Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Can a pontoon boat survive the trip from Clearwater to Cuba? (w/video)

CLEARWATER BEACH — Some adventurers go looking for new worlds or new records.

First to Mars. Fastest around the Earth.

Important stuff, at least to them.

But sometimes there's just a guy, and that guy has a dream of getting to Cuba on a pontoon boat.

Meet Jim Wolf, 52, who spends part of the year in Clearwater and part in Alma, Mich., where he is president and CEO of Avalon & Tahoe Manufacturing Inc., a private, family-run pontoon boat builder.

More than a decade back, a buddy of his pitched the idea of doing an extreme adventure on a pontoon. Something newsworthy.

They were enjoying drinks, of course, like pontoon boat captains often do, and it sounded to Wolf like a good idea.

So in 2004, they left Baltimore on pontoons and — after 1,168 miles, 122.5 hours and 600 gallons of fuel — arrived at Key West. An epic journey via a vessel oft-considered to be a floating front porch.

LIVE TRACKER: Follow the pontoon boat's journey.

The achievement triggered yet another challenge, then another. Before long, Wolf and his mates had 'tooned from Chicago to Michigan's Mackinac Island, Key West to the Dry Tortugas, Fort Lauderdale to Bimini, and from the California coast to Catalina Island.

"Then, I said, 'Cuba would be interesting.' There's a little intrigue. It should be fun," he said.

LIVE VIDEO: Watch the captain and his crew aboard the boat.

It's important here to calibrate your mind to the limitations of the pontoon boat. If we're being politically correct, the pontoon is speed-challenged, a manatee in a pod of dolphins, a tricycle at the Tour de France. The pontoon opts for frivolity and scoffs at speed. It is relaxed, competent, satisfied, plodding — a nautical Garrison Keillor.

Its origin story, in fact, tracks to a small-town Minnesota farmer named Ambrose Weeres, who basically had the humble ambition of floating his family around on a lake. In 1952, Weeres fashioned two pontoons from steel oil drums welded end-to-end, with an upswept nose cone, according to Pontoon & Deck Boat magazine. He then fixed atop the barrels a plywood deck rimmed by a 2-by-4 wood railing. The boat offered desirable stability and a high deck less prone to take on water. So many people noticed that Weeres began making more, calling them The Empress, until their popularity exploded.

Enter Jim Wolf, 52 years later in 2004, with a background in manufacturing and supply-chain consulting, who took over Avalon & Tahoe Manufacturing and began growing the company. Now routinely No. 4 or 5 in sales in the pontoon boat world, his 280-employee outfit makes quality luxury crafts and wants to show they're capable of more than folks might have reckoned.

The lazy pontoon now has some versatility.

"It's not your grandfather's pontoon anymore," Wolf said.

After one risky adventure on Lake Michigan during which a pontoon split at a weld, Wolf's company began manufacturing a boat with a beefier structure called the rough-water package. The vessel for this journey to Cuba is a 27-foot "tri-toon" Avalon pushed by twin Mercury Verado 400s, which means, basically, it's fast. Like, 60 mph on the water.

Wolf and a crew of three friends are bringing 240 gallons of gas and all the safety gear — emergency position-indicating radio beacons, satellite phones, tracking beacons, spare propellers and fuel filters.

The handful of captains surveyed by the Tampa Bay Times had never heard of anyone taking a pontoon to Cuba . . . on purpose.

"With all the right safety equipment and a game plan and some smart preparation, they could pull it off," said Capt. Dave Mistretta, who runs Jawstoo Fishing Charters out of Indian Rocks Beach.

Wolf isn't worried. He said they've alerted the Coast Guard. They'll even have a lifeboat. And, per pontoon boat requirements, he said, they'll be carrying a gallon of vodka, a case or two of beer.

"I don't suspect any issues," he said. "We're going to enjoy ourselves."

Their plan is to leave early today for Marco Island, then Key West, about 250 miles from Clearwater Beach. They will cover the final 95 miles to Cuba on Thursday, spend a few days in Havana, then head back for a total of 700 miles.

The volatile weather is Wolf's only concern, but even that doesn't bother him much.

"We will try to dodge any thunderstorms," he said Tuesday. "We can outrun them."

In a pontoon boat?

"No turning back now," he said.

Contact Ben Montgomery at bmontgomery@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8650.

Can a pontoon boat survive the trip from Clearwater to Cuba? (w/video) 06/14/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 14, 2017 2:27pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Possible wrong-way crash on Courtney Campbell Causeway late Friday

    Accidents

    TAMPA — A multi-vehicle crash on the Courtney Campbell Causeway late Friday may have been caused by a driver traveling in the wrong direction, Tampa police said.

  2. Tampa police investigate drive-by shooting in Seminole Heights

    Crime

    TAMPA — Police took one person into custody late Friday after a drive-by shooting ended in Seminole Heights.

    An unidentified officer stands with a rifle along Nebraska Avenue near Shadowlawn Avenue Friday, Nov. 17, 2017 in Seminole Heights area of Tampa. Police converged on the area after a reports of shots fired.
  3. Man hit, killed while crossing U.S. 19 in Palm Harbor

    Accidents

    PALM HARBOR — A pedestrian died after he was hit by a vehicle Friday night, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.

  4. FSU men roll in basketball; Florida beats USF in NCAA women's soccer

    Colleges

    MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica — Freshman reserve Mfiondu Kabengele scored 15, Terance Mann added 14 on 7-of-9 shooting and Florida State rolled to a 67-43 win over Fordham in the Jamaica Classic on Friday night.

    POWER MOVE: Duke’s Marvin Bagley drives against Southern’s Patrick Smith during the first half.
  5. Franken apologizes to woman who says he kissed, groped her

    Politics

    WASHINGTON — Minnesota Sen. Al Franken personally apologized to the woman who has accused him of forcibly kissing her and groping her during a 2006 USO tour, saying he remembers their encounter differently but is "ashamed that my actions ruined that experience for you."

    Sen. Al Franken has canceled a book festival appearance.