The helm of a modern fountain, Kevin Keenan explained, is entirely electronic and can even drive itself with information from the GPS system. (Laconia Daily Sun photo/Adam Drapcho)
By ADAM DRAPCHO, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LAKE WINNIPESAUKEE — So, you've decided the time is right to buy a boat – or maybe add a boat to your collection. The question then becomes: What kind of boat is right for you and your family? Marinas around Lake Winnipesaukee have a wide variety of boats for sale, and at an equally broad range of prices.
Anyone who has boated on Winnipesaukee – or any other popular lake in the country, for that matter – has likely noticed a surge in pontoon boat popularity. At Channel Marine, general manager Jason St. Gelais said that pontoon boats had already commanded the lion's share of his marina's business at the start of the season, and that recent year-to-date national industry statistics show pontoon boats increasing 12.7 percent over last year's already impressive figures.
"Pontoon boats have definitely taken off," St. Gelais said. Propelling their ascent are technology and design innovations, such as the use of a third pontoon for a "tri-toon" platform, which make for a more stable ride and allow the use of more powerful outboard engines. The pontoon boat's flat, open floor plan allows for a range of customization, and manufacturers have responded with designs to suit diverse activities.
"They handle just as well as a traditional bowrider, if not better. You can do all the same things you would do – waterski, tubing – and you've got a lot more room," said St. Gelais.
Price is also a selling point. A customer looking for a boat for sunset cruises and relaxed touring would be happy with a Crest 200L, said St. Gelais, which starts a little more than $20,000. For a more powerful tri-toon, which can pull a waterskier or tuber, the price increases to $40,000 and up.
St. Gelais said the pontoon boat of today are attracting an increasingly diverse collection of boat buyer.
"It appeals to everybody and everyone, even the people that never thought they would ever buy a pontoon boat. I hear it all the time, 'I never thought I'd buy a pontoon boat,' and people are buying. Pontoon boating is taking over Winnipesaukee."
Manufacturers of conventional fiberglass boats aren't yielding the battle yet, though. Bill Irwin, at Irwin Marine, said he's particularly impressed by Sea Ray's 350 XLS, a 34-and-a-half-foot-long bowrider with teak floors, advanced technology such as an all-digital touchscreen dash with built-in GPS, and comfort and convenience features including seating for 18, a sink and grill, a significantly quieter ride, a fixed sun shade and an extended swim platform.
"It's just gorgeous," said Irwin adding that the model would appeal to "somebody that would like to entertain a lot of people, also great for a couple of people going out on the lake."
Fay's Boat Yard in Gilford sells more powerboats than anything else, but it remains known as the place to go for sailboats.
"Sailboats – we're really the only people that do it. And we're experts, high-end experts," said Fay's sales manager Sean Mulligan. Fay's stocks small dinghies, Laser sailboats, catamarans and cruising yachts, said Mulligan. For the serious sailor, though, Mulligan has a line of J/boats.
Many J/boats have below-deck accommodations, said Mulligan, "But that's not what these are about. These are performance sailboats."
"Everything about them, the way the sail plan is, the deck rigging, and the sails (material), they go faster with less wind," Mulligan said. With a performance boat, a sailor can change the shape of the sail to better harness the natural energy of the wind.
"Into the wind, you can be going upwards of seven, eight or nine knots," said Mulligan. "Downwind, you can be going 18 knots. It gets up onto a plane. These boats are rigged up to be able to do that, they have that potential."
The price tag for such a boat starts at around $200,000, though even at that cost Mulligan said he was able to ship three of them to local customers last month. The boats appeal to someone who knows how to sail and wants to advance their skill, perhaps even sail competitively.
"It's going to be an experienced sailor looking for a nice performance sailboat, something they're not going to grow out of in any short time. You can keep upping your game and not catch up to the boat," he said.
If none of the above boats appeal to you, then perhaps you should visit Kevin Keenan a Paugus Bay Marina, where he has been selling Formula boats for the past nine years. Although Formula has a long tradition of selling high-performance boats, Keenan said that's no longer indicative of the company's current product.
"Formula started out as a performance boat in the '70s and '80s. That is an image we are starting to shed," Keenan said. Though the brand is moving away from the "cigarette" style off-shore racing boat design, Keenan said Formula is rolling the technology and attention to detail used in those boats into its line of high-end bowriders.
The company's designs are evolving as its client base matures, Keenan has seen. Thirty years ago, Formula customers were younger, and splurged on a thrilling, high-performance machine. Now, those customers are interested in something that they can use to take their children or grandchildren out for a day of cruising, but "They still want a performance feel."
"We're very blessed to have what I think is the best boat lineup on the lake," said Keenan, and the price points reflect Keenan's estimation of excellence.
A recently sold 37-foot power cruiser went for around $400,000, he said. For that figure, the customer got a boat fitted with a pair of big-block V-8 engines, a cabin with a bed, galley and two seating areas. The helm features controls that are entirely electronic.
"This is a fly-by-wire boat," said Keenan. While the throttle levers and steering wheels on previous generations were attached to cables and pulleys that moved throttle plates and propellers. In the Formula, the controls are purely electronic, and with the optional Axius system, the boat will read GPS signals and manipulate each engine independently. The system can automatically navigate a series of waypoints, or can keep a boat in a fixed location and direction regardless of wind or water current.
The Axius option adds $25,000 to the purchase price, but Keenan said that nearly every customer requests it.
"People love gadgets," he said. "The Formula buyer, he wants all the best."
Formula buyers are also likely to spend tens of thousands for a custom paint job, or bespoke interior upholstery, so that they know that theirs is unlike any other boat on the lake.
The Formula owners also tend to be meticulous with maintenance. That, combined with brand recognition and the fact that Winnipesaukee boats spend their lives away from saltwater, means that traded in Formulas command a premium at Paugus Bay Marina.
"These boats, even 10 or 12 years old, we put them online, we get five or six hits in the first hour," Keenan said. Even a 30-year-old boat commands $8,000 on the used market. And it will sell, to someone who appreciates the distinction that comes with the brand. Keenan said, "This is not a cookie-cutter boat."