Pontoon rentals catching on with recreational boaters in Pittsburgh

Chris Togneri
| Thursday, July 3, 2014, 9:05 p.m.

In a city of stunning views, Jim Malanos might have found the best one yet.

“I go near The Point, drop an anchor, and read a newspaper or a book,” said Malanos, 61, of Brighton Heights. “Sitting there on the water, looking back at the town and the North Shore — it's beautiful. There's no traffic, it's quiet; it's just very relaxing. Best view in town.”

Malanos is a repeat customer at Boat Pittsburgh LLC, a pontoon rental startup at the James Sharp Landing boat launch in Sharpsburg.

Owner Nicole Moga started the business at the end of May. Though other rentals offer kayaks and canoes, Boat Pittsburgh fills a regional void by offering the larger pontoons, which seat 10.

“It's like a floating living room,” said Moga, 32, of Troy Hill. “The seats are arranged so that everyone is in close proximity and facing each other, which is naturally more social. My groups bring coolers, picnic lunches, playing cards. ... You can't play cards in a kayak.”

Moga spent much of her youth boating and waterskiing on Lake Mohawk in Carroll County, Ohio. She moved to Pittsburgh in 2001 to study graphic design at the Art Institute, and today moonlights as an office manager with Tree Pittsburgh.

She always has been drawn to the water.

“Boating means leisure time, so everyone is just happier than they would be at work or out getting groceries,” she said.

But starting a business — her first such venture — was “unfamiliar, dangerous, and exciting,” she said.

She and her husband, Mike Fifth, drafted a business plan. She secured a loan from Dollar Bank, bought two boats — the Cypress Cay model, each 22 feet with 60 horsepower — settled on a launch site with Sharpsburg officials, and dove in.

“There were a lot of initial costs but, over time, it is sustainable and it can be profitable,” Moga said. “We're profitable now, even with just Saturdays and Sundays (busy) so far. People don't seem to realize yet that we rent on weekdays, too.”

Though pontoons are slower than speedboats, boating requires caution. Moga preaches safety.

She advises clients that passengers are allowed to drink alcohol but drivers cannot, per state law.

“I won't be around very long if people aren't being safe around the rest of the boating community,” said Moga, a member of the Pittsburgh Safe Boating Commission. “It's not ‘rent a boat, party ... and then try to get back.' We're very careful.”

The boats and business are fully insured, she said. Pontoons are perfect for beginners and people with small children because they are designed more for social gatherings than thrill-seeking: “We're getting a lot of families. We have a reservation in September for a kids' party — I love that.”

She is toying with hosting beer- and wine-tasting outings. She is talking with Penn Brewery and an amateur sommelier to help lead the cruises.

Malanos believes Boat Pittsburgh will thrive.

A former boat owner, he has two daughters in college and sold it. He still loves being on the water, just not the headaches that come with ownership.

“When you pull in and you're done with your rental, you give them the keys and say, ‘See ya,'” Malanos said. “That's the part of boat ownership I don't miss: there's a lot of cleaning, refueling ... Here, you just pull in and walk away.”

Chris Togneri is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or ctogneri@tribweb.com.

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