Tiki hut boats are surprisingly stable, and water just washes right through the decking. (Ginger Kozlowski/Laconia Daily Sun)
By THOMAS P. CALDWELL, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — A local man has brought a touch of the tropics to Weirs Beach this year, and it is definitely catching people’s attention.
“Hulk” Gagnon is offering two versions of Greg Darby’s Cruisin’ Tiki for sale, giving people a chance to cruise the lake while enjoying a cocktail in a bamboo hut, or simply sitting dockside.
“It’s a great social event on the dock or on the water,” Gagnon said. “On a Sunday afternoon, hanging out on the boat or sitting at the dock with a drink is a lot of fun. That’s what lake life is all about.”
Darby’s trademarked motto puts it succinctly: “Why go barhopping when you can hop on the bar?”
The boat that looks like a tiki hut meets all Coast Guard specifications. It is hand-crafted, with a bamboo superstructure and manufactured thatching. The floating hut is available with an optional motor that can propel it at 5 mph, along with fuel tank, chairs, life jackets for eight people (although it can accommodate as many as 12), wet bar/sink, horn and fire extinguisher. Buyers can even include a Bose Bluetooth sound system.
Measuring 15 feet, 6 inches, the tiki hut boat is easy to maintain, Gagnon said. “I hose it off once a week, and that’s all there is to it.”
It also is very stable, he said.
“On a Sunday afternoon at The Weirs, it always gets rough,” he said, “and you’ll get your feet wet. The floor has half-inch gaps. But we were cruising alongside another boat, and the water came over their windshield and they really got soaked.”
He said that, once in a while, a big cruiser will come by and swamp the boat, but it remains stable. “No one ever tripped or fell off,” he said.
Because the tiki hut boat is so buoyant, it sits atop the waves, and Gagnon said he could place a drink on the table and it wouldn’t move during a cruise across the water.
“It’s just a nice social event,” Gagnon said, noting that he often takes 90-minute trips from his home to circle Governors Island and return. He also has taken the tiki hut boat to The Broads, Moultonborough, and Pistol Island. “It’s just 5 mph, so you’re never in a hurry. You just cruise, have a couple of cocktails, and just socialize.”
Yet it also is “fantastic as a dock extension,” he said. “You’ve got a floating bar at the end of your dock.”
Gagnon, who also owns a home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, said he saw the original tiki hut boat on the Intercoastal Waterway, with several people on board, having a great time. He thought it had great potential for Lake Winnipesaukee, so he contacted Darby about becoming a distributor.
Darby, also a Fort Lauderdale resident, said that designing the Cruisin’ Tiki, which he describes as a cross between a dinghy and a tiki bar, came about by accident.
“I wanted to put a tiki hut in my backyard, but didn’t want to give up the backyard, so I designed it to float. Then I thought I’d add a motor, so I redesigned it.”
He decided to copyright the design, then built it and put it on the water.
“Someone took a video of us going down the river, and it went viral on Facebook,” Darby said. “We then got calls from everyone.”
Darby put the Cruisin’ Tiki into production in March 2016 and he said there are 27 of them in the water now, with five at Lake George. Besides Lake Winnipesaukee, he said there are tiki hut boats in North Carolina, California, and “all over Florida” from the Keys to Jacksonville, on both the east and west coasts.
“The demand is definitely there,” Darby said. “We’re selling all over the country, with orders out to the panhandle of Alabama, North and South Carolina, Texas, and California. ... We’re working right now with a client in Delaware. The lakes are going to be the big thing next year, in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. There are two up in Buffalo.
“It’s definitely got that cool factor, and we say it puts smiles on people’s faces, one boat at a time.”
Darby said it take three to four weeks to build a boat. “A lot of work goes into the top and the bar, because everything’s customized,” he said. “We’re using bamboo poles, and they’re never straight, so it takes time to weave it together.”
He has three full-time people building the boats, which use polyethylene barrels for ballast.
“They’re extremely stable,” Darby said, “and we can now say they’re hurricane-tested. We had one in the Florida Keys and one on the west coast when Irma came through, and they came through flawlessly. Buildings were blown down on both sides, and the tikis withstood everything.”
The said the Cruisin’ Tiki is stable enough that he and his wife were able to do a 90-mile cruise down through Biscayne Bay when there was a 2- to 3-foot chop, and they had no problem.
“They’re the most photographed boat around,” he observed.
He said one his partners did an analysis that found that videos of the tiki hut boat have more than 50 million views and they generated 259,000 unique posts on Facebook and Instagram.
“Tourism boats come by and they’re always taking pictures,” he said. “The Weather Channel just did a little video of the tikis, and we have a link to it on cruisintikis.com. We did a photoshoot for a Hooters calendar, and that was a tough job, but I had to do it.”
Gagnon admits to being a little disappointed at the number of sales in Laconia. “Everybody wants to rent or charter them, and I get phone calls every weekend,” he said. “The price keeps them from selling. Thirty-four thousand dollars is a lot of money, but a pontoon boat is $40,000 to $50,000, and some will pay $110,000 for a party boat. Putting it into perspective, this is the same thing as a party boat, but for a lot less. This is all custom labor, rather than a prefab pontoon boat that’s slapped together.”
He said he tried to answer the demand for rentals but was unable to find an insurance company willing to provide the coverage until now, so next year he hopes to offer both rentals and charters, and he is looking to team up with some local restaurants for the charter service.
“I’d like to have one in The Weirs, one in Meredith, and one in Wolfeboro,” Gagnon said. “I’m talking with two different restaurants now.”
Capt. Timothy Dunleavy of the New Hampshire Marine Patrol said the Department of Safety has no issues with the tiki hut boats as long as people use them responsibly.
“There is a time and a place for all boats, and we just encourage users to use common sense and safe boating practices, and to be familiar with the weather forecast,” he said.
Dunleavy noted that the Coast Guard has certified them as being safe, and they have to go through the federal standards to gain that approval, so it is a question of whether they are “appropriate for all the conditions that Lake Winnipesaukee throws toward them.”
“They look like a lot of fun,” he said, “but certain water conditions would concern me with the tiki hut boats, but that’s also the case with canoes and kayaks.”
If nothing else, Gagnon said, the boats prove to be great conversation pieces.
As for Darby, “It’s been a fun project, and it still is.”
For more information about the boats, see tikihutboatsofnh.com.