Catch boat fever in 2017

There was a time when fiberglass bow-rider cruisers ruled the lakes, but those days are rapidly fading into memory as pontoon boats are becoming the watercraft of choice for many people.

Because of their versatility and wide price range, pontoon boats offer something for everyone. That does not mean they are, by any stretch, the only boats on the water. For people with particular needs, there is no shortage of high-quality fishing boats and ski boats available from local marine dealerships.

Logan Martin and Neely Henry lakes boast some of the best fishing in the South and are home to a number of tournaments every year, so there is always a high demand for fast, stable fishing boats. Likewise, because of the large expanses of smooth, open water and several competition courses, boats that specialize in pulling skiers, wakeboarders and the like are also highly sought after.

And if sales so far are any indication, 2017 is going to be a very good year for boat dealers around Logan Martin and Neely Henry. Because of the almost infinite variety of boating options and prices ranging from the low $20,000s to more than $150,000, sales are through the roof.

“This is becoming a unique year for boat sales,” said Mark Hildebrant, general manager at Woods Surfside Marina in Pell City, which specializes in Bennington pontoon boats. “Typically, we sell a lot of boats in the $30-40,000 range. But after the boat show in January, we were way out ahead, selling significantly more upper-end boats.”

He and other regional marine dealers said sales are up as much as 54 percent over last year, not just here, but around the country.

The age of the pontoon

“Excluding wakeboard, ski and fishing boats, sales of old-style bow-rider fiberglass boats are declining and being replaced by pontoon boats,” Hildebrant said.

Years ago, pontoon boats only had two pontoons and were generally designed as motorized entertainment decks to slowly cruise around the lake or to drop anchor and use as a movable swim platform. As often as not, a 40 hp motor would do the job nicely for a leisurely afternoon cruise along the Coosa.

And they are still great for that, but because of advances in design and a desire by boat owners to get the most out of their investment, modern pontoon boats can do so much more. With the addition of a third pontoon and the jump in horsepower from 40 to 50 to hundreds pushed with multiple outboards, pontoon boats have almost no limits.

“The technology is changing. You never would have had multiple engines before,” Hildebrant said, patting the boat next to him. “This boat has a 350 V8 and will do 55 mph.”

Rodney Humphries, owner of Rodney’s Marine in Cropwell, agreed. Rodney’s sells SilverWave pontoon boats and “the tritoons are our biggest sellers. You can put the bigger engines on them, 175, 250 hp. They have become the alternative to deck boats because they are flexible — you can still cruise around, but you can also ski.”

That addition in power and engine configuration makes the boats fast and maneuverable enough for things like skiing and wakeboarding — it all depends on what you want out of your boat, what you want it to do … and how much you are willing to spend.

And then there are the amenities, premium sound systems, GPS, wet-bars, grills, refrigerated cup holders, and one of the most popular, multi-colored RGB LED lighting systems covering everything from speakers to trim. Kicker stereos are the brand seen in just about every new pontoon boat in 2017.

Several boats even sport a special wet-bar and cooler at the waterline so that you can drop anchor off places like Pirate Island and get sodas for the kids and drinks for the adults as you stand or float around the boat in the water.

“Our models with the swim-up access bar are popular. We call it a ‘swim bar,’” Humphries said.
Another popular addition for 2017 is special seating on the back of the boat that folds flat, what Bennington brands as a “swingback bed”, so people can lay out and bask in the warm Southern sun and enjoy the cool lake breeze.

“The swingback is one of the most common features requested,” Hildebrant said.

All of these additions have taken the original pontoon concept and elevated it for 2017 to the perfect floating entertainment platform. Picture you ideal backyard deck area, now put it on the water and give it the ability to go anywhere on the lake — fast if you want — and that is what a pontoon boat in 2017 looks like.

“Pontoons are still perfect for entertaining. There is room for the whole family, friends, even the family dog,” said Katie Trell, with sales and marketing at Buck’s Island in Gadsden. Buck’s Island sells G3 SunCatcher pontoon boats. “It’s like a floating living room or back deck.”

Starla Andrews from University Marine in Pell City, which sells Manitou pontoon boats, took the comparison a step further. “With the Kicker premium sound and the RGB lights, this is way better than your back porch or deck for entertaining.”

Something that nobody thought would be in high demand on pontoon boats is becoming a must-have option for many people – wake towers or tow arches designed to attach ropes for skiers, wakeboarders and other tow-behind water toys.

“The wake towers have been growing in popularity the last few seasons. They are definitely becoming a bigger thing on the pontoon boats,” Humphries said.

While performance and comfort are key selling points, modern pontoon boats also are more durable and easy to care for.

“Carpet has gone by the wayside, replaced by padded vinyl that is easy to clean and does not mildew,” Hildebrant said. Likewise, the vinyl material used for the seats is more durable, resistant to sunlight damage and does not stick to your skin. And the old snaps for covers have been replaced by clips that are much easier to attach.

Overall, the boats are more durable, stand up to wear and tear better and are easier to maintain, meaning you are getting more bang for your buck when it comes to the lifespan of your purchase.

People in the market to buy a new pontoon boat can expect entry prices to be just over $20,000 to the sky is the limit.

Though the top model at Woods Surfside sells for more than $150,000, Hildebrant is quick to point out Bennington has five trim levels and someone on a budget can get a very nice pontoon boat and trailer for less than $30,000.

Other dealers said their prices were in similar ranges and were quick to point out they can help customers find the boat to fit their needs and their budget.

Fishing, ski boats and cruisers

Logan Martin and Neely Henry lakes have long been known as go-to lakes for recreational fishing, but more and more, they are also becoming key stops for competitive professional fishing tournaments.

And when it comes to fishing boats – speed and functionality are king — with the focus being on speed.

Buck’s Island sells Skeeter fishing boats, which Trell says are some of the best bass boats on the market. She has seen professional fishermen trade a boat or upgrade an engine just to get an extra 1 or 2 mph out of it. “Fast is a big deal to a lot of professional fishermen.”

For fishing boats, the amenities are trending towards high-tech gear, such and digital GPS, depth and fish finders, and similar gear.

Something that is new in the fishing world for 2017 are center-console boats. The classic fiberglass fishing boats have long been a staple of ocean and intercoastal fishing enthusiasts. But now, dealers like Rodney’s Marine are selling them more and more for use on the Coosa.

Some traditional bass-boat owners are making the switch, citing the ease of accessibility all the way around the edge of the boat because of the center control console. That console also gives the boat operator better visibility when driving the boat.

“We are selling BlueWave center console boats. We are seeing some of our customers looking to these to replace their traditional bass boats,” Humphries said. “You can use them on the lake or trailer them to the coast.”

For ski boats, what type of tow-behind boating you are doing will be the big determining factor. Not much is changing for 2017, with inboard motors and V-style planing hulls still being the go-to for most enthusiasts.

Still, cabin luxuries, much like the pontoon boats, are popular options, particularly premium sound systems.

At the very high end, options like controllable ballast systems to change the shape of the wake, are on the table.

And though the pontoon boat is leading the market right now, many people still prefer more traditional fiberglass boats. Luckily, there are a number of marine dealers, like Sylacauga Marine and ATV, that sell brands like Tahoe and other motor boats, traditional bow-riders and day cruisers to fit this still populous sector of the boating market.

Customization is key

For all the new performance and luxury enhancements available in 2017, the biggest change comes in how customers choose what boat they want. Just about every major boat manufacturer, from Bennington to Manitou, lets customers go online and custom design the boat they want and that fits their budget. Companies like Bennington, Silverwave, Crest and others each have hundreds of options to choose from.

Customers go online, pick the base design they want to build on – traditional dual pontoons or a tritoon configuration, seating arrangements, length and width, number and size of engines, then they move on to adding the extras.

Bucks Island has more than 200 boats on their lot, “and if we don’t have want you want now, let us order exactly what you want,” Trell said.

Whether it is a custom light job, wake tower, premium sound system or specialty amenities like chilled cup holders or swim bars, it is all right there at their fingertips.

“The online system is great,” Andrews said. “It even educates the boat buyer so they know exactly what they are getting.”

Then the manufacturer calls up or emails a local dealer, like University Marine or Woods Surfside, and coordinates the build and delivery with the customer.

It lets the boat buyer get exactly the watercraft they want.

“Don’t skimp on the things you can afford just because it is your fist boat. Get what you want now so there is not buyer’s remorse,” Hildebrant recommended.

An affordable alternative

All the new boats hitting the water in 2017 means good things for people looking to buy a used boat. Most of the marine dealers accept trade-ins, and with so many people trading up this year, there is plenty of good-quality used inventory to go around.

Those dealers that sell used boats go over them bow to transom to make sure they are in good condition mechanically and are fully seaworthy. So for someone looking to buy a higher-end boat with some extra bells and whistles, a used boat may be just the way to go and still meet your budget requirements.

And for existing boat owners, you can save a bunch by upgrading your existing watercraft. And nothing will do that better than replacing an older, smaller engine.

Businesses like Walker Marine in Ashville specialize in doing just that, and more. They sell Tohatsu boat motors, everything from 2.5 hp all the way up to 250 hp. But they also can service any boat engine built after 1990 and do fiberglass and transom repairs.

That means you can bring them your old boat to them and have them revitalize it with a new engine and rework everything, even the electrical and lights. For a fraction of the cost of a new boat, you get something very comparable.

Though they often sell new motors for new boat purchases, “we have a lot of people who come in with older boats. Breathing new life into older boats is a more affordable alternative to buying new ones,” said Brittany Kleinatland, office manager at Walker.


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