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Party Pontoon Boat Becomes Revered Work Horse

Fri December 14, 2007 - National Edition
Construction Equipment Guide

If you hear the word pontoon and think party boat puttering on a lake, you lack the experiences of marine construction professionals. These unique vessels have earned a reputation among those in the know as some of the most versatile and rugged workboats. Boats that easily adapt to various and sometimes dangerous tasks. Tasks that fulfill the needs of a slew of private and public entities, including fire, recreation and wildlife protection agencies, marinas, fish and game departments, and demolition or construction crews.

Pontoon boats have earned grudging respect because their design specifications can be tailored to payload capacity, work environment and weight demands. Width, length and buoyancy can all be modified. And bow and stern shapes can be altered to allow for the best usage of surface space and work requirements.

Each user of pontoon boats begins with a platform that is designed and admired for its durability and flotation stability. But the end product entails the customization of everything from riggings, cleats, tie-downs and steering to enclosures — cabins, tarps or canopies.

Ken Hagman’s firm, Copper Bay Construction, has been a fixture on Idaho’s Priest Lake since 1977. He ties the increased use of his pontoon boats to the demand for greater longevity of marine construction.

“We’re using more aluminum framing and composite decking. Because of that, transporting equipment and materials to the site have become much more critical over the years.”

One aspect of Hagman’s work is removing damaged boat lifts and replacing them with new equipment. To make the job more efficient, Hagman went looking for a large, high-speed pontoon boat that could readily move and install heavy machinery. He chose a Chinook Pontoon Boat that was built to spec by Metalite Industries, a subsidiary of NewMax Incorporated.

The 12 by 32-ft. (3.7 by 9.8 m) boat has a 15,000-lb. (6,804 kg) capacity and carries a gantry crane that can lift and position 8,000 to 12,000-lb. (3,629 to 5,443 kg) boat lifts. The speed and size of the new boat saves time and labor costs.

“With it being 12 feet wide, which is extremely wide for its size, it allows us to deliver and set boat lifts with a two-man crew, as opposed to the old method, a slow moving boat that needed four people to jockey and set the lift in place,” Hagman said.

In fact, Hagman calculated that since purchasing the Chinook Pontoon five years ago, half the cost has been recouped in labor savings alone. And further savings have been realized as fuel costs rise: the boat’s four-stroke engines operate at one-third the cost of powering the large and heavy semi-displacement workboat Copper Bay previously used.

“We’ve been very impressed with the performance of the boat. It’s common to travel 15 miles over water to get to a job site. Most workboats are semi-displacement vessels that plow through the water at a slow pace. The Chinook Pontoon work boats incorporate an angular, flat pontoon design that has a higher displacement and better surface planning capability. The design provides better hydro-dynamics to allow the vessel to plane on the water’s surface, where it can move quickly and more efficiently. We specifically wanted this boat so it would save money in labor costs by getting people to the job faster. We’ve had a lot of competitors, some who come from 500 miles away, looking at the boat for design ideas for their operations,” he said.

Dam the Fish, Full Speed Ahead

The Columbia River snakes through the Pacific Northwest before joining the Pacific Ocean near the Oregon-Washington border. The river’s heavy flow and elevation drop make an ideal site for its 14 hydroelectric dams. It also is home to many anadromous fish, which have played an important role in the local ecology and economy. This complex playing field is one that Dix Corporation knows well.

Armin Vogt, a project and operations manager said his firm purchased its first Chinook Pontoon Boat in 2002 after the sad demise of an inferior pontoon.

“It got crunched,” he joked.

The Chinooks have since assisted in sophisticated projects on the Columbia, Deschutes and Snake rivers. Dix construction feats include several lock and dam rehabilitations, as well as the development and construction of a juvenile fish bypass system at Rocky Reach Dam.

“We’ve hauled our pontoons all over the Northwest. We use them as a work platform for doing just about everything. And we use them for hauling guys and toolboxes to and from job sites. With the type of work we do, a boat is important and stability is huge.

That’s one of the things the Chinook Pontoon Boats give us: You can stand on the edge and not rock that boat. You’re not tipping at all,” he said, adding, the stability of the pontoons has proved popular with divers.

“We work a lot with divers. It seems that our boat is the boat everyone uses because it’s so easy to get off and on. And, when hauling people back and forth, you can pull up to the dock, keep the engine on idle. It’s an easy platform for loading.”

Dix recently purchased a 30-ft. pontoon that is being used to push barges on the Deschutes River. The boat was designed with special push bars on the bow, to which rubber tires have been draped to create a buffer between the pontoon and modular barges.

The barges haul everything from crawler cranes and construction materials to personnel. Although Vogt said the Chinook is being used as a “mini tugboat,” the pontoons also provide work platforms for crews that are building a six-story, 80 by 100-ft. porous box that will settle 300 ft. below the surface of the water — a base structure that will help regulate water temperatures in the river for Bull Trout, an endangered species.

Also, rather than build a dock, Vogt said the pontoon boats are lifted into the enormous structure’s interior to access the work. The boat was rigged with equipment to make such aerial lifts possible. The boat also has been outfitted with auto-engine winches and A-frame gantry cranes so that the boats can be anchored to rock or concrete faces with mooring lines.

This last feature was particularly important when Dix moved a bridge in Portland, Ore. The bridge was loaded onto a barge, moved downstream, and then set on new abutments. A 20-ft. Chinook provided access to the site, allowing crew members to set mooring lines and prepare for the workload that followed. It was a tough job that demanded a reliable water vessel. Fortunately, Chinooks are made of 0.125 to 0.188 in. marine grade aluminum alloy and are filled with Coast Guard certified 2-lb. density polyurethane.

“We bump into things. But the way the Chinook is built — the pontoon is foam filled — it’s durable. Even if you punched a hole in it — no problem. And there’s enough payload that the boats can haul a pretty good load, even something as large as a pickup truck, if we wanted to,” he said.

“Everybody thinks of a pontoon boat as a party boat. That’s not it. They cut through the water very well. We move at 45 miles per hour with our two 150-horse power engines.”

Party Hardy

Back in Idaho, Hagman’s Copper Bay Construction crew is in the midst of replacing Priest Lake’s oldest marina. A hundred boat slips will be replaced and a new breakwater will be installed. The marine aspects of the project will not be completed until the end of 2008, when full attention will be given to the on-shore construction of a bar and restaurant.

Hagman had his Chinook Pontoon Boat outfitted with aluminum ramps that attach to the front of the boat. This allowed crew to transport and easily disembark mini excavators.

The machinery will be needed for the on-shore work that must be done during the winter months, when Priest, a reservoir lake, is drawn down. Standing snow may arrive in early November and remain in residence until April. Regardless, the pontoon boats are kept in the water year round.

“The aluminum gets cold, but the boat performs well,” he said.

Though Hagman keeps his people and boats busy throughout the year, when the season allows he’s not averse to a little fun.

“In the summer, we throw an annual crew party for our twenty-five employees. We turn the pontoon into a floating party barge. We festoon it out and cruise around the lake, waving at everybody. We’ve had in excess of 30 people on that boat,” he said.

For more information, call 800/541-5880 or visit

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