The performance pontoon era didn’t take flight right away though. In the late 1990s, more than 90 percent of pontoons sold were still the traditional two-tube variety, with horsepower averaging 25 to 50, one-third of today’s power. The round tubes themselves were typically 21 inches in diameter, limiting their flotation and, thus, a boat’s maximum rated horsepower. In Y2K, Odyssey’s engineers, experimenting with ways to change the landscape, perfected a 23-inch-diameter tube, which later would grow to 25 inches. They welded strips of 1.5-inch angled aluminum to the tubes — lifting strakes. On the underside of the deck they crafted aluminum sheets to cover up the cross members and fasteners — maybe not the first to do so, but this version was curved into radiused underbellies. Then, along the St. Joseph River near Elkhart, Indiana, with local media and radar guns on the scene, the first Odyssey with twin outboards (Evinrude 250s) reached 81 mph. A pontoon!
“Nobody expected it,” says South Bay’s Guy Vidmar, who’s been with the company since it was known as Odyssey. “The whole idea was like fitting a square peg into a round hole. We had to rethink everything prior to that run.”
The strakes worked. Instead of the tubes forcing their way through the water like half-submerged torpedoes, the front ends rose above the water and reduced the amount of wetted surface. The underbellies acted like tunnels and allowed a seamless flow of water and air between the tubes and out the back, turning drag into positive hydrodynamics.
“You can see the water coming out the back like you see behind a jet boat,” says Mark Zerbst, owner of Dockside Marine in Glennie, Michigan, near Lake Huron.
Zerbst, now an Aqua Patio dealer, has helped turn the northeast region of Michigan into high-performance pontoon turf. In 2001 he brought a showstopping 300 hp V-8 stern-drive model to the fiberglass boating fraternity on the Au Sable River, drawing stares. Soon after, he was seen tooling across Saginaw Bay at 60 mph on the strength of a 300 hp outboard and casually sipping a cold drink.
“I’m just cranking by these runabout guys, and I’m carrying 10 to 12 people,” Zerbst says. “The whole idea was to get the boats in front of other boaters and create a buzz. Once they saw it, they got it. I can tell you that the majority of those people converted from fiberglass to some type of performance pontoon.”
So, production-model pontoons, still rectangular and aluminum-centric, have become capable of highway speeds. But it’s like the kids who shake and kick the can of Dr. Pepper until it explodes. Cool! OK. Now what?
If there’s such a thing as a silver bullet in the development of performance pontoons, it’s about 25 feet long: the center tube. Builders were experimenting with three- and even four-tube pontoons 40 years ago, but they had no more functionality than log barges. Godfrey, Harris Kayot and Sylvan all had stern-drive pontoons but hadn’t figured out how to merge them with the bulk of a third tube.
Kim Cripe’s dad, John Cripe, visualized a center tube a little longer in the bow and solid enough to hold the inboard/outboard at the stern. Because JC’s tubes were U-shaped instead of round, he wouldn’t need a separate motor pod. The idea was so loaded with potential that he trademarked the name TriToon five years before anyone outside his family believed.
“We went down to Mercury’s test site in Florida with our first outboard version of the classic TriToon in 1986,” Kim says. “The Merc guys were reluctant to even talk with us before we got there. But the minute we slapped a motor on and ran it up to 40 miles per hour, their techs got excited. They basically pushed us out of the way and got serious about testing props, using the radar gun, putting out performance bulletins. It was a pink elephant.”
The elephant is now in the boathouse, permanently. It goes by monikers like PTX, SHP, ESP and RPT. Ever since the center tube proved to be the cornerstone for speed and handling (because of higher flotation and its application as a keel), builders have gone to bending, expanding, flattening, shaping, lowering, widening and squeezing it for all it’s worth, literally.