Yuen: With a new pontoon boat, I’m embracing a Minnesota Dream

I've always enjoyed having Friends With Boats. In Minnesota, you don't need to own a vessel as long as you have pals like these. In middle age, I've discovered the joys of tubing. Admired magenta sunsets on the water. Delighted in my kids' walleye catches. All because of my friends' boats and cabins (and their parents' boats and cabins).

You want to take me out on a lake? Say no more, Captain. I'll meet you on the dock with my homemade pickle dip.

But now we've done it. We've bought our own boat.

My northern Minnesota-raised husband has always fantasized about having a little place on a lake, preferably the pristine, sandy-bottomed gem on which his grandparents used to live. That day hasn't come, but the absence of lakeshore cabin or land didn't stop him from advancing toward his Minnesota Dream. By the time you read this, God willing, we will be kicking off summer by gliding across his hometown lake on our new pontoon boat.

To be fair, we're not nautical newbies. My husband and I also own a canoe that we keep in Minneapolis and a tiny fishing boat for up north, which apparently is on brand for Minnesotans. We lead the nation in most boats per capita and are second only to Florida in the sheer number of boat registrations. In 2021, there were more than 830,000 boat registrations in the state.

That means there is one boat for every seven humans in Minnesota.

"It's ingrained in our culture," explained Lisa Dugan, who provides outreach for boat and water safety for the state Department of Natural Resources. "Once the ice gives way, what are the things we can do in Minnesota that are cherished? For me, it's the memories on the water with the kids and the family."

Ah, the children. That's how we justified this purchase. A boat might be a way to slow down their childhoods and make the case to put away the tablets. Seeing how much our fast-growing boys could revel in entire weekends on the lake, pointing at loons and snorkeling among schools of smallmouth bass, convinced us we had a short window of time to become "lake people."

We would just need a boat with a little more space onboard — for our on-the-move kids, yes, but also for friends to share some memories with.

Preparing to launch

But was I ready to be a real boat owner? And why would I want to do that when I already had Friends With Boats?

Being on the water is a pleasure, but it's a pleasure that must be paid for. As the old saying goes, "The best things in life are time, money and a boat. But you can only have one."

We've already gotten a taste of the cash-sucking nature of boats. Only after we signed the papers did we realize that the garage door to our pole barn up north was too short for a boat on a trailer to clear. We had to hire contractors to cut out a bigger hole and slap on a taller garage door.

Any boat buyer's remorse was swiftly assuaged by Dave Perkins, who used to own the Minneapolis Boat Show and knows his way around a pontoon. "There's not a better boat to have for a family, for entertaining, or for yourself," he assured me.

Did Ambrose Weeres, a farmer from Stearns County, have any idea how far his invention would go when he stuck a wooden platform atop two columns of steel barrels in pursuit of a more stable ride? More than 70 years later, pontoons have become a dominant force in the industry, accounting for more than 36% of new outboard boat sales in 2021. They've outperformed all other outboard boat sales for the past 15 years, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

Perkins had faith in my abilities. "You're gonna cherish that boat," he said. "You're gonna clean that boat. You're gonna be proud of that boat."

I didn't have the heart to tell him that on any boat, I am about as useful as a paperweight. The first time my husband took me out on his grandfather's old fishing boat (the one we now possess), my hat flew off, a telltale sign that I was out of my element. Few things in life terrify me more than trying to back up a boat trailer, or the stress of helping my husband use the public boat launch over a packed holiday weekend. It's like having an army of onlookers watch you, as a 16-year-old, parallel park a clown car.

So I got my nerd on: I took an online water safety course listed on the DNR website. It took me about a week to plow through it. I now know my port (left) from my starboard (right) and the difference between a V-shaped hull and a flat-bottomed one. I also made a list of things we'd need: a flashlight, extra life jackets, fire extinguisher, first aid kit, and sound and visual distress signals. As a boat owner, it's my responsibility to keep my passengers safe.

With just days away until my boat's maiden voyage, Perkins dispensed a few more words of advice: Keep some dry clothes onboard, and "you can't have enough ice," he told me.

So I'm gathering up the ice and readying the cheese and crackers. I'm now one of those Friends With a Boat.