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This isn’t your granddad’s pontoon

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Updated: October 24, 2012 6:32AM

A construction guy working under a bridge (I think it was at Washington Street) over the South Branch of the Chicago River shouted: ‘‘I love it. You’re lucky.’’

It’s good to be reminded.

On a perfect summer day, I took my annual ride with staff from the Chicago-based National Marine Manufacturers Association. This summer was different. For the first time, the main boat NMMA had for its use was a pontoon boat. For a change, our trip was on the Chicago River system.

Both are apt. Pontoons and aluminum fishing boats are the strong segments in the boating market. And the Chicago River system is the hot waterway.

But this wasn’t a putter-around-the-lake-on-vacation-in-Wisconsin pontoon; it was a stop-your-mama-and-make-her-stare-in-envy pontoon.

Premier Pontoons’ 290 Grand Entertainer, with twin 300-horsepower Mercury Verado outboards, has some 300 square feet with a bar, grill, pop-up bathroom, tables everywhere, built-in steps, depth finder and a huge radio system.

‘‘I’ve had people say their first apartment wasn’t this big,’’ NMMA president Thom Dammrich said.

The guy working the dock for Quay restaurant when they picked me up in Ogden Slip said: ‘‘That is one of the few pontoon boats I have seen. It is pretty awesome.’’

‘‘With 600 horsepower, it will fly,’’ Capt. Rob Newsome of said.

Newsome said he had it up to 45 mph, and it handled waves of several feet on Lake Michigan. No, this is not your granddad’s pontoon.

‘‘It is an attention-getter,’’ Dammrich said. ‘‘People make some connection.’’

It isn’t a boat for traditional motoring on Lake Michigan.

‘‘But it is certainly a boat to anchor by the Play Pen or go up and down the lakefront,’’ Dammrich said.

Or up the Chicago River.

‘‘With the beauty of our lakefront, it might have caused us to have less [appreciation] of the river,’’ Dammrich said. ‘‘I still think there is lots of opportunity on the river.’’

That’s an accurate summary.

But I am conflicted. On one hand, I see that wine bars and cafés have replaced what used to be grungy fishing spots on the south side of the Chicago River’s main stem downtown. On the other hand, there is something wonderfully vibrant about being able to dock and pick up good food (lobster rolls, gourmet cheeseburgers, flatbread) from Quay along the banks of Ogden Slip.

‘‘It is interesting, the whole change in the mind-set,’’ Dammrich said. ‘‘They were dumping grounds. Now people have a new appreciation of them.’’

By ‘‘they,’’ he meant the Chicago waterways.

Newsome took his time motoring us among the crush of water taxis, kayakers and barges along the main stem, the North Branch and the South Branch.

Past Marina Towers, Trump Tower (a monument to ego in the space of the former Sun-Times building), the Merchandise Mart, Wolf Point, the new offices of the Sun-Times and the old bridges down the South Branch.

‘‘My favorite part of boating is how relaxed it makes you feel,’’ said Colleen Kenny Richardson, who manages public relations for NMMA.

It was time. They dropped me off at Ogden Slip, and I stretched out my land legs while walking to the Metra station.

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