First, there was the pontoon. Somewhere along the way someone decided he could maximize boat space by planking a deck across two air-filled metal tubes and sticking an outboard on it. Then someone else realized that we can stretch out a bowrider and do that with a fiberglass hull too. Either way, you get a trailerable boat designed to be packed with people, toys, and food and drink. The idea being, once you step aboard, you never have to step off until sunset. But which best meets that mission? We teamed up with the Nautic Global Group, builder of some iconic decks and ’toons, to pit one against the other. Here’s what we found, with a surprising twist of a third option.
Wide open. Just look at the picture above, if you’re not familiar with the true nature of a pontoon, and marvel at the deck space acreage afforded on this 24-footer with a fully extended 8-foot-6-inch beam. You could set up a pingpong net between the bow sofas.
The Sweetwater 220 SL is an excellent representation of the hottest segment in the boating market: value pontoons in the 20- to 24-foot range. The most obvious reason for ’toon popularity is space per dollar spent. A quick run through of the 220 SL shows you in detail.
Start with the 12-person capacity and 1,692-pound weight capacity. You’re not going to find the same numbers on a comparable deck boat. For example, the Hurricane SunDeck Sport 202 we ran head-to-head holds slightly more weight but sits 10 people. On the ’toon, though, you’d consider putting 12 on board. On the deck, 10 is a stretch.
Our 220 SL tester had opposing sofas both fore and aft, with movable armrests that harbor two cup holders. In the forward lounge, the two forward facing recliners offer true lie-down room compared with a deck, as do the rear-facing recliners aft. To port, opposite the helm there’s a dinette; on a deck there’d be a second console with a small head or storage space. A ’toon counters with a lift-out privacy curtain that could include a port-a-potty. The seat cushions featured optional soft-touch vinyl supported by covered roto-molded seat bases with guttered, mildew-resistant stowage. There’s more stowage under the seats in a ’toon but no in-sole lockers (some triple ’toons do have them) like on a deck, so it’s a trade-off.
Performance? Pontoons typically can’t match up in handling and rough-water ride with their fiberglass breathren, but ’toon builders are taking steps to even the score. Sweetwater offers a tri ’toon package that, as our tester illustrated, greatly improves performance. Tubers and skiers will love the zippy starts and sharp turning afforded by the 25-inch centerline tube with a 20-inch lifting pad aft. The outer tubes have inner lifting strakes.
One action in which pontoons typically outshine fiberglass boats is climbing on plane. There’s no hump to climb over, so it happens almost instantaneously with no bowrise. It’s almost imperceptible, but we managed to clock time to plane at three seconds.
Still, a pontoon is not exactly aerodynamic, so it’s much more susceptible to wind and thus harder to manage around the docks. Plus, a fiberglass deck with even a moderate V will fare better in a chop and generally provide a better platform for popular tow sports such as tubing, water skiing or wakeboarding. Not that our 220 SL couldn’t do the job, especially with the ski tow bar raised above the outboard.
One thing a pontoon such as the 220 SL affords is stability. Its 8-foot-6-inch beam carries fore and aft, and the bouyancy the tubes provide on the outer edges of the boat ensure almost no tipsiness as passengers shift from bow to stern or side to side. That, and the high railings, ensure family safety.
The 220 SL disproves the argument that pontoons are just for fresh water. The tubes can be coated with antifouling paint, and there’s an optional vinyl deck that stands up well to the rugged abuse of salty use.