"It's almost like walking from your dining room out to your deck, only you're in the middle of the lake," declares Joe Shulla, the Madison man who created this rather unique type of watercraft.
Available for hourly rental, these sizeable floating porches fit up to 15 passengers, and are outfitted with a screened-in room, a gas grill, lights, a MP3 player-ready sound system, a trap door for fishing, a swimming railing, and a private bathroom. This fall he plans to install sliding glass panel windows in place of screens, along with TVs for watching football. The goal is to provide a backyard experience on the lake.
"You don't feel like you're on the water at all," Shulla explains. "The boat weighs 10,500 pounds, 5 and a quarter tons, so you don't feel like you're moving. The heavier the better." Given its weight, this original Pontoon Porch can only reach a stately 8 miles per hour. The craft is 28' by 14', hefty but still lithe enough to fit through the Tenney Locks on the Yahara River. It is also outfitted with a 2,000-watt generator to power the boat's AV accessories and lights for nighttime cruises.
Shulla launched this flagship in Lake Monona for the season in late April, and made it available for rental at the East Side Club at the beginning of June. Business is brisk, and based almost exclusively on word-of-mouth. "It's been crazy all summer," he says. "Of the 10 people on the boat, only two have seen it before, while the other eight are just freaking out about how cool it is."
Given its slow speed, Shulla enourages parties that rent a Pontoon Porch to find an opportune spot on the lake, shut down the engine, and let her drift. "A lot of people go in front of Monona Terrace and hang out there," he says.
The concept for the Pontoon Porch is the serendipitous result of lakeshore development rules. Shulla, who builds decks and piers, was asked last summer by a friend to build a screened porch attached to their pier on Twin Lake near Chetek in Barron County. After completing it, though, they learned that the structure ran afoul of Wisconsin DNR regulations. "I needed some time to think," explains Shulla," so I made it into a pontoon boat."
He acquired some empty plastic barrels from a friend at a Mermaid Car Wash in Madison, mounted the original porch atop them, and created his floating deck, one that was DNR-friendly. After floating this pontoon and noting its new unmoored popularity, he decided to build a bigger version to rent out for use on Madison's lakes.
Shulla constructed the flagship last summer outside his home on the west side, and later built two more at a warehouse in Pine Bluff. He hopes to build more Pontoon Porches and sell them to others looking to start their own rental businesses. His local rental operation is based at the East Side Club.
"It's a hidden gem," says Shula, noting its growing number of public options and events at the formerly private club, including the lakeside Tiki Bar & Grill and the upcoming BamFest 2009 blues festival. "I told them that I'd build them a pier if I could keep my Pontoon Porches there and rent them out. We've been great for each other."
Two boats in the fleet are currently afloat, while the third is for sale. The first was originally launched near Olin Park last October for a test run before returning to Lake Monona this season, while the second hit the water just last weekend. Both are docked at the club in a custom-built W-shaped pier with 30-foot slips.
Since a crane is required to launch a Pontoon Porch, Shulla hopes to keep both floating at the club through the winter by keeping the water around the pier open with a dock bubbler system. This should allow for an early start on the water for the fleet come next spring.
"There's not a lot of boat rentals around here," says Shulla about motorized recreational options on Madison's lakes. "You have the Betty Lou, but we're so different, more of a private thing. It's just a totally different experience."
Reservations for the first party barge are filled up through the end of August, but there are still rental times available for the second this month. More spaces remain open through the autumn season for both.
Pontoon Porch patrons can bring their own food and drinks in coolers, or can order catered eats from the East Side Club. In the case of inclement weather, including thunderstorms or winds over 15 miles per hour, rental times will be canceled and the slot can be rescheduled for no fee.
The rental rate for a Pontoon Porch is $100/hour ($80/hoour for East Side Club members) on Mondays through Thursdays, and $125/hour ($100/hour for club members) on Fridays through Sundays. No deposit is required. "If you have a group of 10 to 15 people for three hours on a Thursday evening, that comes out to less than $10 per hour per person," says Shula. Persons interested in renting can email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 608-575-2550 or 608-669-0963. More information about the boats is available at