how to drive a pontoon boat.

How to Drive a Pontoon Boat: Step By Step Guide & Tips

So you just got your first pontoon boat. And as you marvel at it in all of its shiny glory, you can't help but wonder - how in the heck are you going to drive that thing? While a lot of the technicalities might be comparable to driving a car, handling a pontoon boat on water can be immensely different. And unless you're willing to suffer all of the scuffs and dings of the learning curve, it's important that you nail the nuances at the start.

Wondering how to drive a pontoon boat? From steering on the open waves, to pulling in and out of a slip, we're telling you everything you need to know to drive your pontoon boat like a seasoned captain.

Pulling Away From a Dock or Slip

Leaving the dock with your pontoon boat is actually one of the relatively easy basics you'll have to learn as you try to master the art of driving a pontoon boat. Unlike pulling into a slip, the process of driving your pontoon boat away from where it's parked will require very little boating experience.

The intuitive process can be perfected in just two or three tries, as long as you've got the basics down.

Board the Boat

Before you release any of the lines that are keeping your boat securely tethered to the dock, see to it that all of your passengers are seated. Make sure everyone is wearing their life jackets and that all of your instruments are working properly. It's also ideal to designate your passengers in specific seats to properly distribute the weight across the deck.

If you're still getting the hang of it, make sure you have someone on board who can help you cast off lines and lift out your fenders and bumpers as you move through the process of pulling away from the dock. You might also want to ask someone to be your eyes especially in areas where you might be too close to the dock or other boats. The fence around your pontoon boat can make it tough see obstacles as you leave the dock.

Consider the Wind Direction

Where is the wind blowing? The direction of the wind can affect the cast off process since it can push you into the dock and contradict any maneuvering you might try. If there's no wind or if it's blowing from the dock, then there won't be too much of a need to worry about how it might affect the process.

But if the wind is blowing your boat into the dock or slip, then you will have to practice a completely different strategy to prevent damage to your boat and the others around it.

Cast Off the Lines and Ropes and Move Out

Remove the bow and stern lines or ropes and turn your wheel so that your bow points away from the slip at a 45° angle. Then move forward slowly and make sure you'll clear any boats in your vicinity. If you're parked in a slip facing the dock, shift into reverse and carefully back out of the slip until the entire length of your boat clears the markers.

If the wind is blowing you into the dock, then first release your stern line. Then back up out of the slip with your bow still tethered. This will allow you to maneuver so that your stern moves away from the dock, placing your boat at a 45° angle relative to the structure. Then release the bow line and back out of the space. Then you can move forward and away from the structure.

Driving Pontoon Boats on Open Water

Once you've left the marina, it's time to figure out how to drive a pontoon boat through the open water. For the most part, driving on open water means watching out for hazards and keeping your pontoon boat stable amid waves and strong winds.

Trim Down Your Motor

This essentially means that more of your propeller is submerged in the water. As you enter deeper water, it helps to trim down your motor with the trim button so as to keep the bow from lifting up and out of the water. Maintaining a motor trim down position also means a more stable ride as you slice through deeper water.

Keep in mind though that as you increase speed, you're going to want to trim the motor up ever so slightly to point the pontoon boats bow slightly upward for better aerodynamics. A slight adjustment of the trim button should make that happen. If you find yourself in shallow water, then you might have to reduce your speed and trim up entirely. This reduces your draft so that your pontoons don't scrape the bottom of the waterway you're in.

Get the Hang of the Throttle

Think of the throttle on a pontoon boat as the all-in-one control lever that designates speed and direction. This will be your one of your main concerns when you drive a pontoon boat. Keeping the throttle in the center keeps the boat in neutral. That means that although your engine is turned on, the boat will neither move forward nor backward because the propeller will stay motionless.

When you shift into forward, the pontoon boat will start to move forward as well. The more you push the throttle, the faster your pontoon boat will go. As you pull it back, it goes back to neutral and brings the pontoon boat to a halt. And as you might have expected, pulling the throttle all the way back puts the boat in reverse.

Remember that pontoons don't have a break pedal or lever, so you're going to have to figure out how to use the throttle for that purpose. While pulling into neutral might stop your boat nice and slowly, you can pull all the way to reverse if you want to come to a faster stop. As a general rule, 4500 RPM should be the best speed for cruising.

Assess Steering Lag Time

Since you're driving through water, you can't expect your pontoon boat to change directions as instantly as a car would on dry land. As you turn the wheel, you'll notice that it will take pontoon boats a few moments to actually respond to the change. This steering wheel lag can be confusing for first time boaters to get a hang of, but you should be able to assess how early you should start to turn to follow the course you want to.

This becomes especially important when boating through crowded waterways with other pontoon boats or swimmers. If there are obstacles in the way, you want to make sure that you turn your steering wheel and drive away from them before they're too near. Turning your boat off to the side as soon as you spot a person, pontoon boats, vessels, or other obstacle in the water can help prevent accidents and collisions.

Keep an Eye on Your Surroundings

The thing about pontoon boats is that they come with an all-around fence that can obstruct the driver's field of vision. This can impair your ability to see obstacles like boats, water sports equipment, and people when they're too near. So again, it pays to plan your turns and your course in advance, ensuring safety by maneuvering your boat out of the way of obstacles before you get too near.

Experts recommend keeping your eyes around 100 meters out in front of your boat as you drive. As you approach crowded areas like fishing spots where maneuvering your boat might be a little difficult, you can slow down to a minimum speed so you can navigate your way between boats and people without incident. As much as possible, avoid rough water.

Be Careful When Turning

Making drastic sharp turns can be tough to master especially if you're new to driving a pontoon boat. Going too slow or too fast when attempting a sharp turn can cause pontoon boats to tip and teeter to one side, which might be a problem if the weight on board isn't properly distributed.

That said, always maintain a moderate speed when attempting sudden turns. And before you actually turn the wheel, see to it that you make all of your passengers aware that you're about to change directions and perform a sharp turn. This should help them brace for the potential displacement and hold on or sit down properly in their designated seats.

Docking the Pontoon Boat

beach pontoon boat

Often considered one of the toughest pontoon boating drive tricks to master for first time boat owners, parking in a slip requires careful maneuvering and precision. See to it that you get help from your passengers as you return the boat to the dock to avoid hitting any obstacles and to occupy your slip as neatly as possible.

Slow Down

It's important to remember that almost all docks will have specific speed limits within their vicinity to prevent accidents between boaters, passengers, and property. As you approach the dock, slow down your boat and tone down the boat's power so you're within the designated speed limit. You might even want to put your boat into neutral all together if you're still getting the hang of it. If you were going too fast, you can shift into reverse.

If you were coming into the docking area at a moderate speed, then the momentum should keep you drifting towards the slip as you shift into neutral or reverse. This should be more than enough force to move you into the dock as you attempt to park. At this time, you should also prepare your dock lines, ropes, and deploy your fenders.

Align Your Pontoon Boat

As you slowly move into the docking area, it's important that you align your boat to the center of your parking space. You can do this by making minute movements when you turn the wheel as the momentum from your speed pushes you gently towards the slip. As a general rule when parking your pontoon boat, you will want to avoid any harsh or sudden movements.

If you find that the boat's momentum has died down, then you can push your boat's throttle slightly to get your boat moving into the space. Gently turn your wheel to maneuver yourself into alignment as you push the throttle, and then pull back into neutral once you move into the space.

Tie Up the Pontoon Boat

If you need some help to keep the boa tin alignment, you can ask one of your passengers to hop on the dock and tie your pontoon boat with your ropes. Take your bow lines and tie the boat to the dock by using a cleat hitch. Then you can ask your aid to try to pull your pontoon boat closer to the dock as you move the steering wheel slowly to perfect your alignment and position at the center of the slip.

Remember, it's absolutely normal to bump into other pontoon boats, vessels, and the dock structure while you're still getting used to the entire process. That's what your bumpers and fenders are there to protect you from. A little scuffing shouldn't be too much to worry about. Once you're in place, turn off the engine power and have everyone leave the deck one by one for safety.

Important Things to Remember When Driving a Pontoon Boat

There's a lot that you need to know as you learn how to drive a pontoon boat. Aside from simply maneuvering your vessel and adjusting the speed, beginners also have to consider a range of other factors that can impact the driving experience. Knowing all of the essentials can help keep you, your pontoon boat, and other boaters safe on the water.

Preparations

Before you even decide to head out, you have to make sure that you've made the right preparations to mitigate the risk of accidents. There are several important preparations you need to make before any boating trip, and these can help streamline the experience and prevent a world's worth of problems as you go about your excursion.

Float Plan

A float plan is essentially a break down of your entire trip including estimated times, destinations, people on board, and a description of your pontoon boat. The float plan is left with someone on dry land and serves the purpose of making it easier for family and friends to determine when something might have gone awry. If you don't arrive home in time according to your float plan, or if you go missing, the document will guide authorities in their search.

Pre-Departure Check List

Are you sure your boat is in proper working order? A pre-departure check list enumerates all of the different parts and aspects of your pontoon boat that might malfunction during a trip, like your engine and motor. Checking each item on the list and inspecting your boat can help you pinpoint potential problems and address them before you leave the marina.

Weather Forecasts

Sometimes, it's just better to stay at home. While you might be excited to get your boat out and practice your driving skills, a quick weather check should tell you whether or not it would be a good idea to push through with your plans. If you're not exactly confident in your ability to drive a pontoon boat through strong winds and rough water, then you might want to postpone your plans if the forecast predicts rain and storms.

Paperwork

It's important that you have all of the necessary documents on board in case you meet any accidents while you're on the waves. Registration papers, ownership documents, and valid government issued identification should come in handy in case you're met with the need to present them to the local Coast Guard.

Marina Rules

Are you aware of the regulations and rules at the local marina or dock? You'd be surprised how unpredictable some rules might be. To make sure you don't end up unknowingly violating the rules at the local marina, visit them a day before to ask about their protocol especially if it's your first time visiting. This should help you properly plan your trip and avoid any run-ins with the marina staff.

Fuel

Marina fuel prices are typically through the roof. If you're new to driving a pontoon boat and you're not sure how much fuel you need to get to your destination and back, see to it that you have a couple caddies of reserve gas at the ready. And just for reference, the average pontoon boat will use about 5 gallons of gas for every hour at cruising speed.

Safety Precautions

The excitement of learning to drive a pontoon boat for the first time might get the best of you. But don't let the giddy feelings distract you from important safety precautions you should take to prevent accidents and injuries while you're out on the water.

Safety Gear

Make sure that your pontoon boat is properly equipped with all of the safety equipment you need before leaving the marina. A first aid kit, fire extinguishers, life jackets, and a throwable PFD are just some of the things you have to have on board. See to it that you have a life jacket, too.

Weight Distribution

Although some would assert that pontoon boats can't capsize, there will always be a risk of capsizing or taking on water when the weight on board is improperly distributed. See to it that all of your fishing gear and other supplies aren't localized in a single area, and that your passengers are in a position that keeps them away from each other to spread the weight and prevent instability.

Protocol

What are you going to do when the engine suddenly sparks? Or, what if you hit other vessels? What happens someone falls overboard? Or when the boat stops running?

While you might have some idea as to what you need to, it's equally important that your passengers are also aware of the protocol. Making your passengers aware of the steps they need to take in case of emergencies can make the difference between life and death.

Seated and Safe

Instruct your passengers to stay seated and wear their life jackets at all times when the boat is underway. This is especially important when you make your way to open rough water or shift into forward at a higher speed. Sharp turns can be especially dangerous, risking to throw your passengers overboard if they're standing when it happens.

Weather Conditions

Weather conditions will play a major role in the boat driving experience. Winds and water currents can go against your boat and make it harder to maneuver and move safely and efficiently. Understanding how to navigate the water during rough weather can help keep you safe and prevent you from overworking your engine and motor.

Pontoon boats come in a range of shapes and sizes, but they all have one thing in common - high fences that surround the entire deck. Because the boat has pontoons that make it sit high on the water compared to a traditional V shaped hull, strong winds and water currents can easily push against your boat and prevent you from getting where you need to go.

If you're going downwind, see to it that you slow down since the push of the wind will force your boat forward even without having to push your throttle too much. If you're moving against the wind though, try to position at a 45° angle to minimize the surface area that goes against the gust.

Strong water currents and waves can be another problem. Remember that pontoon boats in general were designed for calm inland waterways, and not for the high seas. Fortunately, the boat's high walls mean that it might not be as easily overcome by waves.

But even then, a pontoon boat may struggle to propel forward when faced with choppy water. But that doesn't mean that you can always head out into a storm.

In case you find yourself face to face with rough waters, here are some tips:

  • Tell your passengers to centralize gear and stay at the center of the deck and close to the ground
  • Do not navigate into the waves
  • Head back to shore as soon as possible
  • Drive at a slow speed - DO NOT max out your throttle when driving a pontoon boat in strong currents
  • Avoid making sharp directional changes in rough water
  • If you're not confident that you can safely make your way back to shore, cut the pontoon boat's engine and motor and wait for the storm to subside

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it easy to operate a pontoon boat?

Generally speaking, yes, pontoon boats are one of the easiest types of vessels to operate since they drive smoothly and don't go as fast as other power type vessels.

How to start a pontoon boat?

Well, pontoon boats start like most other vehicles. You insert the key into the ignition and give it a turn to bring the engine and motor to life.

Do you need a license to drive a pontoon boat?

Laws vary from state to state, but most localities will require at least a Boater's Safety Certificate to drive a pontoon boat.

How to beach a pontoon boat?

Yes, pontoons can be beached. We've written a comprehensive guide with loads of tips on just how you can do that. Read it here.

How to drive a pontoon boat in rough water?

With a little experience and practice, you should be able to drive your boat over rough water. Here's a guide on how to do it.

Over to You

Not everyone who buys one knows how to drive a pontoon boat right off the bat, but that doesn't mean you can't learn it. Of course, it's not going to be an instant skill that you're going to nail just like that. But because the pontoon boat is relatively easy to drive, you should get the hang of the boating basics with just a little practice and time. Soon enough, you should be navigating crowded fishing spots and party islands like a real pro.

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