Speed-Run Pontoon Ideas Trickle Down to Consumer Models
It’s likely the first pontoon boat race occurred the day the second pontoon boat was built. That’s the nature of competition. But the notion of going very fast in a pontoon might seem a bit counter-intuitive. If you want to go fast, why not just start with a faster boat? Maybe that would be too easy for people like Brad Rowland, a 51-year-old plumber from Sullivan, Ill., who holds the pontoon speed record, a blistering 114 mph run at the 2013 Lake of the Ozarks (LOTO) Shootout speed trials.
“You know when you are really cookin’,” said Rowland. “It gets real smooth because you are barely in the water.”
Rowland set his record with the 25-foot triple-tube South Bay pontoon “Tooned In” rigged with triple Mercury Racing Pro Max 300X outboards with 1.75:1 Fleet Master gearcases. In 2016 Rowland matched that record speed in a new 25-foot South Bay powered by the same trio of Mercury Racing Pro Max 300X motors, and claims to have seen 117 mph in private testing.
Rowland and other speed-seeking pontooners run with the deck fencing in place and even retain the stock seating.
“It’s basically a box on the water,” says Rowland. “I will open the front and rear gates to let some air flow through the boat, but I’ve found reducing weight has no effect on speed. The aerodynamics are so bad to start with.”
Rowland ran the South Bay to 112 mph at the 2019 LOTO Shootout, which is now on a course shortened from a mile to ¾-mile since he set the record. A steering malfunction hampered his run, or he feels he might have beat his own best speed.
“It’s a hairy deal running that fast in a pontoon,” says Rowland, who thinks pontoon speed may have hit a wall. “I’ll shake the hand of the man who goes faster.”
A handful of pontoon manufacturers – South Bay, Playcraft, Manitou and Avalon are examples – offer production models designed for speed and handling performance with potent single and twin outboards, including motors like the new Mercury Racing 450R outboard. The fastest production models are capable of speeds exceeding 70 mph.
“Nobody needs a 300-hp outboard on a pontoon for day-to-day use,” said Rusty Kucher, Brunswick Category Director – Pontoons, including the Harris Boats brand that offers the Mercury Racing 450R outboard for its Grand Mariner and Crowne series. “But there’s a segment of the pontoon market that wants to run as fast as possible, and enjoys having the biggest motor available. The owner who bought a boat with a single or twin Mercury Racing 400R outboards a few years ago now wants to move up to the 450R.”
Tri-tube pontoons designed for more than 200 hp and to run over 50 mph typically feature heavy-duty construction, with stout cross members placed on 16-inch centers, and pontoon tubes made of heavier-than-standard gauge aluminum. Triple tubes are generally required for boats rigged with more than 200 horsepower. Some builders make this center tube slightly larger in diameter than the outboard tube, or mount it slightly lower, so that at speed the boat rides primarily on the center tube but can also heel slightly to carve cleaner turns than a twin-tube pontoon. A number of design elements are added to the round tubes to increase performance. The tubes may have added bulkheads, and may be filled with compressed air or foam, so they maintain shape at high speeds. Some have a flat bottom surface added aft to promote planing, and all will have lifting strakes on the inboard and outboard tube surface that are designed to capture the energy of water displaced by the tubes and use it to lift the entire boat to reduce drag. The strakes are also designed to improve boat handling. A final element is a skin of aluminum attached to the underside of the cross members to reduce aerodynamic and hydrodynamic drag.
Add some serious outboard horsepower and props from Mercury Racing and you’ve got a performance pontoon, a boat that’s the antitheses of the traditional “go slow and enjoy the view at sunset” pontoon experience. Of course, a performance pontoon can always be throttled back for that sunset cruise, but can also offer an exhilarating burst of speed and cover longer distances more efficiently.