“Pontoons Gone Wild.” “Pontoon Hunters.” “Pimp My Pontoon.” If a TV producer stumbled on the gems floating on our lakes, there’d be a reality show waiting.
These aren’t the kitschy putt-putters with plastic chairs and artificial turf, either. Pontoons, while still floating platforms, are larger, more powerful, more luxurious and sometimes even outrageous.
“The pontoon used to be grandpa and grandma’s boat,” said Brent Wiczek, manager of Nisswa Marine. “We’re selling pontoons to a much younger generation than we ever have. It’s the fastest growing part of our business.”
Pontoon sales nationally shot up 58 percent from 2010 to 2014, according to industry reports. Pontoon people are treating them like mini-yachts: demanding full bars, luxe furniture and state-of-the-art sound systems. Premier Pontoons, based in Wyoming, Minn., makes a two-story pontoon that comes with a water slide.
Speed is important, too. Some of Nisswa Marine’s high-end pontoons can reach 60 miles per hour.
“That’s as fast as any speedboat on the lake,” Wiczek said. “We’re selling pontoons in excess of $100,000 to $130,000, which is crazy, but it’s happening.”
Boaters justify the cost by trading in their speedboats and fishing rigs for a single, versatile vessel. From angling and water-skiing to cocktail cruises and bachelor parties, the pontoon can do it all.
Here are some of the most tricked-out ’toons on local lakes.
Owner: Robert McCluskey
Lake: Coon Lake, East Bethel
Features: Full masts, water cannons, crow’s nest, wooden plank, treasure chest, parrot, pirate flags, 350 feet of rope lights, 75-horsepower Johnson motor, red chandeliers.
The story: On most days, Robert McCluskey calls his famed pontoon pirate ship the Coon Raider. Other days, he calls it a black hole.
“The dang thing takes so much maintenance and money to operate,” said McCluskey, the commodore of the ship. “Once you get started on something like this, you can’t quit.”
In McCluskey’s world, if you’re going to build a party barge, go all the way.
From bow to stern, the ship is 55 feet long. The 42-foot masts are hung with black garbage bag sails. Residents from around the lake have donated skulls, signs and flags, plus other pirate decor found at garage sales.
Each spring, McCluskey and his crew work off their cabin fever by fixing up the Coon Raider. McCluskey said he’s sunk more money and hours into the ship than he can count — at least a couple thousand dollars each year — but he said it’s worth it for the reactions he gets.
“The kids run to the docks and yell, ‘The pirates are here!’ and they ask us to blow the horn and walk the plank.”
The Coon Raider hosts birthday parties, weddings and family reunions.
“Nobody believes it’s a pontoon,” McCluskey said.
Sure enough, hidden under a mass of black weathered wood are two steel 25-foot tubes manufactured by Premier Pontoons.
The Coon Raider isn’t the first pirate ship to sail Coon Lake, which has been the home to other renegade vessels. There’s a “camptoon” (an RV on a pontoon) and a “tiki toon” (a pontoon covered in a grass skirt). McCluskey’s pirate barge is the only one that’s survived these treacherous waters.
As with any pirate ship, there are plenty of shenanigans aboard. McCluskey admits he torments other boaters with a water cannon that shoots 10,000 gallons a minute with a 70-foot spray.
“Now they retaliate with water balloons,” he said. “I’m loved and hated.”
There could be less love on the lake if McCluskey succeeds in his next mission: “Find a locomotive horn to replace the ship’s semitruck horn.”
Owner: Jack and Kathryn Swenson
Lake: Lake Minnetonka
Features: Totally enclosed structure, chandelier, custom cabinets, stainless-steel refrigerator, wicker furniture, surround sound.
The story: Keeping Minnesotans from enjoying their beloved lakes is like keeping toddlers off the furniture. They’re going to find a way.
Kathryn and Jack Swenson’s dreams of building an enclosed gazebo on the shore of their Lake Minnetonka home were thwarted years ago when lake restrictions prevented them from building a new structure closer than 75 feet to the water.
“One night I woke up and thought, ‘I’ll build a gazebo on a boat,’ ” Kathryn said. With a little planning and a patent to boot, the “Gazeboat” (gah-zee-boat) was born, giving the Swensons the bug-free outdoor space they always wanted.
“It’s like a wonderfully comfortable floating room,” Kathryn said. “It’s a very calming, meditational kind of thing.”
The Gazeboat is best described as an English conservatory on water. With a standard pontoon as its base, the Gazeboat came to life with an aluminum and screen enclosure, crystal chandelier, fresh flowers and shabby chic furniture.
The couple occasionally cruise Maxwell Bay, away from the wake of other boats while soaking up the solitude of a 57-acre nature preserve. Most of the time, the Gazeboat is docked in front of their home, where the Swensons can drink their morning coffee, read the Sunday paper and even nap.
“This thing might go 15 miles per hour,” Jack said. “The objective isn’t to go fast. It’s to enjoy it.”
Lap of luxury
Owner: Dewey Johnson and Wanda Oland-Johnson
Lake: Crystal Lake, Burnsville
Features: 250-horsepower motor, Flexsteel furniture, pop-up restroom, kitchen sink.
The story: Thanks to the oversized windshield at the helm, Dewey Johnson won’t lose his fluorescent pink Grain Belt hat when his new Premier Intrigue planes on top of the water at 42 miles per hour.
Thanks to a special no-spill stemware cupholder, Wanda Oland-Johnson’s white wine stays put, too.
And that’s not even her favorite part.
“I like the subwoofers,” she said, laughing.
The couple recently tested out their newest lake toy, which rides the water like a speedboat rather than plowing like a traditional pontoon.
Onboard, “Love Rollercoaster” blares through speakers surrounded by cool-blue LED lighting. “It’s a little much for this lake,” Johnson said, explaining his plans to take the pontoon to their winter home in Arizona, where he needs a boat with “a little get up and go” to navigate the Colorado River and Lake Havasu.
The sophistication of the Johnsons’ party barge trumps the pontoon’s humble beginnings. Features usually associated with large yachts — such as wet bars, radar arches and grills — are now common on luxury pontoons. But sophistication comes with a price. The Johnsons’ vessel retails for about $80,000.
As the boat zooms across the waves with hardly a waddle, Oland-Johnson just smiles.
“Speedboats are fun, but this is relaxing,” she said. “It’s like riding a big Harley with all your friends.”