Back in 1952 a Minnesota farmer named Ambrose Weeres welded together two sets of steel barrels and secured a wooden platform on top. When he mounted a small outboard on the aft end, set in between the twin tubes, Weeres essentially invented the modern pontoon boat. Other people who took note of his stable, buoyant design asked him to build more of them; he called the design the Empress. So began the culture of pontoon boats. Their mission: to serve as large-capacity family entertainment centers, style and speed be damned.
The pontoon boat concept spread throughout the freshwater lakes of the Midwest, including Indiana, where two brothers named Pete and Ernie Harris took note. “We’d seen someone who had taken 55-gallon barrels and drop tanks off of airplanes and used them to build up pontoon boats,” Pete Harris once said. “The more individuals we saw building them, we thought, ‘Hey, there might be a market for that.’”
With that, the Harris brothers developed and marketed the Harris FloteBote. Launched in 1957, the FloteBote is one of the first modern production pontoons. What their ’toons lacked in curb appeal, they made up for in entertainment value.
“Right from the beginning, people recognized that pontoons offered an easy option for getting on the water,” said Bob Fieldhouse, director of engineering for Harris Pontoon Boats. “Besides being able to [be boarded] easily, they were less expensive and required less maintenance than any other type of boat that could boast a similar person capacity.”
For decades most development pertaining to pontoons evolved around the twin tube concept, maintaining the basic rectangular shape while making improvements to the tubes — or logs, as many ’tooners call them — while concentrating heavily on improving layout and creature comforts.
Then, something happened. Pontoon boatbuilders realized that, by adding a center tube, they could start achieving performance traits more comparable to boats with a planing hull. Also, somewhere along the line, styling and profile started to matter as much as seating and cooler space. So now, over 60 years after Ambrose Weeres got creative with some steel drums, we have boats like the Harris Crowne 250, a ’toon that can hang with the bowriders and deck boats on the lake and that is one in a legion of boats that have made pontoons the hottest sellers in boating.
From our conversations with Harris and other builders, and from our staff’s collective experience of testing pontoon boats, we came up with a list of game changers. Here, then, are eight of the biggest advancements in ’toon technology, and how they shape today’s boats.
At first glance it would be easy to mistake the Harris Crowne 250 for a fiberglass V-hull boat. Its profile bears very little resemblance to its ancestors in the Harris lineup. A winner of a National Marine Manufacturers Association 2013 Innovation Award, it epitomizes possibilities for the modern pontoon. It still has all the seating and people capacity, capable of holding 12 passengers, but it looks … sleek.
Abovedecks, Harris builds the Crowne 250 with molded fiberglass components fore and aft, instead of roto-molded seats and aluminum rails. It integrates aluminum panels along the side decks that seamlessly blend with the fiberglass modules, so that it maintains an elegant, unbroken sheer line. (What? We normally reserve sheer line for monohull beauties.)
Belowdecks, Harris uses what it calls its Performance III package, which drops the 25-inch-diameter center tube an inch lower than the twin outboard tubes, creating a V-hull effect. The outer tubes have interior lifting strakes, and the center tube has strakes on either side to improve performance. Its full aluminum skin underneath reduces drag and increases speed and efficiency. When paired with a 300 hp Mercury Verado, the result is an instantaneous hole shot, a 6.9-second run to 30 mph and a top speed approaching 50 mph. More than the speed, the Crowne 250 leans inboard during hard-over turns at the helm and really carves turns.
The good news for you as a boat buyer is that Harris is not the only builder capable of producing a sleek and stylish performance pontoon boat. Builders like Bennington, Godfrey, Manitou, Starcraft, PlayCraft, Premier and more all build boats that measure up to the demands of the 21st century.
Were Ambrose Weeres alive today, what do you think he’d make of that?