Pontoon Buyer's Guide

If you’re in the market for a new or used pontoon, you have probably taken the time to peruse the online boat markets such as “Boat Trader” or better yet, visited your local marine dealer.  Unfortunately for most, this begins a long and frustrating process to find that “perfect” boat for the “right” price.  Our goal in providing the following information, is to give you, and your family, the tools needed to assist you in making an educated purchase decision.

As a dealership, looking for a pontoon line to represent, we used the same criteria recommended below, to evaluate the various pontoon manufacturers.  We chose Starcraft Pontoons because they offered quality construction, and the best value for our customers.  Manufactured in northern Indiana, Starcraft has been building quality aluminum boats since 1903. 

First, take a moment to sit and ask your self the following set of questions:

  1. How do I plan to use my pontoon?
    1. Primarily as a family boat?
    2. Primarily as a fishing boat?
    3. Primarily as a family performance boat?
  2. How people will boat with me on an average outing?
    1. You’re looking for an average number of persons, not a max.
  3. What kind of performance am I expecting:
    1. Do I plan on just cruising and entertainment?
    2. Do I plan on pulling tubes and skiers?
  4. How much horsepower do I really need?
    1. This answer will be directly affected by question # 3
  5. Do I plan to trailer the boat or leave it in a slip:
    1. What type of trailer would work best?
    2. Do I need trailer brakes?
    3. Will my current tow vehicle be adequate?

Congratulations, by answering those questions, you have taken the first step to a pleasurable pontoon boat buying experience.  You should now be able to narrow down the overwhelming selection of pontoon models down to a handful of boats that will meet your needs. 

As one of the world’s largest, family owned, manufacturers of aluminum boats, Starcraft builds a wide range of pontoon styles, from full time fishing rigs to high-end performance models.  Below is a further breakdown of the 3 styles of pontoons available.

Pontoon Boat Styles

As pontoon boats have progressed through the years, they have gone from being slow, unstable people movers to high-tech ski machines.  Pontoons can generally be split into 3 categories:

·        Pleasure: These pontoons are generally the most popular variety, and can be found with many different seating configurations.  They typically only have 2 pontoon logs and power options will range from 10HP to 90HP dependant on length.

·        Fishing: Fishing pontoons, sometimes call 4-points, due to the location of the 4 fishing seats, will offer all the amenities any fisherman would need such as a live well, rod holders, and the availability to add a trolling motor.  Newer models are even coming with a slip resistant vinyl flooring as opposed to carpet.

·        Performance:  Representing the newest segment, the performance pontoons are changing perceptions across the industry of what the limitations of a pontoon are.  Commonly known as “Tri-toons” due to the addition of a third, center pontoon log, these pontoons are usually equipped with high output outboards ranging from 150HP to 225HP.

Pontoon Capacity

Regardless of the style you choose, the next decision to be made is: What size or length of pontoon is required to meet my expectations?  While there are many variables involved in determining which overall size of pontoon to purchase, the pontoons “max capacity” may be the largest factor to consider.  The following are some suggested guidelines you could use to assist in this decision.

·        For 4 – 6 person average:  A 18’ to 20’ pontoon should be sufficient

·        For 6 – 10 person average:  A 22’ to 24’ pontoon would be recommended

·        For 10+ person average:  A 24’ pontoon or larger would be highly recommended

Horsepower:

For some customers, this may be the most difficult decision in the entire pontoon purchase process.  Unlike their fiberglass cousins, who are typically sold with 1 or 2 engine options for a particular boat, pontoons allow you to choose from a wide range of horsepower options depending on where and how you intend to use the boat. 

Each model and/or size of pontoon will have a “max” horsepower rating, which should not be exceeded.  For instance a Starcraft 216 Stardeck Cruise has a max horsepower rating of 115HP, but by adding the “Tri-Toon” upgrade, the max horsepower increases to 150.

One should also note that the purchase price of a pontoon may fluctuate dramatically based on your choice of outboard horsepower.  Below are just a couple of examples of boat & horsepower combinations and what you would expect performance wise*:

·        18’ to 20’

o       Minnkota E-drive Electric Propulsion: 3 to 8 MPH (required on some private lakes)

o       9.9HP Mercury 4-Stroke: 5 to 10 MPH

o       60HP Mercury 4-Stroke Bigfoot: 17-21 MPH

·        22’ – 24’

o       60HP Mercury 4-Stroke Bigfoot: 17-21 MPH

o       90HP Mercury 4-Stroke: 22-24 MPH

o       150HP Mercury 4-Stroke: 26-30 MPH

* These are estimates only and do not take into account variables such as capacities and/or environmental conditions which can greatly affect a boats performance.

Pontoon Construction

As with any product, the core or skeleton of the pontoon can be a testament to the quality of the boat.  Although, if you were to strip the fancy seats, consoles, and railings off the boats, what you would find is that most production pontoons vary, very little from one another.  But there are a few important construction types you should familiarize yourself with, and look for when shopping for a pontoon.

·        Flooring:  This is a key component of any pontoon.  Not only does the flooring affect structural durability, it also provides sound insulation, and rigidity to the entire boat.  There are 2 main types of flooring on the market today:

o       Wood decking, the most commonly used material today, is easy to install, and with the introduction and technology improvements of marine grade pressure treated plywood, most new pontoons come with a “Limited Lifetime” warranty on decking.  While wood provides excellent structural characteristics, if not cared for properly it can and will decay over time.

o       Aluminum decking, offered by most pontoon manufactures as a decay proof alternative to wood, is often found in the higher-end models.  Although considered an “upgrade” over wood decking, aluminum is not without its own drawbacks or flaws.  Aluminum decked pontoons can be loud, as the aluminum decking will carry the sound and vibrations from the motor throughout the boat.  Additionally, aluminum decks tend to flex more, which can cause undue stress and/or failure of the fasteners used to attach the deck to the cross members.

·        Floor Covering:  While carpeting is still considered the “Standard” floor covering for most pontoons on the market today, in recent years manufacturers, such as Starcraft, have begun to offer a thick, skid-resistant, MariDeck vinyl covering in lieu of carpeting as an option.  This is especially convenient on Fishing model pontoons where ease of cleaning would be important.  Additionally, most will install the MariDeck Vinyl flooring in areas that will see the most moisture, such as the rear entry.  This prevents premature carpet wear, enhancing the look and life of the decking.

o       Carpet: Starcraft, like most top-end manufacturers, installs 28oz Marine-Grade carpet throughout their boats, although some lower-end manufacturers will use a 16oz to 20oz carpet to reduce cost.

o       MariDeck Vinyl Flooring:  This skid resistant material while typically installed on fishing models, is finding popularity among family pontoons as well.  While choosing vinyl flooring in lieu of carpet, may be an expensive option, when paired with a snap-on carpet liner, it could possibly increase the value and life of your pontoon considerably.

·         Bolted Deck Versus Screwed Deck:  How your decking is attached to “skeleton” or cross-channels of your pontoon is just as important as the type of flooring you choose.  A pontoon boat, because of its design, (two independent "hulls"), is subject to a great deal of twisting and stress as each pontoon crosses a wave independently. This stress can tear a pontoon apart over time if the proper fasteners are not utilized. Some manufacturers choose to bolt their decking to the cross-channel instead of utilizing self-tapping screws.  In theory, this sounds like a superior attachment technique, although the disadvantage to this approach is that in order to install the bolts, they must pre-drill a hole slightly larger than the bolt they plan to use.  Due to the stress mentioned above, over time, this could create a “wallowing” effect around the bolt, allowing water penetration, and thus creating a loose deck.  The Starcraft pontoons are built utilizing self-tapping screws to attach their decks.  This creates a much stronger attachment point as the screw will only create a hole large enough to pass through, preventing the “wallowing” effect mentioned above.  In addition Starcraft lays an adhesive tar strip between the decking and the cross-channel.  As the screw passed through the strip, it self-seals the hole created by the screw in the decking, preventing water intrusion to the deck.

·        Pontoon Logs:  Another key component of any pontoon boat is the pontoon log design.  As today’s manufacturers are continuing to redesign and improve their pontoon log technology to meet the ever changing demand and abilities of pontoon boats, there are still 2 basic designs you should be aware of:

o       Foam filled "U" shaped pontoon logs, while rare, are still found on a couple of pontoons manufactured today.  The primary advantage of a foam filled pontoon is the safety afforded by having a backup flotation system (the foam itself). Unfortunately, manufacturers who use the “U” shaped design are doing so to reduce production costs, since they are inherently easier to produce. Often these manufacturers use a thinner gauge aluminum wall because the foam backing prevents canning and/or buckling that would usually occur with the thin walled "U" shape. The positive backup flotation usually precludes the use of baffles in the tubes, which also lowers cost. However there are some disadvantages. The "U" shaped tubes are usually fairly narrow (from 19 to 21 inches). It is the width of a pontoon log, which displaces the water and determines how high above the water a pontoon floats. These narrower pontoon logs coupled with the additional weight of the foam (80 lbs. of foam or 80 lbs. of lead is still 80 lbs.) results in these tubes riding lower in the water. The additional wetted surface area results in more drag and reduced fuel efficiency. In addition if water does enter the pontoon and stay there, the foam can begin to absorb the water and waterlog. This condition is impossible to efficiently repair without dismantling the pontoon log and replacing the foam. While most "U" shaped pontoon logs feature a rear drain plug so that water may easily be drained to prevent water logging, this does require that the boat be hauled out of the water. Lastly, if a pontoon is punctured, this style of pontoon log offers significant repair problems. Welding the affected area typically repairs pontoon log punctures, however the heat required for this process will seriously degrade the foam inside, resulting in numerous problems in achieving a desirable repair.  Often the pontoon log must be dismantled, and foam removed prior to welding the puncture.

o       Round “Baffled” Pontoon Logs are typically the industry standard.  Today, most manufacturers, including Starcraft, offer 23” to 25” diameter pontoon logs for the boats they manufacture.  Round pontoons in general offer significant advantages over the “U” shaped design.  Geometrically a cylinder is the strongest shape that you can form aluminum into. The symmetrical design means that your diameter is the same wherever measured. That is a 25-inch pontoon has 25 inches of width to displace water, effectively raising the level at which the pontoon boat sits above the water.  Additionally the reparability is enhanced by the fact that once drained, it is fairly simple to weld punctures in the pontoon log. The “baffle” system typically consists of 3 separate chambers within the pontoon log.  Each of these chambers, are created with a baffle, which will have an inch or so hole near the bottom.  These holes are designed to allow water to be drained from the entire length of the pontoon log, but also airlock each chamber once the top of hole is reached by water, thus preventing further water intrusion in the that particular chamber.  This produces a much safer overall design.

o       Other Critical Structural Features: You should have each dealer show you the other critical structural and design features, which will impact the durability and operating qualities of your boat. A number to consider are:

§         Corner castings and side rails: These areas absorb the bulk of any impact inflicted on your boat. They should be made of a material that can absorb such impacts. Also the side rails should exhibit a design, which is resistant to such impacts.

§         Keels: Does the boat feature full keels to limit shallow water or floating object damage? Does the keel design itself prevent damage or does it actually run the risk of increasing it?  Starcraft uses full-length keel runner on all of their pontoons.

§         Panel Systems: Probably the number one complaint from many pontoon owners is panel rattling. Does the boat you are evaluating use a panel mounting system that precludes this annoying characteristic? Also are the panels and side rails through bolted for maximum durability? Are the rails mounted in such a way that allows easy drainage of the deck area thereby inhibiting the growth of carpet mold and vinyl mildew?

§         Seat Base Design: It is generally accepted that rotocast plastic seat bases offer better water management and do not develop the musty odors associated with more traditional wood bases.

§         Transom design: The most stressful area on any boat is the transom where the outboard is mounted. What features does each boat you are looking at have that will ensure a durable mounting system?  Starcraft leads the industry with a .190 gauge aluminum transom that’s though bolted with up to 20 bolts depending on model.

§         Vinyl quality: Probably the easiest area for a manufacturer to cut corners is in the vinyl selected for each boat. Almost all vinyl looks good new. Does the manufacturer use a less expensive fuzzy backed vinyl or the superior woven backed expanded vinyl.  Starcraft manufactures its seats using a high-end 42ml thick vinyl that is backed by 6-year warranty.  

Popular Options:

Most marine dealers are going to stock their pontoons loaded with all the current popular options.  We wanted to list a few items, that may or may not be included with the boat your choosing, which could make your purchase more enjoyable:

·        Mooring Cover:  A custom made snap-on cover is the best way to protect your investment.  Typically called a playpen cover, this cover will snap onto the outer railings and cover the entire inside of the boat.  If ordered from the factory it should match all existing canvas from your bimini top.

·        Individual Seat Covers: If you don’t intend on towing your boat, you may be interested in having your dealer install individual seat covers.  They are much more convenient to remove and store than a playpen cover, although they will leave your decking and/or carpeting exposed to the elements.

·        Boarding Ladder:  Most pontoons today, with the exception of a few fishing models, are equipped with a rear-entry gate and a 3-4 step folding boarding ladder.   If your boat does not have a rear-entry, be sure to speak with your dealer about installing a side gate ladder.  Pontoons make great swimming platforms as long as you can climb back aboard!

·        Stereo System:  Most pontoons will come standard with a base stereo system.  Due to the popularity of Satellite Radio and/or Portable MP3 players, you will want to make sure the boat at least has an “Auxiliary” input plug for your portable player and is upgradeable with a Satellite receiver if desired.  If not, upgrading an entire stereo system can be costly in the future.

·        Depth Finder/Fish Finder:  Regardless is you’re a hardcore fisherman, or just cruising around your local lake, a good quality depth finder or fish finder can save you from a damaged prop or worse.

Choosing a Dealer:

Once you have narrowed the field of available pontoon choices to a select few, now is the time to visit your local marine dealer for some final evaluations.   One major consideration that often gets overlooked is the dealer itself.  Remember, the dealer you choose will typically be your source for warranty and service work.  It is unlikely a competitive marine dealership will be willing to offer timely service on your boat, which was purchased elsewhere.  When choosing a dealer, please consider the following:

·        Dealer Service:  Does the dealer offer a dedicated service and/or parts department?  This is a great time to ask to meet the service manager and take a tour of their service facilities. 

o       Do they offer full-time factory trained technicians to service your boat properly?

o       Is their facility adequate to handle the sales volume of that particular dealership?

o       Does the parts department maintain an adequate inventory?

o       If purchasing a pontoon without a trailer, how does the dealer handle lake calls and seasonal service?

o       Is the dealer a dedicated Marine dealer or are you competing for his attention with his automotive and/or RV customers.

o       How long has the dealer been established?  A dealer with established roots in the community shows stability and a commitment to their customers.  Likewise some dealers will set up multiple locations with hopes to gain sales by mere saturation.  Poor performing locations are then often shut down leaving their customers without a source for parts or service. 

     

We hope this guide has proven helpful in choosing a pontoon package that is right for you.  As a family owned & operated dealership, we pride ourselves on assisting our customer’s find the perfect boat for their family's needs.  Benjamin Franklin once stated "The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of a low price is forgotten".  For this very reason, for over 50 years, Boatland has carefully chosen to represent only products that we ourselves would be willing to take our families aboard.  A boat purchase, unlike an automobile, is an investment in time with your family and friends.  Regardless of where you choose to make your purchase, a pontoon boat is one of the most versatile, enjoyable and cost-effective boating investments you can make.