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It's hard to say when it happened, but happen it did.

Pontoon boats became cool.

Way cool. Once puttering platforms for the geriatric generation, today's upscale boats can cost as much as a sports car and go nearly as fast. Three-tube aluminum boats, each mounted with a 300-horsepower outboard engine, have been clocked at more than 100 miles per hour.

Modern pontoons are a far cry from what baby boomers remember. No lawn chairs. No metal railings. No steel barrels that plow like a John Deere. Instead, today's boats rise up on plane, bank like a jet and bring the living room onto the lake. Some bring other amenities too, such as a toilet, changing room and mini-kitchen. Even backyard playground equipment can tag along as some boats can be fitted with a water slide that twists down from an upper deck.

The pontoon's evolution over the past 64 years has made it one of the most successful segments of the boating industry, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA). Pontoon and other aluminum boats were the first to recover from a hard-hitting 2008 recession sales slump. Only pontoon boats are back to pre-2008 sales levels.

"What's driving pontoon sales is consumer interest in a multipurpose day boat," said Thom Dammrich, president of NMMA. "People want a great day with friends on the water followed by a great night's sleep on shore in their own bed. A pontoon boat provides that."

Dammrich said the pontoon's versatility — a craft that works for tubing, skiing, fishing and entertaining — is what's driving sales. "Years ago, if you had a 22-foot fiberglass bow rider you had to buy a cabin cruiser to do more entertaining," he said. "Now you can buy a luxury pontoon."

Minnesota invention

Luxury was far from Ambrose Weeres' mind when he invented the pontoon boat in Richmond, Minn., in 1951. He simply theorized that a wooden platform set atop two columns of steel barrels, welded together end to end, would make a sturdy pleasure craft more stable than a conventional fishing boat. He tested his first boat on Horseshoe Lake in Stearns County. His theory proved correct. He formed Weeres Industries the following year to test another hypothesis: That Minnesota, with its 10,000 lakes, would have some sales potential.

Sure enough, Weeres took 40 orders in 1952 for his Empress boat. He took another 100 shortly after displaying his pioneering craft at a show in Chicago. In the years to come, tens of thousands of Weeres pontoons would be made in Minnesota and sold throughout the nation.

Minnesota innovation

Though Weeres invented the pontoon, Minnesota's Bob Menne fast-tracked its evolution. A former professional snowmobile racer and Forester Boat executive, Menne launched Premier Pontoons in 1992 in Wyoming, Minn. His vision focused on a faster and more alluring pontoon.

"Dad offered colored carpets, high-quality furniture, creative seating configurations, larger outboard engines, high performance packages and boats that arrived at dealerships fully assembled," said Lori Melbostad, Menne's daughter and president of Premier Pontoons. "Those innovations and others led to strong sales immediately, and we've never looked back."

Today, Premier manufactures about 3,500 pontoons a year under the Premier, Palm Beach, Weeres and Leisure brands. She said Premier, the luxury brand, continues to innovate and respond to the evolving interests of buyers. For example, Premier's Grand Entertainer is equipped with Flexsteel built-in couches, an entertainment bar, lighted drink holders, sink and drying rack. Designed to hold up to 18 people, it also features touches that Premier believes appeal to women: a stemware holder, flip-out purse holders and an optional electric-powered top that goes up and down with the touch of a finger.

Melbostad said the pontoon industry is increasingly focused on boat speed and handling as part of a one-boat-can-do-it-all sales strategy. Premier first offered its high performance package — with a uniquely shaped third tube that lifts the boat for speed, tight turns and reduced fuel consumption — 15 years ago. She said that package, engineered by a designer of high-speed fiberglass racing boats, is exceedingly popular because a growing percentage of boat buyers are choosing pontoons rather than stern-drive V-hulled fiberglass boats. The 29-foot Grand Entertainer, she said, rises to plane in just two seconds and reaches speeds in excess of 50 miles per hour in just 10 seconds when powered by two 300-horsepower outboard engines.

Sales of aluminum-tube pontoon boats have been so strong that even longtime fiberglass boat builders have begun to wade into the market. Larson Boats of Little Falls, Minn., now offers two types of pontoon boats with more than a dozen deck configurations. Cobalt Boats, a longtime Kansas manufacturer of high-end runabouts and cruisers, now builds a fiberglass and aluminum pontoon. Carolina Skiff has gone so far as to build a fiberglass-hulled pontoon boat that targets coastal buyers.

"As a market innovator for more than 100 years, we realized it was time to enter the pontoon business," said Matt Vetzner, Larson Group marketing director. He said Escape brand pontoons were launched in 2013. The company's goal is to distinguish itself from other pontoon builders with their new "tapered tube technology below the water line and distinct fiberglass styling above, including a car-styled front end."

So when did pontoon boats become cool?

Melbostad surmises the shift in perception began in the 1980s. "Our family grew up on a Minnesota lake," she said. "We always had boats. One day my dad watched as my brothers argued over who got to use the pontoon. That's when dad knew he was onto something if he entered the pontoon business."

Among Minnesota's pontoon boat owners are Corey and Shana Krantz of East Gull Lake, who routinely ply Gull Lake in their Bennington pontoon. Parents of four children ages 15 and under, they say the pontoon is a perfect fit for them.

"We call our pontoon the floating fun vessel," said Shana. "We use it for family days on the lake, dining and tubing. It's the perfect niche boat for friends and family."

C.B. Bylander is a freelance writer from Baxter, Minn.