Lake of the Ozarks Shootout in Missouri, he battled for top honors as the pontoon speed record kept being broken.
"I had two stock motors in my 'toon, and figured that if I had a third one, we could definitely get 100 MPH out of it and hold the record again."
To get there, Rowland sought the help of Tech Service & Application Engineer Greg Barsoda and Lead Engineer Kevin Bestul, and many other minds at South Bay, including General Manager Tom McCuddy.
"There was a lot of excitement for the project," Barsoda said. "Everyone who helped with it, especially the welders, took extreme pride in the project."
"McCuddy is the man," Rowland said. "'This is what we're going to do,' and he got it done."
All of the welds on the boat are heliarc welds, which is a sounder type, less susceptible to vibration and other stresses.
In addition, the 'toon makes use of Teleflex power-assist steering with two cylinders, on either side of the outside motors, and a mechanical tie bar across all three outboards.
Collaboration between South Bay and Mercury Marine engineers was also crucial to the success of Rowland's 'toon. Mercury was integral in the installation of mechanical jackplates on the outboards, as opposed to hydraulics, which are not quite as easy to sync when dealing with multiple outboards. And in this case, syncing is essential.
The boat does have pressurized pontoons, at 7.5 pounds per square inch, but this is higher than standard South Bay models. Rowland checks the pressure before every run, just to make sure the weld integrity on the tubes is maintained.
One thing that stuck out was how the boat is balanced. With all the weight of three massive outboards at the rear, it is quite a feat that the 'toon keeps on the level at plane, with little to no lift in the nose.
In the end, it was Rowland's desire to be the best that made this a reality.
"It kinda gets in your blood," he said. "You don't think you're going to do it next year, but when the time rolls around, you get the feeling again."
Parker Marine in the Lake of the Ozarks area was integral in sponsoring the project and did a lot of the work with Rowland as well.
Maybe the most interesting part of this story is that Rowland feels the boundaries can be pushed even farther.
"I just need to get my head in the right spot, talk to the right people," Rowland said. "I can improve on what we're doing now."
Keep your eye on Lake Shelbyville this summer, and you may see a blur fly by on the water one evening as the sun sets over the water.