ST. PETERSBURG — Brad Wagner had no difficulty using the word "performance" in the same sentence as "pontoon boat."
"I'm serious," said the salesman for Central Marine Service in St. Petersburg. "This thing really moves. I've had it up on a plane in a 4-foot chop."
Outboard-powered barges might be the vessels of choice in Central Florida, where floating party platforms are a common sight on lakes and rivers, but at the St. Petersburg Boat Show, in one of the most competitive boating markets in the state, shoppers are usually looking for something that can handle the wind and waves.
"No problem," Wagner said. "I know it sounds like an oxymoron, but this is a performance hull on a pontoon boat."
Premier's 29-foot Grand Entertainer doesn't come cheap. The retail price on this model is $133,000. For that kind of money, you can buy an entry-level kingfish boat that you can take offshore regardless of the weather.
But they don't make center consoles that come with a four-person bar, complete with purse hooks so your pocketbook doesn't get wet on the deck.
"We have all sorts of people buying these," said Wagner who said he cannot keep enough Premier pontoons on the lot to meet demand. "We have doctors, lawyers, lots of guys who just want to have the coolest toy on the block."
Wagner said he has sold several of the new saltwater pontoons to charter boat operators offering sunset cruises, and corporations that use the craft to entertain clients. He even had a customer who wanted to buy one and use it for bachelor parties. "There are a lot of options available, including an exercise pole," he said.
But the Grand Entertainer, powered by twin 200-horsepower Yamaha engines, isn't the largest boat in Premier's fleet.
"They make a 36-footer that is two stories and comes with a slide," he said. "You can get them pretty much tricked out any way you want them."
Danny Grant, spokesman for the St. Petersburg Power & Sailboat Show, said boaters attitudes are changing.
"More and more people are staying closer to shore," he said. "A lot of families are fine with just going out for a cruise. I think that is why these aluminum deck boats are one of the fastest growing segments of the marine market."
The show, now in its 36th year, is the largest in-water boat show on Florida's Gulf Coast and offers everything from dinghies to motor yachts. But high-dollar pontoon boats seemed to draw the most lookers on Thursday's opening day.
"It is really good to see so many people out here," Grant said. "Consumers are definitely more confident. There are more buyers than shoppers than in previous years."
Show Management, the company that puts on the St. Petersburg show, also produces the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, an October event that generally kicks off the boating season.
"The numbers we are seeing are very good," Grant said. "It seems like the dark days of '07, '08 and '09 are behind us."
This year's show, held at the Mahaffey Theater Yacht Basin and Albert Whitted Park, is bigger than last year's, with expanded in-water displays and nearly 300 exhibitors, as well as hundreds of boats both in-water and on land. You can also check out seminars from Sail America and the fishing clinics for the kids.