For a first-time pontoon boat owner, you have to start somewhere right? And what place would be a better start than here where we will go through all the pontoon boat basics beginners need to know.
I’m sure you’re quite excited about driving a pontoon boat for the first time but what exactly is it that you’re supposed to do?
First we need to learn about pontoon boats and their uses for you to learn about the minute details when driving one. It's also important to understand that a pontoon boat will have limitations in some areas, but will undoubtedly excel in others.
A pontoon boat is a type of boat where the deck is attached on top of a series of large hollow tubes called pontoons, hence the name. Most pontoon boats only have two pontoons, but a unique design called a tritoon has from its namesake, three pontoons. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages and will undoubtedly handle differently.
What is a Pontoon Boat Used For?
Now you know what a pontoon boat is if you didn’t previously, but what do you use it for? A pontoon boat’s unique quality comes in the fact that the deck is directly on top of the pontoons.
These pontoons are quite stable. Think of trying to sink an empty closed water bottle. It is very difficult as the bottle will tend to float up with a significant amount of force the more you push it down.
What this means for a pontoon boat is that you can have a relatively large deck area and can be capable of carrying or pulling a lot of extra weight due to the extra stability and handling that pontoons offer.
This makes pontoon boats ideal for parties with multiple people or family activities, relaxed recreational boating activities like fishing or cruising, or with the right hardware, it can be capable of pulling skis, towable tubes and wakeboarding equipment if you’re into water sports.
Not to mention in terms of maintenance and longevity the pontoon boat is relatively convenient in this regard.
Pontoon Boat Operating Basics
So without further ado let’s dive right into the topic at hand and know what it takes to operate a pontoon boat.
First, is launching. This is the process by which you put your boat on the water presumably from a trailer. This step is unnecessary if you keep your pontoon on the water at all times though.
For safety reasons launching is a two to three-person job. It can be done solo but only if you have the right tools and have the right precautions in place.
Ensure that all electrical connections between the trailer and the vehicle are disconnected. Load your gear and supplies on the boat, passengers are not allowed yet though. Remove the tie-down straps and attach lines to the stern and the bow to ensure that the boat does not float away when launched.
Ensure that you position your vehicle and trailer properly such that you only have to back up in a straight line to drop the trailer onto the ramp. Slowly back up the trailer onto the ramp, and make sure that you have another person guiding you and signaling you when the boat’s propeller is fully submerged.
The other person should enter the boat and start the engine. That person should make sure that there are no leaks, and the water pumps work as intended. The third person should disconnect all lines and straps if there are any left to allow the boat to float when submerged. The person on the boat will then signal the driver to keep on backing up until the boat completely floats, and can be driven onto an appropriate dock for the transfer of passengers.
Finally, the driver of the vehicle can finally move forward to take the trailer out of the ramp and find an appropriate parking spot.
Here’s a little bit of encouragement, if you can drive a car, you can drive a pontoon boat. It takes some guts to handle the wheel at first, and unlike a car, there will be a delay when accelerating, slowing down, and stopping isn’t exactly a full stop, but the muscle memory will build up over time, it just takes some practice.
As always, safety first. Your safety and that of the passengers are always priority number one and as such the driver, as well as the passengers, should wear lifejackets at all times and carry extra ones if necessary.
Once safety is ensured, check all your supplies such as food or fishing equipment, and communications such as marine radios. Also check the pontoon boat’s systems such as oil, battery level, and fuel, ensure that everything is in working order as things may have been damaged during transport.
Leaving the Dock
With everything stocked and fully operational, it's time to drive the boat.
For turning on a pontoon boat, you should turn on the ignition or put the motor in the “on” position and allow the engine to warm up for a bit. As for how long, consult your engine’s manual as the time does differ from engine to engine.
Pontoon Motor Trim
Trim is how deep the motor is underwater and conversely the propeller as well. Make sure that the motor trim is just deep enough that it submerges the propeller.
Double-check any ropes, lines, cables, or harnesses attached between the boat and the dock, to avoid any unnecessary damages when moving.
Finally use short bursts of throttle when reversing, and always check that there is nothing tethering the boat to the dock. Slowly turn the steering wheel, just like reversing on a car, then when facing the appropriate direction, slowly accelerate to cruising speed.
Turn as widely and gently as you possibly can, to keep the boat as flat as possible on the water during these maneuvers.
Just like a car, always be aware of your surroundings and any potential hazards that may damage your pontoon boat.
The number of passengers and gear that you will be carrying should be well within the boat’s specifications; consult your manual as this will vary from one boat to another.
As an added safety precaution always distribute the weight evenly to prevent tipping and to maintain the stability and handling capability of the boat.
Anchoring is a process by which you tether the boat to an anchor which is in turn impaled into the terrain. Check your local laws to make sure you don’t accidentally damage any wildlife underwater. You can drop an anchor and drag it a bit for it to really bite down, or you can also throw the anchor ashore or on a beach and impale it there.
Beaching is another method of securing your boat when docks or man-made parking areas are unavailable. The important part here is finding an appropriate location to beach your boat, make sure that the terrain is soft and is as flat as possible.
Approach slowly and cautiously, and move your trim upwards so as not to damage the propellers. Once the front of the boat is ashore, shut the engine down, and pull the boat to shore. As long as at least 30% of the boat is ashore it’ll be safe and secure. You can also add an anchor if you want some extra peace of mind.
Here's everything you ned to know about anchoring:
What makes parking/docking maneuvers different from anchoring/beaching? The presence of a man-made spot where you can secure your boat.
When docking, always approach the dock slowly and cautiously. Also when near, shift to neutral and control your speed using short bursts of throttle in reverse.
When beside the dock, ask a passenger to help you secure the boat to the dock.
More on parking and docking:
You should consult with the local authorities regarding the rules and regulations of waterways, and what to do in case of emergencies. Note that some docks or waterways have their own set of speed limits and rules on how or what boat should be using them and thus you should always inform yourself of these.
Pontoon Trailer Basics
This is more of a driving guide rather than a boating guide, but again you must be officially licensed to use a trailer to avoid any issues with the law.
Towing involves a strong enough trailer to carry the boat at speed on the highway or through less than ideal terrain along with a vehicle strong enough to pull this load. Assuming you have the proper equipment, you should also consider insurances, and speed limits while towing.
That said, we suggest that you practice maneuvering the trailer without the boat first for you to get a feel for what’s going to happen when you carry the boat for real.
Here are more guides to help you with everything related to trailering:
This is a potential issue that mustn’t be overlooked and as they say, prevention is better than cure. Well start with a GPS tracker on your boat, it’s great for navigation and also doubles as a safety feature, you can also add one on the trailer itself for extra security.
Multiple locks on the trailer coupler also help to deter some would be thieves, and add a trailer wheel lock on top of that to make sure that the trailer doesn’t go anywhere.
Other things you can add are motion detecting alarms and lights to warn you of any thieves trying to tamper with your boat.
Finally, the best way to avoid getting your boat stolen is to have a secure parking space. This means that you should always keep your vehicle and trailer insight, or park it near police officers or other security personnel to truly deter thieves from snatching your pontoon.
See our guide on how to secure a pontoon boat trailer from theft for more info.
Pontoon Safety Basics
As always before going on a trip with your pontoon boat, safety always comes first and many accidents will be avoided if you have this mindset, thus it should always be reiterated that all passengers, including the driver, should always wear life jackets for the bare minimum in safety precautions.
Always have a fully stocked first aid kit available, and checked every few weeks to ensure the quality of the medical supplies.
A basic tool kit is also necessary in case of engine trouble and for that matter also keep an alternate power source handy not only for the engine but also for communications equipment as they will become your lifeline in case of emergencies. Check out our guide on pontoon boat safety equipment.
Pontoon Fishing Basics
If you intend to use your pontoon boat for fishing, here are some tips.
Have fishing rod holders on different parts of your ship, or you can even choose to build your own custom rod holder setup. A good chair also helps.
Use an appropriate fish finder and mount setup suitable for your boat and for the type of fish you’re looking for.
Use vinyl flooring for more grip and easy cleanup. An electric anchor winch would also be nice for you to focus more on fishing.
For more pontoon fishing basics see:
Pontoon Boat Maintenance Basics
To ensure the longevity and optimal performance of your pontoon, maintenance sessions shouldn’t be disregarded and must be done regularly.
Always clean your boat after every boating session, even if it’s just a casual hose down that should be enough for most use case scenarios. However, do perform a general cleaning session at least after every other trip to ensure a clean deck and pontoon as well as inspecting damages if any.
See some of our pontoon boat cleaning guides:
As for maintenance, check your fuel and battery level before and after every trip. Check the fuel lines and electrical cables to ensure no leakage or shorts. Finally maintain your motor according to the engine manufacturer’s specifications.
Costs of Pontoon Boat Ownership
Beginning with the cost of buying the pontoon boat itself that should take up the majority of cost over its lifetime. Beyond that would be maintenance fees, the boat trailer, the equipment such as radios and life jackets, boat safety education fees, various licenses and registrations, insurances, and fuel costs.
All this should cost you somewhere around 10-20% of the boat’s price upfront, and around 5-10% per year in maintenance thereafter.
For an in-depth guide on this you'll want to read: How Much Does It Cost to Own a Pontoon Boat and Maintain It.
With all that said and done, these are merely the pontoon boat basics to get you started. It is recommended that you do your own in-depth research on each of these subtopics (through the linked articles we have provided) to be truly called a veteran pontoon boat owner.