How to Drive a Pontoon Boat

How to drive a pontoon boat

Pontoon Boats are an excellent choice of flat-bottomed watercraft for those who really appreciate comfort while on the water. The distinctive design structure of this boat is reflected in the name, pontoon, which is derived from the French word ‘pont’, which means “bridge”. This name was given to this type of boat because such flat-bottomed vessels were historically used as a temporary support for bridges rather than as sailing vessels. So, with its unique design let’s look at what you need to know in order to efficiently and safely drive a pontoon boat.

Does a pontoon boat require skill to drive?

These vessels are characterized by the pontoons, or tubes, situated below the boat which provide the buoyancy for the vessel and which also add support to the structures on its level surface. Pontoon boats can have either two hulls, in a catamaran style, or three hulls.

The draft of a pontoon boat is typically shallower than most vessels, especially seaworthy craft. Although the boat has a shallow draft the pontoons, that add buoyancy to the boat, ensure the vessel is raised high enough above the waterline that the stern can still accommodate a large and fairly heavy motor.

Due to their shallow draft, smaller pontoon vessels are typically propelled by trolling motors, oars or a decent outboard with moderate horsepower depending upon their size.

These type of flat-bottomed vessels support a variety of activities and can have a myriad of equipment added to them to optimise their use as utility vessels or to increase their functionality for specific applications such as fishing or leisure pursuits on the water.

Seating, storage and electronics usually come as standard on the bigger boats or can be easily installed. From sonar fish finders to surround sound marine music systems, dedicated electronic devices can be easily installed on most pontoon boats.

Pontoon boats are becoming increasingly popular globally for shallow water utility work, fishing and hunting as well as still being used for traditional recreational water activities.

But what about handling a pontoon boat? Is there any specialized training or pre-planning that is involved with pontoon boat use?

Handling a pontoon boat on the water requires, as with other types of boat, a certain degree of skill, concentration and preplanning.

However, pontoons are one of the easiest boats to drive.

Part of the popularity of pontoon boats lies in their ease of handling.

The skill of driving a pontoon boat is relatively easy to acquire and even the novice driver, when properly directed, can quickly learn to handle a pontoon boat safely and efficiently. This makes them a great choice for getting out on the water even if you have never driven a boat before.

Driving a pontoon boat does require some skill, but experts say if you can drive an automatic car then you can drive a pontoon boat.

If you want to ensure you are ready to master the skill of driving a pontoon boat follow the step-by-step guide below.

This guide will show you:

  • Essential preparations needed before attempting to drive the boat.
  • How to master the basics of pulling away from the dock.
  • How to drive your boat in open water
  • How to docking your pontoon boat when your done with your water adventures for the day.

Before driving a pontoon boat

Before we look at the actual mechanics of driving a pontoon boat it is vitally important you prepare the boat for use – consider this a “First Use Check” that you should perform every time you intend to drive your boat for the first time that day.

These checks are needed because the handling of your boat will be greatly affected by the factors which I have outlined below. You will also want to ensure you follow some key safety protocols before venturing into the water as I also outlined below.

Avoid overloading

Ensure you limit passenger numbers and load so the overall weight falls within the capacity limit of your pontoon boat.

Overloading a pontoon boat, or any boat for that matter, will have a huge impact on the boat’s stability. Not only will overloading your boat make the pontoon much harder to drive but it will also make it dangerous to drive.

It is all too easy to overload a pontoon boat especially if you are partying or have a lot of cool pontoon boat accessories onboard.

Important boat checks

Obviously ensure that the boat is in good order. Be especially vigilant when checking the boats steering as faulty steering or a problem with the boat’s rudder will have a huge negative impact on your ability to drive boat.

For additional boat checks make sure that your radio is working and you have adequate fuel for your journey.

Distribute weight evenly

Securing your cargo and distributing it evenly on your pontoon boat, minimises hazards while on open water and ensures the boat is neither port or starboard, and/or, bow or stern, heavy.

Obviously having a boat that is tilting to one side or that is front or back heavy will affect your ability to maneuver it properly while this will also create a risk of the boat taking on water and sinking.

Additional safety tips

Here are a few additional safety tips you should follow before driving any boat. Although they are not necessarily going to affect how you drive a pontoon boat they are important enough to mention here.

Log a boat journey plan

If you intend to venture far out into the water then it is well worth letting someone onshore know where you are going.

Although most pontoon boats are used for pleasure activities on inland waters or just offshore in open seas, where they are clearly visible from the shoreline, it is still a good idea to let others know that you intend to go out on the water.

Alcohol and boating

It is important to watch over your passengers and remain sober while navigating your boat so that potential hazards are minimised.

As the skipper you should only consume alcohol if the boat is securly docked and you should never attempt to move it once you begin drinking.

Drinking alcohol will diminish your ability to drive a boat in exactly the same way it would diminish your ability to drive a road vehicle.

How to start your pontoon boat and move off

Here is a step by step guide for starting your pontoon boat:

  • Open the vent in the cap of your boat’s fuel tank and squeeze the rubber priming bulb on the fuel line until it feels firm.
  • Raise the idle speed lever halfway, while making sure that the throttle lever is centered.
  • Start your engine.
  • Allow the boat to idle for a few minutes in-line with manufacturer instructions. Idling warms up the motor.
  • Be sure you know how to properly trim your pontoon boat. Doing this properly makes pulling out smoother. Use the trim button on your boat’s throttle (if it has one) to control this process. Take care with trimming your boat, so that the motor just sits in the water.
  • Put your throttle in a gentle steady reverse while a member of your crew unties your deck ropes. This will allow you to steadily back out once everyone is seated. You can then back away slowly and carefully paying attention to other water users and nearby obstructions.

Taking off

Use the steering wheel to turn the boat in the direction you want to travel in just as you would with a road vehicle.

Ideally when you are first learning to drive the boat your bow should face the wind, for smoother navigation. However, this is not a necessity and with a large boat that has a powerful engine it will be totally unnecessary.

Now you can shift into a forward gear and move your pontoon boat’s throttle forward. Slow, steady movements will keep the pontoon boat under your control.

Don’t try to accelerate too quickly. Just apply gentle pressure to the throttle until you become accustomed to the responsiveness of the engine.

Navigating whilst underway

To pick up speed for cruising simply shift into ‘forward’ and gently move your throttle away from you. You will now need your motor to be trimmed downward, so your engine is deeper in the water and the bow is kept steady.

Your pontoon boat should be driven with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on the throttle.

When driving keep a lookout at all times for obstructions up to 100 meters ahead. This 100 meter-rule allows you enough time to react and maneuver the boat without having to resort to sharp turns which can tip this type of boat easily.

Allow similar space and adequate time for performing normal turns.

Your pontoon boat cruising speed should not be excessively fast. 4500 RPM in open water is adequate, though lower speeds offer much better fuel conservation. Accelerate and decelerate gradually and plan your turns in advance.

How to drive a pontoon boat in rough water

If you find yourself in rough water or have taken a pontoon boat out into the open sea, it is important to know how to handle the vessel to keep everyone safe.

Ideally you should always aim to avoid bad weather or rough water when in a pontoon boat. Although a pontoon boat sits on floatation tubes it is essentially a flat-bottomed boat that is designed for optimum stability and comfort in calm water.

Although most pontoon boats are designed primarily to be used as recreational vessels on calm inland waters, they are more than capable of handling rough or challenging waters.

However, be aware that a pontoon boat will not navigate rough waters as smoothly as a deep v-hull boat which is designed for that very purpose. Be aware that rough waters can also wreak havoc with your boat’s playpen if the nosecones dip beneath waves and you take water on board.

Before navigating rough waters pay close attention to your load distribution and keep the vessel balanced.

Larger and heavier vessels are more stable in rough water.

Regardless of the size of your craft, when navigating rough waters, your aim is to keep your vessel’s pontoons above the water.

Here are some pontoon boat tricks for handling rough waters

Resist the urge to slow down before cruising into large waves, which can put your nosecones beneath the water and cause water to come onboard.

Trim up just before hitting large waves to help lift your boat’s bow.

Drive your pontoon so waves are at an angle of around 45 degrees to your boat’s center to keep your bow high consistently.

If you own your own pontoon boat, as opposed to hiring one, consider adding:

  • A package that affords your vessel higher horsepower.
  • Power steering.
  • Structural additions such as angle lifting strakes or barracuda nosecones to cut into those waves.

Bringing your boat in – how to dock your pontoon boat

When your dock comes into view, you should start to slow your vessel by gradually shifting your throttle backwards toward you.

Approach the slip at a slow, even speed and keep the center of your bow pointing towards the middle of the slip.

Turn your boat, in forward gear, using very low speed, or no speed at all, so you allow your vessel to essentially glide into position.

If you do not intend to keep your boat in a marina or on the water and instead intend to haul your boat home and you need to know how to load the boat on a trailer read this article on our sister site. You may also want to read our guide to towing a pontoon boat.

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