Long before the pop-country group Little Big Town introduced its No. 1 hit, "Pontoon," last summer, pontooning had become been a part of the boating community in the United States.
Its roots go back more than 60 years to a Minnesota farmer named Ambrose Weeres who came up with the crazy idea of putting a wooden platform on two columns of welded steel barrels and spending his lazy summer afternoons fishing on a nearby lake.
But those no-frills pontoons, like Hula Hoops and Silly Putty, seemed to be a fading remnant from a simpler time.
Now, they're making a comeback with a few modern frills.
"It's exploded. Pontoons are selling much better than fiberglass boats," said Brian Schneider, whose Tradewinds Marina in Middle River has been selling pontoons the past two years.
In an industry struggling with the economy, pontoon boat sales now account for half of Schneider's income in boat sales.
Using the same Minnesota-based boat manufacturer that made the pontoon for Little Big Town's music video — as well as for Kid Rock's video of the 2008 song "All Summer Long" — Schneider said that popularity of pontoons is based largely around the fact "they're almost 100 percent usable space."
Dan Naleppa of Salisbury is considering buying one of Schneider's pontoons after seeing them at the Baltimore Boat Show, which opened at the Baltimore Convention Center on Thursday and will close Sunday.
"It's like you're riding in your living room," Naleppa said while attending the show on Friday.
Certainly if your living room is stocked with plush couches and other accoutrements, though Naleppa said the 25-foot pontoon he is thinking about buying will not have a barbeque, minibar or some of the other amenities that seem to find their way on what many consider to be the best kind of party boats.
"They've come a long way," Naleppa said. "They're pretty roomy and they can go fast. I also like the fact that you can ride them year 'round, unlike some of the inboard-outboard motorboats I've had."
While a lot more high-tech than "The Empress" and the other boats that Weeres, who became known as "Mr. Pontoon," built en route to being inducted in Minnesota's Marina Hall of Fame, the modern pontoon industry has seen a revival in recent years. They're cheaper to make, easier to maintain, less than half the weight of comparably-sized fiberglass boats and more environmental-friendly because they typically need smaller engines.
"It seems like they're everywhere now," said Matt Finklestine, who sells pontoon boats in Lake Raystown, Pa. "Nothing is going to be a smoother ride than a pontoon boat because you don't ride on top of the water, you ride in the water. They're light, they're easier to trailer. The fiberglass chips don't break off and it makes it much easier to clean."
According to Finklestine, whose Full Performance Marine sells "everything from jet skis to 45-foot yachts," he has seen a resurgance in the past four years. Finklestine said his 10-year-old company has gone from selling around two dozen aluminum pontoons in 2005 to 125 last year. The lakes around central Pennsylvania are among the most popular for pontoon boating.
"The difference between a pontoon and a regular boat is that with a pontoon, you have a lot more room. You can fit on twice as many people and you can pretty much cut the cost in half because they're very easy to make," Finklestine said Wednesday at the Baltimore Convention Center, where a couple of his company's higher-end pontoons were on display — and for sale — during the Baltimore Boat Show.
Try to keep it steady as you recline on your black inner tube
The basic concept of the pontoon hasn't changed much since Weeres first introduced his boat — it's now a vinyl deck rather than wood attached to aluminum barrels — but pontoons have certainly been upgraded over the years to include everything likeAstro Turf mats for what essentially becomes a floating driving range.
The size of the boats haven't changed (typically between 15 and 28 feet long) but they can be custom fit for whatever you need — fishing, cruising, skiing or racing.
The cost depends mostly on the size of the motor used — ranging from $15,000 to $80,000, according to industry experts. Pontoons can go as fast as 55 mph, but most are built to go a lot slower.
"The difference between a 50 horsepower and a 250 horsepower could be $20,000," said Finklestine, whose company typically sells pontoons with 90- to 115-horsepower motors. "A 28-foot fiberglass is more than $100,000, double what a pontoon costs."
Finklestine said pontoons are perfect for someone who "wants to fit a lot of people on the boat, wants some room for his kids to run around on and doesn't care about having the fastest boat on the lake."
Naleppa said he is looking forward to having his pontoon out on the Chesapeake Bay, as well as the Wicomico River and down to Ocean City this summer with family and friends, and was told that a 25-footer can comfortably seat around 10 and as many as 17, about double what can fit on a fiberglass motorboat.
Though mostly used on lakes, some pontoons have now become stable enough to operate on open bodies of water such as the Chesapeake Bay because of advanced technology. Schneider said he took "a gamble" bringing pontoons to local sailing aficionados who might be fearful that the pontoon would capsize in rougher seas.
Schneider said Premier Pontoons' development of a "PTX" center tube "lets the pontoon boats handle like a fiberglass boat." Though he doesn't recommend anything under a 20-footer on the Chesapeake Bay, "they're very stable, you've just got to get the bigger pontoons."
5 mile an hour with aluminum side
Wood panelin' with a water slide
Can't beat the heat, so let's take a ride
On the pontoon
Makin' waves and catchin' rays up on the roof
Jumpin' out the back, don't act like you don't want to
Party in slow motion, I'm out here in the open Mmmmmmm...motorboatin'