The best part about renting a pontoon is that it allows even the most novice boaters to experience and escape the city at the same time. For less than $100, people can spend hours relaxing on the river while seeing Milwaukee from a new perspective.
"A pontoon is a really easy boat to handle," says Bob Gates, the lead captain and general manager of Riverwalk Boat Tours and Rentals. "It's an easy getaway and you don't have to spend a lot of money to have your picnic lunch or dinner out on the water."
Riverwalk offers four aluminum, 21-foot pontoons – which are flat-decked, rectangular boats – and a fiber glass catamaran. They have a capacity of 10 people and the catamaran has an on-board bathroom.
A one-hour rental is $55. Half-day rentals (from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. or 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.) are $160 and a full-day rental (from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.) is $295. Riverwalk offers an after-work special on Monday through Thursday nights that costs $90 to rent the pontoon from 5 to 7:30 p.m.
If interested in renting a pontoon, call ahead, and note that customers are not charged if they are unable to go out on the water in the case of bad weather. Pontoons are picked up at Pere Marquette Park on North Old World 3rd Street.
On a recent Wednesday evening, I took a pontoon boat for a test run. I had never driven one before, and indeed, it was extremely easy to operate. Because the speed limit is only 5 m.p.h. and boaters must adhere to strict safety rules, it makes driving a boat on the Milwaukee River extremely relaxing and enjoyable.
I drove the catamaran which featured two tables, padded bench seating for 10 and a bathroom.
You can bring food and drinks onto the pontoon – or inquire about catering options – and it is legal to bring alcoholic beverages on board. However, the same rules apply when drinking and boating as when drinking and driving. Boaters must adhere to the legal drinking limit.
The rules of the water are pretty straightforward. Kids under 13 must wear a life jacket at all times. Like the rules of the road, driving on water requires you to drive on the right, and pontoons must yield to larger boats. The speed limit, as stated earlier, is 5 m.p.h. because if boaters drive any faster, the wake (the waves caused by the motion of the boat) causes the waters to be too rough and choppy.
"The river would be like taking a bowl of water and shaking it back and forth," says Gates, who received his captain status 20 years ago after spending 360 days on a ship as a subordinate to a captain and meeting the coast guard licensing requirements.
You do not need a special license to drive a pontoon, as long as you were born before 1989. The law now requires anyone born after Jan. 1, 1989, to take a boating safety course. If the person gets at least 80 percent on the test, which can be taken online for $29.95, then he or she will receive a Boater Education Card (or a "boater's license") and they are able to operate a boat for life.
During my cruise, I enjoyed taking in both natural and urban scenery. I saw so many birds and fish and plants, and yet all around me were large, familiar buildings and establishments. Although you can boat onto Lake Michigan, I stayed on the river. I cruised south, docked at Barnacle Bud's slip for a beer, and then headed back. It was easy and delightful.
When I got back to Riverwalk, River Rhythms was in full swing at Pere Marquette Park and I felt like I just had an ultimate Milwaukee summer experience.
According to Gates, sales are way up this summer and more and more people who already own boats are renting the low-fuss pontoons.
"You don't have to deal with bridges like you do with larger boats. It's just a very quick and easy way to access the river," says Gates, who has worked for Riverwalk for 14 years.
Fishing is allowed but people cannot swim inside the main harbor break wall, but they are able to take the pontoon to South Shore Park and swim there.
"It's a really fun experience," says Gates.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.