Mid-lake boating can be loads of fun. But as you exhaust your afternoons at your local lake hotspot, you might find yourself yearning for a new kind of adventure. And what better place to expand your horizons than the wide open ocean? Pontoon boats are boats after all, so you should be able to take them wherever there’s water, right?
Well, not exactly. It’s important to first consider the kind of water you’re on. Fresh and saltwater provide distinct challenges, and some boats might only be designed for one or the other. So the answer to ‘can you take pontoon boats in the ocean’ isn’t all that simple.
Can You Use a Pontoon Boat in the Ocean?
Technically, you can, even if it’s not designed for salt water use. Pontoon boats in general are designed for use in calm inland water conditions. However you should be able to use it safely in coastal waters like bays and inlets, or anywhere near the shore. But there is a catch.
Saltwater has been known to cause all sorts of damage to boats. This is especially true for vessels that aren’t necessarily designed for use in those types of conditions. That said, you might want to make a few preparations before you take your boat out to sea.
Another thing to remember is that the open ocean can be far more challenging than lakes. Waters are rarely ever ‘calm’, and waves can reach tens of feet in height, easily overcoming smaller vessels. On the upside, pontoon boats are designed so that they’re significantly more stable than other types of boats, especially since it has two hulls (or three, for tritoons.) This significantly reduces the risk of capsizing at sea.
How to Handle a Pontoon Boat at Sea
The open waters are going to be immensely different from what you’re used to on the lake. The elements tend to be far less forgiving out at sea, so it helps to manage your expectations and prepare for the potentially treacherous waters ahead to guarantee the safety of your boat and the people on board.
The waves can get pretty choppy out on the open water, and you’re going to be faced with a whole lot more churning and strong ebbing than anything you’ve probably already experienced on the lake. That said, you’re going to want to make sure that you evenly distribute any weight on board. This prevents heavy areas that could dip deeper into the water and cause waves to crash on board.
Another thing to remember when riding into rough waters is that you should proceed at an angle. Instead of meeting the waves head on, drive at a 35° to 40° to minimize the amount of water that makes it on board. And of course, trim up. Trimming up just as you meet a wave prevents your nosecones from diving into the water.
Can pontoon boats sink? Well, the chances are very, very slim. They’re built for stability and have two hulls that evenly distribute weight and sit above the waves of a storm. But even then, as a general rule, avoidance is the best solution.
Pontoon boat owners should be careful to head out to sea especially when weather forecasts predict potential storms. But if you ever find yourself in the middle of a storm, see to it that you minimize the boat’s wind profile. Take down your bimini top and take down your VHF antenna. Also, if you’ve got a decorative flag, take that down too.
If you’ve got a bunch of people on board, instruct them all to sit in the middle of the boat to keep the center of gravity low and centered. If it’s safe to anchor, deploy two anchors in a V-formation from the bow. Make sure there’s enough free area around your boat to turn a complete circle at the end of the rode without hitting anything.
See to it that you radio your coast guard and inform them of your coordinates just in case anything goes wrong. And finally, turn on your lights to keep your boat visible to other boats in the area.
Statistics claim that the odds of a boat getting struck by lightning out at sea sits at around one of a thousand. Seems pretty limited, doesn’t it? Well, that doesn’t make it any less of a real threat. Lightning storms can be unpredictable, and getting struck could cause irreparable damage to your boat, and potentially life-threatening dangers to any people on board.
Lightning storms are unpredictable. A bright, sunny morning can easily transform into a dark, stormy sky, with scattered claps of thunder and cracks of lightning piercing through the clouds. That’s why even with a quick weather forecast check at the start of the day, there’s no guarantee that you won’t be met with a lightning storm during your trip.
To minimize the damage of a lightning strike, boat owners keep a portable pole with an attached wire and ground plate that they can deploy on board in case of lightning-laced weather. It also helps to take down any other high points on your boat - like an antenna or a bimini top - that could attract lightning.
See to it that you don’t hold any metal parts like railings or hardware with your bare hands. Some boat owners use a wooden stick to steer their boat in case they need to move during a lightning storm. Fortunately, these storms don’t last for long, lasting for just around a half an hour at most.
Pontoon Boat Construction and Design for Ocean Use
Is your pontoon boat built for the sea? Probably not yet. On the upside, there are a lot of manufacturers that offer upgrades, accessories, and modifications that you can install to make your boat a little more saltwater friendly. These include:
Saltwater can and will corrode aluminum. To protect your pontoon, slather on a layer of bottom paint. This won’t only delay corrosion, but also helps to keep marine organisms from taking up residence against the underside of your boat.
There are some pretty big differences between saltwater and freshwater engines. Most of the time, pontoon boats tout freshwater engines which might not be able to withstand the damages caused by saltwater. The best saltwater pontoon boats use an engine with zinc anodes, a mercathode system, and a freshwater cooling system.
Size and Structure
Ocean waters tend to be far more demanding than inland waters because they’re exposed to strong winds. Waves can get pretty high out at sea, so it helps to have a beefed up pontoon boat that can stay right-side up even against strong currents and gusts.
Tritoons tend to offer greater stability, and larger tubes do best to keep your boat upright. As a general rule, you’re going to want to have tubes that are at least 25” in diameter. Of course, the thickness of the aluminum also plays a role. Minimum thickness of your tube sheets should be 0.90” for stable use at sea.
How to Prepare for Pontooning in the Ocean
Getting ready for your first ever trip out to the open water? Don’t let the excitement get ahead of you - there are lots of things to prepare for. So before you bring your boat to shore, make sure you take the time to get these things done:
Check the Weather
This should always be the first thing on your mind. Weather conditions will determine how safe your entire trip is going to be. And they can be pretty accurate, so see to it that you look up the forecast for the next 24 hours to find out whether you’re expecting any storms. And if it looks like the waters might be a little extra rough, do yourself a favor and postpone your trip.
Inspect Your Boat
Rough waters, high waves, and strong winds means that your boat will have to fight a little stronger than it usually does to keep you safe and comfortable. Check for any potential damages that could require repair before you head out to sea.
Switch out your magnesium anodes for zinc or aluminum, and install a mercathode system if you plan to make saltwater boating a regular thing. You might also want to read the manual - some manufacturers will void your warranty if you damage a freshwater pontoon in saltwater.
Get Two Anchors
That single anchor might have been more than enough to keep you steady on the lake. But it’s not going to be sufficient for the rough waters out at sea. A secondary anchor should help keep your boat stable in the vigorous waves of the open ocean. It doesn’t have to be as big as your primary anchor, but should be just heavy enough to serve its purpose and prevent any unwanted swaying and dragging.
Somewhere Beyond the Sea
A pontoon boat is a versatile watercraft that can really do it all - as long as you make the right preparations. So while you can take pontoons boats in the ocean, that doesn’t mean you can use it as is. Proper prep, upgrades, and understanding should help keep you, your boat, and all your passengers safe as you traverse those choppy waters out in the open ocean.