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Low-budget pontoons designed to maximize family fun

Low-budget pontoons designed to maximize family fun

By Lew Freedman, Chicago Tribune

The large necklace Cathy Santogrossi wore was a miniature neon sign. Much like a flashing sign that might be seen in Las Vegas, her few-inches-long advertisement grabbed the viewer's eye with rotating letters: "Boats = Fun."

Such a description may be true of all boats--and because her family business is Fox Valley Marine in Naperville, Santogrossi would tell you that--but it's possible that no boat is more fun for more people than a pontoon.

Large, stable, slow-moving, seemingly indestructible, pontoons really do live up to the cliche of "fun for the whole family." It is a curious quirk of nature and commerce that the best time to buy a boat is when the water is frozen. The annual Chicago Boat, RV & Outdoors Show takes place in January so it won't interfere with prime boating time and a purchase will be ready for delivery when there's actually water available.

Maybe it's because my knees are senior citizens, but I confess to a growing fascination with pontoons. Once it was easier to identify with cigarette boats (thank you, Don Johnson) and their high-speed capability. Now I'm partial to the Volkswagen of boats.

There were a variety of pontoon boats on display at the recent show at McCormick Place, but even though they barely register on the price chart next to the million-dollar yachts, they seem to be inching up in cost.

Still, when I compare the price of a pontoon with the cost of a new car, I don't feel badly about the potential investment.

"Women like the boats because they're safe and they're like a home on the water," Santogrossi said. "Women like something safe and enclosed. There is more interest. It's going up. These people just want fun on the water. They can bring Mom and Dad with."

I lump pontoons with VWs because of their general lack of glamor. But I compare them to Hummers for their sturdiness. Basic pontoon boats measure 18 feet. They grow a bit longer from there. All models are 8 1/2 feet wide. Most accommodate wheelchairs. They are high-sided and, depending on the motor (25 horsepower and up), usually travel at speeds of around 10 m.p.h., or slightly faster than Fred Flintstone can go with foot power. When the Pontoon Boat Racing Circuit is started, I want to know about it.

The price is $10,000 to $40,000. Try to buy a 2007 car for 10 grand.

It is no surprise that the young, single guy with a sports car is not the target customer for pontoons.

"The demographic for the pontoon boat is Grandpa and Grandma," said Wayne Libera, who operates Water Werks boat sellers in Country Club Hills and Naperville. "They want to take the grandkids fishing and riding. You're going out there and puttering around on the water. And young parents buy that pontoon boat for large families.

"It's real safe and an 18-footer will hold 10 people. But that's no boat you would want to put in Lake Michigan."

Libera said a solid pontoon can be found for lake and river use for $12,000. Whatever happened to the old $5,000 model?

"Five thousand dollars will buy you junk," he said.

Some pontoons come with individual fishing seats at front and back to complement couch-style seating in the middle. Others have couches all around.

Pontoons are for the low-budget buyers whose only connection to fancy yachts is admiring them in magazines. If they want to live it up, they pay extra for an on-board portable toilet, a changing enclosure or a canopy for weather protection.

Tom Tepe and his wife, Priscilla, of Oak Park are looking toward retirement next year. They were window-shopping at the show for a pontoon of about 20 feet long and a $16,000 to $22,000 hit to the pocketbook.

"He wants to fish all day," Priscilla said.

"Maybe twice a day," Tom said.

They do plan to take the grandchildren out and want four seats.

"But it would probably be the two of us most of the time," he said.

Brad Frystak of Great Lakes Yacht Sales said parents of very young children set up playpens and that pontoon boats are ideal for wheelchair boaters.

"They're floating living rooms," Frystak said.The market is seeing the first signs of the young single male pontoon buyer, he said, as long as modifications are made.

"Believe it or not," Frystak said, "they are buying these because they're becoming performance-oriented with 175-horsepower engines."

Somehow that seems like equipping a yellow school bus with a jet engine.

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