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Not the same old 'toon.

Not The Same Old 'Toon

Pontoon boat sales are the fastest-growing in the industry and Indiana has the most builders.

Call them what you will--party barges, fishing platforms, floating patios, whatever--there's no denying that pontoon boats are a rapidly growing segment of the pleasure boat industry. The health of the 'toon business is due, in part, to the vitality of Hoosier boat makers.

Indiana has more builders of pontoon boats than any other state. No one is certain just why that's so, but the manufacturers have their own theories.

"With a lot of specialty manufacturers in such areas as farm equipment or conveyors, like ourselves, it just seemed like a natural evolution," says Jim Gallagher, national sales manager for Godfrey Marine in Elkhart. Indeed, many steel fabricators had the know-how and facilities to craft the air-tight cylinders that are the basis of a pontoon boat. "A lot of those manufacturers saw the successes others were having and jumped into it themselves. Kind of like what happened with the recreational-vehicle industry," Gallagher continues.

It was that sort of pioneering spirit that built the pontoon industry here in Indiana. A great many of the 157,000 pontoon boats now in use in the United States (according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association) came from Indiana factories. Currently, there are eight pontoon boat builders headquartered in Indiana. Though the state ranks only 17th among all states for boat ownership, many Hoosier pontoon products contribute to the higher boatownership figures in Michigan (the number one state for boat ownership), Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota. The Great Lakes states continue to be a major stronghold for pleasure boaters.

But don't get the idea that all pontoons are shipped out of the state. Indiana, with its abundance of navigable rivers and small lakes, is a natural for 'tooning. "Indiana has always been a big pontoon state. That's why there are so many pontoon boat companies here," says Pete Gillon, vice president of marketing and sales for Harris-Kayot, Inc.

To clarify a bit, Indiana really is the leader in turning out multipurpose boats. Though the vast majority of those are pontoons, the category does include deck-style boats and wide-bodied runabouts. All cater to boaters who seek high-capacity, comfortable craft that can serve multipurposes.

Pontoon boats float high and dry on hollow tubes, usually filled with air or foam, and typically are fabricated from steel or aluminum. The pontoon tubes are tapered in front to make them slice easily through the water. Connected to the pontoons is a metal cross-member network that supports and strengthens the plywood deck. The usual width of the boat is 8 feet, though some manufacturers make 10-foot-wide models. The deck is carpeted, fenced with a sturdy railing and protected by a partial canopy. Pontoon boats range in length from 16 to 28 feet.

Deck-style boats, as they're called, usually feature the same comfort, roominess and amenities of a pontoon boat, but they feature a modified "v" or a "tri" hull--for performance closer to that of a speedboat. The hull is wide and flat in the back, enabling it to get "on plane" fast, which is ideal for towing water-skiers.

"The deck-style boat is for the boater who wants to cruise, entertain, picnic, swim and do all those other neat pontoon-type activities, but who is also serious about waterskiing. A pontoon boat isn't really designed for towing skiers, though they are certainly capable of doing it," notes Gallagher.

Gallagher's employer, Godfrey Marine, is the largest builder of deck-style boats in the United States, but pontoon models still account for its largest volume. "Pontoons still outsell all our other deck-style models, but they're getting closer. I think it's because our deck-style boats all have popular

inboard-outboard power," Gallagher continues. He notes that another trend in today's multipurpose craft is the deck-style boat with seating recessed deeper into the hull. According to Gallagher, these sleek, stylish boats are more like wide-bodied runabouts, and they're popular with skiers. Because of the different motives for buying a pontoon vs. a deck-style boat, there is little market overlap for the two styles.

Still, of all multipurpose boats, pontoons show the strongest growth year after year. There are numerous reasons for their popularity with the boating public.

Comfort seems to be the number one reason for pontoons' wide acceptance. "They offer the opportunity to entertain in comfort," notes Gillon. "Small children and pets are relatively safe within the confines of the fence. And people who are squeamish about the water feel comfortable because of the large, stable deck beneath them."

Pontoon boats are versatile. As most manufacturers will tell you, pontoon boats are family boats. The spacious decks, stability and crowd-carrying capabilities make them ideal for leisurely cruising, entertaining, picnicking, swimming and other group activities. But it goes far beyond just cruising.

"A lot of people used to think that pontoon boats were primarily slow-moving boats that mom and dad or grandma and grandpa chugged around on," says Jim Baughman, general manager of the Riviera Cruiser division of LML Corp., Columbia City. "Pontoon owners usually had another boat to ski behind. Anymore, with insurance and upkeep, it costs too much to own two boats. So these same boaters like the idea of a boat that will do a lot of different things," Baughman says. "And a pontoon has more versatility than other boats. It's big. It takes a lot of people. And you can tow skiers and tubers behind it." For that reason, he feels there's a larger potential market for pontoon boats, as opposed to runabouts.

Other makers still believe that there are two distinct types of pontoon buyers. For some people, a pontoon is still the "second boat" because it allows more comfort. "These people already own a ski boat, so they want something that's a little more comfortable-a boat that they can bring friends on and entertain with because it has room," says Gillon of Harris-Kayot.

The other buyer is the first-timer. This individual sees an opportunity to combine a lot of boating experiences in one purchase. "There's no need to buy two different boats in order to ski, entertain or fish," Gillon says.

Dennis Thewlies, general manager of Kirk's Sportsworld in Carmel, adds a buyer that fits into still another category. Pontoons appeal to people in residential developments around private lakes, he says, where boats that have engines with more than 10 horsepower are prohibited. Boats on the large Eagle Creek reservoir in Indianapolis, even, have to stay within these limits.

"Pontoon boats are a small part of our business," continues Thewlies. Kirk's Sportsworld, according to Thewlies, is among the three largest boat retailers in Indiana. "We sell a lot of cabin cruisers," he says, which may cost as much as $250,000, for cruising on the Great Lakes, the Ohio River and the Monroe and Mississinewa reservoirs. The boating public, adds Thewlies, cuts across all demographic groups, though an ever-increasing number of retired people are getting into the market.

Another aspect of the versatility picture is equipment and accessories available to customize pontoon boats. Ten years ago, a pontoon boat was seen strictly as a party barge. It was a fenced-in deck on a slab of plywood, with some lawn chairs thrown on for a little comfort. Today, aside from bigger engine ratings and improved pontoon tubes, pontoon boat makers give prospective skippers long lists of features and options.

Many manufacturers offer wide assortments of seating and furnishings, most of them manufactured in-house. According to Gillon, the newest models from Harris-Kayot are available with premium stereo units, deck lighting, water systems, portable toilets, bars and "every possible furniture configuration under the sun."

Features for fising are offered by nearly every manufacturer. Items like foredeck-mounted swivel seats, rod holders and live wells make pontoons comfortable, stable vessels for lake and river anglers.

Camping is yet another growing use for pontoon boats. Though the activity isn't as popular in Indiana as it is in the South and Southwest-where there are extensive, inland waterways-Indiana's pontoon makers offer "weekender" models for campers. These come with zip-on deck enclosures, galley units, water systems, toilets and seating that's convertible to bunks. These and other accessories put the camper models nearly in the realm of houseboats.

Another popular feature available on many of today's pontoon boats is sterndrive power. These units, combining the best features of outboards and inboards, are available in sizes up to 130 horsepower. Stern-drive pontoon boats first appeared in the mid-70's and have been growing steadily in popularity since then. "These units will push the boat around at 28 to 30 miles an hour," Baughman of Riviera Cruisers says. "Stern drives are popular with people who like to water ski." Riviera was a pioneer in fitting pontoon boats with stern-drive units.

Boaters who prefer outboard power have a versatile choice to fit their uses and budgets. Pontoons can be powered with engines ranging from 6 to 150 horsepower. The design of the pontoon tubes enables them to cruise smartly along with low-power engines. Other activities such as tubing and skiing can be done with moderate-to-large engines from 40 horsepower on up.

Suncruiser, a division of Sea Nymph, Inc., Syracuse, offers customers boat-and-motor packages from 10 horsepower up to 140 horsepower. It is natural for them to market this way, since their parent company is owned by Outboard Marine Corporation, the maker of Evinrude and Johnson outboard motors.

Pontoon boats are also growing in popularity because of their price-to-value advantages. Simply put, you get more bang for the buck. For instance, a 24-foot pontoon boat can be purchased for less than $10,000, according to Gillon. "You couldn't touch a 24-foot runabout for under $20,000," he notes.

John Machan, vice president of sales for Suncruiser, agrees with the price-to-value attractiveness of pontoons. "You get a lot of boat for your money. With many people, owning a pontoon boat is like being a two-car family. But with a lot of others, the single, multipurpose boat idea is the best answer," says Machan. "Of course, the really serious skier wouldn't use a pontoon. But it's ideal for people who like to ski, but don't do it all the time. They can pull a skier, yet take along all their friends. It's a more relaxed style of boating."

Another advantage of pontoon boats is that they hold their market value. For that reason, there is usually a long waiting list of people in the market for a used boat. "When people get `em, the keep `em. And they last for a long time," Baughman says.

As for the future, Indiana's boat manufacturers are optimistic about continued growth in pontoon and other styles of multipurpose boats.

Sales growth has prompted at least one manufacturer to expand its operations dramatically. Suncruiser recently completed a new, 97,000-square-foot facility on Elkhart's southwest side to manufacture pontoon boats. "We're gearing up for the future and we've outgrown our previous facility," says Machan.

Generally, Indiana's pontoon manufacturers attribute the industry's rosy future to the versatility and the value that pontoon boats provide. As summarized by Gallagher: "Pontoon boats represent family boating at its best!"
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Title Annotation:Indiana's pontoon boat manufacturers
Author:Pethe, Gary
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Date:Feb 1, 1989
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