How To Drive A Pontoon Boat

Pontoon boats are different from traditional v-hull boats because they have not one but two or more hulls. This makes them more stable in the water and theoretically easier to manage. For these reasons, it should come as no surprise then that some of the most popular beginner boats are pontoon boats.

But even experienced boaters shouldn’t approach pontoon boats too casually. They might be beginner-friendly, but they also handle differently from single-hulled boats. Here is a short guide to driving a pontoon boat. We will cover the beginner basics, as well as key differences between pontoon boats and single-hulled boats. Let’s get started!

Before You Leave The Dock

Before getting started, keep in mind that all the rules and regulations that apply to operating a regular boat also apply to pontoon boats. This includes requirements for Coast Guard-approved flotation devices onboard the vessel.

Pontoon boats use outboard motors that need to be warmed up. Generally, this takes between one and five minutes, so check your owner’s manual to verify. While the engine is warming up, ensure that your radio is in working order. It’s your emergency lifeline to shore, so it’s imperative to verify that you can send and receive transmissions.

Also, make sure to secure any loose objects before you embark. It’s easy for fishing rods, backpacks, and other objects to get strewn about during loading. Make sure everything is tied down, or your favorite fishing rod might decide to take a bath.

One final point of safety: passengers should never, ever sit between the hulls in front of the deck rail. If they fall overboard, the boat will pass directly over them, and they can easily be struck by the motor. Even on boats with fishing decks in front of the rail, these areas should only be occupied when the engine is off.

Undocking, Handling, and Docking Again

The first thing many single-hull boaters notice when they get behind the wheel of a pontoon boat is the poor visibility. The large, squarish shape and high rails of the boat sometimes make it impossible to see objects close to the hull. In some cases, you’ll need an observer or two to help you safely navigate the waters.

Premium pontoon boat models feature elevated helms or even rotating steering wheels. These can significantly improve visibility but still require operators to use common sense. If there’s a blind spot, keep a lookout while you’re docking or navigating tight spaces.

When undocking, consider the wind strength and direction. Pontoon boats have a large profile, and strong gusts can easily blow them around. Be mindful of the wind, and use your engine to compensate for any gusts.

Take your time, and remember that this isn’t a race. You’re here to have fun, not tear up the dock and damage your boat. Work the boat back and forth using short bursts of the throttle, and ease your way away from the dock until you’re free and clear.

On open water, drive as fast or as slow as you like as long as it’s safe for the conditions and abides by local laws and speed limits. When powering up, do so slowly. If the bow rises, ease off until it’s level again. Remember, pontoons are designed to ride level with the water. 

As a result of their wide shape and dual hulls, pontoon boats are designed not to flip over and are equally unlikely to capsize. That said, it’s still possible to flip one over with careless or reckless driving. Be sure to take your corners slowly, and if one of the hulls starts to rise out of the water, slow down until the watercraft gets back on plane.

Motor Trim

Pontoon boats do not get on plane very well, meaning they don’t skim over the water surface like a single-hulled vessel. As a result, it doesn’t respond much to motor trim. 

The best practice is to leave the motor trimmed level so that the prop shaft is horizontal. It provides the most efficient power transfer and keeps the motor from pushing the bow down and increasing drag. It also keeps the prop in clean water, providing a solid bite while turning and taking corners.

Returning To Dock

When returning to the dock, back off the throttle well before you need to slow down. Unlike a sports car, boats don’t stop on a dime! You can shift the engine into reverse if you need to, but ultimately, stopping a boat takes patience and technique.

When returning, reapproach the dock just as you left it. Use short bursts of throttle to ease your way closer, and use the motor and wheel to compensate for any wind gusts. It can help to have someone on the dock in very windy conditions to throw a mooring line to. But ultimately, it’s all about being patient and finessing the boat into position to avoid damage and potential injury.

Two-Hull vs. Three-Hull Pontoon Boats

Most pontoon boats have a two-hull design, with two equal-sized hulls individually mounted on either side of the main structure. However, others are built with three hulls, with a larger hull in the center and two smaller hulls on the sides. Each design has its benefits and drawbacks, and each behaves a bit differently.

Two-hull pontoons sit level in the water, with the weight distributed evenly across both sides. When the boat corners, it puts more weight on the outer hull, causing it to tilt outwards. This is the opposite effect of a single-hull boat, which will tend to bite into a turn.

As a result, two-hull pontoons corner with a long turn radius. They are unsuitable for making tight, 90-degree turns and less stable than three-hull pontoon boats (albeit still more stable than single-hull boats).

Three-hull pontoons are designed for improved cornering as a result of their larger center hull. It’s a best of both worlds scenario. Three-hulls can bite into turns, with the center pontoon cutting into water, while the outside pontoon lifts into the air. This design provides increased stability and is better suited for cornering.

In Closing

For those who have purchased a pontoon boat for the first time, be sure to familiarize yourself with the rules in your state and local areas. When it’s all said and done, boating is about common sense. Always listen to your instincts when you’re on the water and stay aware of your surroundings. Keep an eye out for other vessels and buoys, stay up to date on weather conditions, and choose your destination before you embark on your journey.