Whenever the conversation turns to racing pontoons, my mind always goes back to October 4, 2011. It was on this beautiful fall day on Lake Shelbyville in Illinois, when I went the fastest I’ve ever been on a pontoon boat, thanks to Brad Rowland’s loaded South Bay. We “only” reached the 103 mph mark and I joke about the “only” part since this boat would eventually set the current speed record of 114 mph a few years later.
I met Rowland at the Litha Springs Marina on his home waters and he was anxious to show me his 25-foot, 2010 South Bay 925CR dubbed Tooned In. Lake Shelbyville is an 11,000-acre Corps of Engineer lake on the Kaskaskia River in central Illinois, and before getting on his boat I actually thought this lake was pretty big. With triple Mercury Pro Max 300x engines on the back, on this day the lake felt more like the size of a bathtub as we quickly went from one end to the other in blistering time.
Rowland welcomed the three of us aboard and spent a few minutes deciding where we should each sit, for weight distribution, he explained. Once he was satisfied with our assigned seating, he put the throttle down and off we went.
I remember a co-worker next to me in what felt like a wind tunnel trying to shout the phrase, “This is awesome!” Not surprisingly he barely got out the first syllable before his saliva was sucked from his mouth because we were going so fast. Lesson to those who may find themselves on a 100 mph pontoon someday: it’s best to keep your mouth closed when going that fast.
The race to be the first pontoon to reach the 100 mph mark ended in a tie at the 2010 Lake of the Ozarks Shootout in Missouri with Ken Goudy piloting a PlayCraft tying Rowland, both at exactly 100 mph over the one-mile course.
The South Bay would go on to take first place at the 2013 Shootout with a top speed of 114 mph and consequently Rowland obtained the Shootout's record for fastest pontoon boat. You may think that's overkill, but Rowland actually has his sights set on going even faster. “I see 120 mph not out of my reach. People freak out when they see me come down the lake that fast in a pontoon,” he said at the time.
He’s currently racing Tooned In II, a 2015 25-foot South Bay pontoon powered by three 3.0-liter Pro Max Merc 300 outboards. Though he hasn’t yet hit the 120 mph mark, Rowland is sure to keep on trying until he gets there.
As far as pioneers go, credit really needs to go to Jim Dorris when talking about top-speed pontoon boats. The PlayCraft CEO and founder started Charger Bass Boats in 1974, and pontoons followed soon after. Dorris applied his high-performance boat-building knowledge and experience to the pontoon industry. This was a personal thing for Dorris; as he got older, he sought the comfort and relaxation of pontooning, but didn’t want to give up running fast with the “big boys.”
At the now-famous LOTO Shootout back in 1995, Dorris showed up with what he called a Hydro-Toon, powered by a small-block 350 Chevy and MerCruiser sterndrive. That was the beginning. Though the 46 mph recorded top speed he attained was unheard of then, it’s considered quite common now. Power, design, and of course speed accelerated the performance pontoon segment on a steep curve and by 2001, Dorris and his crew had reached the 81 mph mark at Mercury’s Lake X with twin Merc 300x outboards.
Where the industry goes from here is anyone’s guess, but what we do know is being able to reach triple digit speeds on a pontoon is still quite impressive.