Firstly, I have to admit that up until I set foot on the Harris Crowne 250, I was not sure I ‘got’ pontoon boats. No doubt they made sense on the waters of Nevada’s Lake Mead, or perhaps on the Mississippi, but I was a bit sceptical when it came to plying them on our own waterways. Not enough rodholders and too many drinkholders pretty much summed up my attitude. My only real exposure to pontoon boats involved marvelling at multi-engined chromed and garishly painted craft as they flew by at unfeasibly high speeds across the surface of Lake Michigan on a searing hot summer day during an engine launch a couple of years ago.
But as I sat at the helm, with the Murray River stretching ahead and surrounded by what amounted to a floating entertainment platform, complete with mega-sound system, luxury seating and, yes, lots of drinkholders, I began to ‘get’ the pontoon experience.
Around me were various opulent reclining options and other luxury furnishings, with enough room to comfortably accommodate up to 16 people, plus a high-end entertainment system. And this was all packed into a craft just over 8m in length. Adding another dimension, we had 300 horsepower of supercharged Mercury Verado ready and willing to deliver us to any spot on the river anytime we wished – and at around 38 knots (70km/h) if we were in a hurry.
The Americans have pretty much perfected the whole pontoon/party boat concept. With the enormous variety of boating options at their disposal, the idea of a large floating platform with an engine on the back and plenty of space to relax or party is entirely logical. Whether on a lake, river, or out in the bay, it’s a pretty good way to enjoy time on the water with family and friends.
In Australia, US brand Harris is now represented by Xtreme Marine in Echuca on the Victorian/NSW border. Dealer principal, Paul Eade, says he spent quite a while researching the various brands on offer, before finally settling on Harris in late 2014.
“I looked around a bit but, after visiting the Harris factory and spending some time with the people there, as well as seeing their product range and the quality of their boats and commitment to R&D, the decision was easy for me,” he explained.
“They’ve been around for nearly 60 years, so they’ve got history, plus they’re a highly respected and strong brand in the US.”
While the pontoon boat market has been one of the strongest and fastest growing in the US in recent years, it has yet to gain a strong footing amongst mainstream boaties Down Under, though that is starting to change.
Eade says this is primarily about education and demonstrating the advantages of the pontoon layout and experience.
“I spend a lot of time educating customers at the moment, discussing their expectations and then selecting the right model for them,” he explained. “I also focus on how versatile pontoons are and the fact that you can have two or three families aboard and enjoy everything from watersports to cruising, diving and fishing, all on a large and open platform.”
The Crowne 250 is the flagship of the Harris fleet and showcases the concept in its premium format. In fact, Harris was honoured with an innovation award at the 2013 Miami International Boat Show for the 250, for its design and comprehensive list of features.
From a styling point of view, the Crowne wouldn’t look out of place on the waters of Monaco or Miami, its curvaceous lines, smooth flowing surfaces and targa arch accentuating its place as a premium product in the pontoon category.
It features a combination fibreglass/aluminium construction, with a trio of aluminium pontoons, linked together by a rigid, enclosed cross-member structure, topped off with the upper fibreglass entertainment and activities area.
Harris says its pontoon system, which can be ordered in one of three Performance Packages (the test craft came with the Level III option), incorporates lifting strakes designed to assist planing, boost top speed and minimise bow rise.
In Level III guise, which is claimed to maximise speed, handling and fuel consumption, the hull can accommodate higher horsepower options, such as with the 300hp Mercury Verado attached to our test craft – in the US, multi-engined configurations are not uncommon. This option also includes a lower central pontoon (dropped 2.54cm), which Harris claims aids control and reduces drag, plus a larger engine pod and bigger 190lt fuel tank. As Eade explained, this option is ideal for those who regularly enjoy watersports and need a boat that delivers performance in line with towsport enthusiasts’ expectations.
Underlining the Crowne’s versatility, we spent time on the Murray towing various talented acrobats as they demonstrated their prowess, with around eight others on the boat enjoying various vantage points while consuming refreshments and snacks and making the most of the seating, dining and reclining options along the way.
Speaking of which, guests have various options, from full recliners to plush couches on which to enjoy their time aboard. And buyers can specify any one of a multitude of seating layouts and accessory options to suit their preferences.
Presentation, quality of finishes, fittings, surfaces and overall amenity are premium level, reinforcing the Crowne 250’s position at the top of the Harris range. The rubber-backed, woven teak decking is a nice touch throughout the interior and felt pleasantly compliant under foot.
The skipper’s perch beneath the arch is very comfortable and reminiscent of a conventional wake/ski craft in terms of layout and seating position. Stylish wood accents highlight the dash, which incorporates basic gauges and switches, a touchscreen featuring GPS cruise control and a tilting sports steering wheel. Entertainment is provided by a quality Polk sound system, incorporating sub-woofers and a remote control panel within reach of swimmers on the starboard corner of the swimplatform.
Importantly, the pontoon’s raised deck afforded excellent lines of sight around the boat and beyond – a significant point for a boat intended to operate on enclosed and sometimes congested waterways.
Things I particularly liked included the 250’s lively performance and handling and its sharp turning ability. Belying its size, it actually felt like a smaller, lighter craft as far as its agility and response went, and the 300hp Verado was a good match for the hull. Stability is also a strong point, both at rest and when we encountered large wakes from other towsport craft.
It also includes a pull-out change room that unfolds from under the aft port corner seat, plus there’s an enclosed head equipped with a Porta Potti. There are also under-seat lined storage bins that can be used as eskies, a compact drawer fridge, a central under-floor ski/water toys locker and pop-up cleats in the corners so that feet don’t get snagged when tying up.
Buyers can also order forward and aft electric power-lift biminis that fold out from the targa when shelter from the elements is required.
Our boat was also equipped with an interior lighting package for after-dark entertaining, while the LED headlights are handy for night-time navigation.
Eade says that while the Harris range has attracted a lot of interest from freshwater boaties, its boats are equally suited to saltwater environments, such as Queensland’s Broadwater, Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay and the Hawkesbury River and Sydney Harbour in NSW.
“Saltwater packages are available and, from a suitability, stability, ride and safety point of view, our boats are well-suited to enclosed saltwater use,” said Eade.
During an enjoyable afternoon on the Murray with a trio of different Harris models at our disposal I have to say that I was well and truly converted to the pontoon concept.
Pontoon boats make a plenty of sense for people who enjoy taking lots of friends and family with them when they hit the water. Comfort is hard to match, and there are so many activities you can enjoy from a pontoon boat, while still reclined on a comfortable perch with drinks and nibblies to hand. Throw in a locker full of water toys, full eskies, a barbie and a great Aussie sunset, and you’ve got the recipe for lots of great boating memories.
And, on the Harris Crowne 250, you can take leisure boating to a whole new level in unmatched comfort and quality.
Price as tested for the review craft is $134,000, including the American-built, fully galvanised trailer, which is under 2.5m in width for Aussie roads and features special Teflon skids for ease of launching and retrieval.
HARRIS CROWNE 250
Overall length: 8.15m
Dry weight: 1750kg
Capacity: up to 16 persons
Fuel capacity: 190lt
Power as tested: 300hp Mercury Verado
Price as tested: $134,000
More information: Xtreme Marine, tel (03) 5482 2333. Web: XtremeMarine.com.au.