The pontoon industry has become an unstoppable force in the boating world. Pontoon lovers are helping produce numbers that other boating segments could only dream about. But there has to be a reason people are willing to shell out their hard earned money. Pontoon manufacturers are keeping consumers motivated because every year boats are getting bigger and better and the manufacturers are pushing design limits to new heights.
While it seems like these changes happen overnight, highly-trained engineers are working hard behind the scenes everyday, making the next year models sleeker, more efficient and, of course, even more fun.
In The Know
"Forty years ago, when you saw someone you knew driving a pontoon, you would laugh to yourself and think, `Poor guy. Who did he make angry?'" says Vann Knight, director of engineering for Nautic Global Group. "Now these boats can do things that will blow your mind."
That's for sure. Nautic Global Group is the parent company behind Aqua Patio, Sanpan and Sweetwater pontoons as well as Hurricane deck boats. Knight heads up the engineering department and is helping the company lead the way in new developments.
The head of engineering at Harris FloteBote, Bob Fieldhouse is responsible for keeping the company ahead of the curve.
"The goal behind everything we do is to stay focused on the customer," says Fieldhouse. "People want a boat that fills their needs 100 percent so we always keep versatility and affordability in mind."
What Used To Be
The industry has been through a lot of changes in the last few years. Like most things, trends change with new things coming into style and others heading out. Both engineers agree that layout and colors are the cosmetic areas that have seen the most change.
"We've seen a huge shift in the layouts. As early as four years ago, you saw a cruise model with a standard seating area," says Fieldhouse. "Now people are requesting the rear lounges both single and double."
Bold coloring can quickly date a boat, which is why some manufacturers are getting away from them.
"I think people are getting away from gaudy colors," says Knight. "Now they want their boat colors to match their homes and create an outdoor living room."
Since pontoons have been around for more than 50 years, there have been changes that the early creators could never have imagined. In the last decade, pontoons have made leaps and bounds in design and technology.
"I never, ever thought I would see a pontoon being able to pull a wakeboard and now we've done it. I never thought a pontoon could top 40 miles an hour and now it's broken 100," says Knight. "It proves you can do anything on a pontoon."
Fieldhouse added, "I never thought I would see a boat that would exceed 35-40 miles per hour. I also never thought that a pontoon would be able to out-maneuver a fiberglass boat."
It's more than speed. Pontoons have come a long way in other aspects as well. Another area of concentration for Harris FloteBote is making boats that are saltwater approved. More and more people want a pontoon setup on the ocean and the company is making sure it can deliver a boat that will handle the harsher water conditions.
Tunes For Your `Toon
Electronics are also a huge push. Incorporating the ever-changing technology into every model can be a challenge, but these manufacturers are proving that it can be done.
"We need a minimum of two batteries to run all of the electronics that are in the boats today," says Fieldhouse. "People are running their phones and other accessories and want to use Bluetooth technology on the water."
Nautic Global Group also has a specific vision when it comes to their engineering. The goal of the company is to create something that people enjoy.
"Our goal with pontoon development is to do things that keep the family together," says Knight. "We want to make a product that lets the kids enjoy the watersports while the parents and grandparents can relax."
What The People Want
Part of keeping things new is knowing exactly what people want when buying a new boat.
"When times were better, people had three boats to do everything they wanted," says Knight. "As people are recovering from the down economy, they realize they just need one boat that does everything well."
Each engineer takes this as a personal challenge to see what they can come up with. The goal is to exceed expectations right away so that customers will be amazed by what each company has to offer over its competition.
"Our goal at Nautic is to make sure every boat has features and layouts that are completely integrated," says Knight. "If you just drop in a feature, then it's easy for others to knock it off, but when you create a design that is part of a bigger landscape, it's not as easy to emulate."
When a new model hits the salesroom floor, it can seem like it happened overnight. But really, the thought behind each one is at least a year's time in the making. The new model from Harris FloteBote, the Crowne, wowed people at boat shows and won an Innovation award at the Miami Boat Show because it was so well designed.
"We did a great job with that boat because we're always looking into what else we can evolve into the design," says Fieldhouse. "There are even more things in the works right now. We are currently refreshing existing models by breaking the boats down and changing the aspects that need to be changed. Every year, I re-examine 100 percent of each model to make sure it is still the best it can be."
Nautic Global Group is also up to some fun things with all of its brands, including Hurricane. It recently released the Hurricane SunDeck 2690, which is billed as the brand's new flagship boat. The 2690 features a number of clever innovations, an exclusive new running surface, and forward-thinking construction techniques.
"We are determined to retain our position as the deck boat leader," says Knight. "So we are adding new features and layouts to make the boating experience even more enjoyable."
Where Is It Going?
Now that the past and the present have been covered, where is the industry heading? Both engineers agreed that the future for pontoons looks great. Hearing this from people actually down in the trenches making this stuff happen inspires a lot of reassurance.
"Pontoons will be at the top of people's list when it comes to boating," says Fieldhouse. "When you say the term `boat,' people will immediately picture a pontoon."
Knight also agreed with a similar sentiment. "Pontoons are the Disneyland of the water. You can walk down the dock and not even have to leave to have a good time."
Once I let the guys get their standard marketing speaking points out, I pressed them harder for more information. As readers of Pontoon & Deck Boat magazine, I feel like you all deserve more insight. Luckily these guys were willing to divulge a little more.
Spill Your Secrets
When asked point blank what he's working on, Knight chuckled and told me I was a little pushy, to which I responded that my journalism professor would be proud. Then I promised to keep it between him, myself and you, the reader. He told me they have a handful of brand-new models in the works and each one encompasses the following philosophy.
"It used to be that you could bring your family down to the dock to take them on the ride and you would accidentally put someone in the uncomfortable position of not being able to make the jump or climb into the boat," says Knight. "We don't want anyone to have to face that kind of embarrassment. Our goal is to make a boat that is so versatile; it appeals to a wider age range."
Fieldhouse was also a good sport when I told him I would need some in-depth answers to what's going to happen in 2014.
"I can tell you that we've raised the bar internally for design and innovation. If you sit still, you'll be left behind and that is very true for the pontoon industry. We are pushing the envelope on design and innovation on our product."
While this was a good answer, I told him we need more details. Our readers want to know what Harris FloteBote is up to.
"We are focusing on models that fit into specialized needs and wants," said Fieldhouse. "We are working on pontoons that offer a more comfortable ride. People are looking for power, torque, but they want it to be quiet so that's a big push. We are also trying to focus on comfort in the furniture designs."
Now you have it straight from the source.
Exciting Times Ahead
When you spend five figures on anything, you expect something well-made. That's especially true of your boat. Luckily, you have a lot of options out there and each one has been designed by people who love boats.
"Every builder out there is making a unique design statement," says Knight. "Together we make the industry look really good."
Meet The Experts
Director of Engineering
Background: Employed in the marine industry for over 10 years and has also held various other positions in the heavy equipment and construction industry
College: Purdue University and Indiana Wesleyan University
Been at Harris FloteBote for 10 years
Why he loves his job: A lot of it is because I love the pontoon vision and in two months to a year, I can turn that vision into a reality. I love to make a product that is for family fun and entertainment. We're building fun and that's what I like.
Director of Engineering
Background: Various positions with GE, John Deere, Brunswick Corporation and Boston Whalers
College: United States Military Academy at West Point
Been at Nautic Global Group for 1 year
Why he loves his job: When I worked with heavy construction tools, the conversation with people about my job would last maybe five minutes. Now when they hear I work with boats, they want to talk all day long. People love boats.