I have a confession to make: Every year during the Miami International Boat Show, I treat the pontoon boat displays the same way I treat the sailboat displays. In other words, I avoid them. Strike that—I go out of my way to avoid them. My thinking is that if I’m ever seen, much less photographed, anywhere near a pontoon boat or a sailboat I’ll lose my sweet gig as editor-at-large for Powerboat magazine. We cover big, fast high-performance boats at Powerboat. Pontoons just don’t make the cut. And sailboats? Please.
But you know, after covering this year’s Lake of the Ozarks Shootout in late August, I’m rethinking my position on pontoons. That’s because I saw a pair them reach 100-mph on the central Missouri lake’s liquid-mile course. And heaven help me for what I’m about to say, they looked good doing it.
To make things even more intriguing, one of the boats was powered by a single supercharged big-block engine with a stern drive and the other had triple outboards. So both sides of the mainstream go-fast boat power world were covered.
Ken Gouty of Antioch, Ill, owns and drove the big-block engine version, a 27-foot-long PlayCraft with a custom-built 540-cubic-inch powerplant. Outfitted with twin 2.3-litre Whipple superchargers, the 1,200-hp engine is the product of a collaboration among local engine builder Skunkworks Performance in Illinois, Chief Engines in Florida and Whipple Industries in California.
For the Shootout, a Max Marine drive and a Hering five-blade 32-inch-pitch propeller put the considerable horsepower to the water.
Gouty, 56, of Antioch, Ill., owns a trucking business. Though he’s not a professional racer he’s been around boats since he was seven years old.
“I worked in a marina, fixed boats and engines,” he says. “I’ve seen just about everything.”
So why does he attack speed in a vessel not traditionally designed for the job? (OK, that’s an understatement.) With the same power package in a single-engine catamaran, for example, he’d likely top 130 mph.
“Our lake is full of cats and V-bottoms,” Gouty explained “It’s just a lot more fun going by a Fountain or a Baja in a pontoon than it is going by them in another Fountain or Baja. I’ve had a guy tell me straight out, ‘There’s no way I’m racing you. If I beat you, I beat a pontoon boat. If I foul a plug or something and you beat me, I’ll never hear the end of it.’
“The boat is very predictable—I could drive it anywhere,” he added. “It wasn’t nearly as loose as last year. It never got loose at all.”
Gouty admitted that the boat, which actually has a pair of tunnel tabs, was a whole lot more planted to the water during this year’s runs at the Shootout than it was last year. The reason for the increased stability, however, was less than calculated.
“When we brought it home, we found the front nose cone on one of middle pontoon had split—the boat takes a beating when I drive it like an idiot,” he explained. “So the middle pontoon was full of water.”
I can only imagine how much faster Gouty’s pontoon machine might have gone without its newfound water-ballast system.
Representing the outboard engine ranks was Brad Rowland of Lake Shelbyville, Ill. Outfitted with triple Mercury 300 X outboards with a combined 900 hp, his 25-foot-long Forest River Southbay 925 pontoon boat hit 100 mph during its Sunday run.
With the exception of jack plates for the engines, which allows for drive-height (or “X-dimension”) flexibility, there are no modifications to Rowland’s boat or its engines.
Like Gouty, Rowland, a plumber by trade, is far from a professional racer. Also like Gouty, the 40-year-old has been around boats most of his life, has a passion for pontoons and is competitive as hell. He said he understands why people “don’t get” going fast in a pontoon boat, at least at first.
“People think you’re nuts until they take a ride,” he explained. “My pontoon boat is just so stable—it will go over anything. I like the ride of a pontoon boat and I like the room. It’s so spacious and plush. This is the third one I’ve owned, so it’s in my blood I guess. One of these days if I get done with the pontoon deal I’ll buy a cat and put these motors on it.
“I have a family, so a pontoon boat makes sense,” he added. “This boat is a lot heavier than the one I had last year, so it really sets in the water. The one I had last year was a little light.”
Outside of a pair of 50-foot-long Mystic catamarans—one with 2,000-hp ethanol-fueled engines and other with 1,500-hp turbine engine—this pair of pontoon boats was the crowd favorite at this year’s Shootout. You could even say they stole show.
Which is why I’ll (grudgingly) check out the pontoon displays at next year’s Miami International Boat Show. But you still won’t catch me at any sailboat displays. No way. I do have some standards.
Bi-weekly columnist Matt Trulio is the editor at large for Powerboat magazine. He has written for the magazine since 1994. Trulio’s daily blog can be found on speedonthewater.com, a site he created and maintains, which is the high-performance arm of the BoaterMouth group.