There are many types of boats. Despite sharing many similarities, some boats are better than others for a specific use, and after scouring every source of information, maybe you still can’t find the right guide regarding the topic of a pontoon boat vs catamaran.
Well, say no more, because this is the one you’re looking for.
We’ll take a look at which is which and what the better choice is for a potential buyer. So let’s get down to the basics first.
What makes a pontoon boat a pontoon boat, and what makes a catamaran a catamaran.
A pontoon boat is a type of boat focused on recreation. It's easily identifiable by its unique hull structure, and large deck area. The boat itself does not float on water but rather sits on top of a set of floatation devices called pontoons hence its name.
These pontoons are filled with air inside and are air-tight like a balloon. Also they are practically unsinkable due to their design and they work amazingly well even when in shallow waters.
The pontoons themselves have high carrying capacity and give a sense of security to the owner knowing that he/she can carry a lot of passengers and gear. For reference, military-grade pontoons can even carry fully loaded armored tanks, so yeah pontoons are amazing.
Pontoon boat manufacturers just add a deck, a roof, and other amenities and accessories on top of these pontoons. Think of a living room stacked on top of a set of hotdog-shaped lifebuoys, add an engine to that and that’s pretty much what a pontoon is.
A catamaran is a type of boat that is also easily identifiable due to its unusual hull design. Unlike a common yacht or fishing boat that has a v-shaped hull, a catamaran takes this one step further by having two v-shaped hulls, one on either side and connected by a bridge deck.
This has several benefits including increased stability, a larger deck space, can be used on shallower water, and has better fuel efficiency since less of the boat is in contact with the water.
Imagine two boats side to side, with a living room connecting both of them, and that’s pretty much what a catamaran is.
Pontoons vs Catamarans
Both have unique hull designs, both are stable and both have massive deck sizes. So they’re practically the same boat right?
Well, no. Despite being similar in many aspects, they are designed with different purposes in mind, and thus are better in their respective roles.
But before we head down to what makes a pontoon boat better than a catamaran or vice versa, let’s focus on the differences between them in each criterion the average boater should have knowledge of.
Pontoon boats are great for relaxation and cruising. They have a wide-open deck that is well suited for these types of activities. If you love feeling the wind in your face as you move through the water at a relaxing pace, then a pontoon boat is perfect for you.
Catamarans are designed with sailing and open water cruising and thus have a more luxurious indoor setup, but also have a high visibility upper viewing deck for sightseeing. If you’d like to bring an entire house with all the amenities on those marine adventures, catamarans are one of the best options for this.
Hulls and Deck Access
Earlier we’ve introduced that pontoon boats do not have a hull of their own but rather a set of pontoons, commonly two of them with a special case being tritoons which as the name suggests have three pontoons keeping the deck afloat.
Pontoon boats have a high amount of buoyancy due to their design and are capable of shallow water travel, high carrying capacity, due to the increased surface area in contact with the water.
The moment you step onto a pontoon boat, you’re already on the deck. As these boats are known for their wide-open and flat deck, climbing on top of one is easy enough as the deck itself is just a few inches above the waterline. Pontoon boats also have multiple access points which are easy enough to maneuver through.
A catamaran, on the other hand, uses the standard v-shaped hull but has two of them side by side and is connected in the middle by the bridge deck. Using a v-shaped hull means that a catamaran can travel at speed, and since it has two of them, the increased buoyancy allows it to travel on shallow waters and have reduced hydrodynamic friction leading to more speed, stability, and a better fuel economy.
Deck access on a catamaran is a bit more difficult compared to that of a pontoon, as it requires you to use a series of steps and ladders to reach the upper deck because it lies a few feet above the waterline in stark contrast to the few inches a pontoon decks height rests at.
Catamarans have rooms and thus larger doors which may be uncomfortable to fit through for some, but it does have luxury and security in mind and has a limited amount of access points compared to a pontoon boat.
Pontoon boats are recreational by design, and thus they are of a smaller size. They lie somewhere around 15-50 feet, which is plenty of room for whatever short-term activity you have in store for it.
Catamarans in comparison to pontoon boats have massive berths because they are designed for luxury cruising and can handle a wider variety of weather conditions. You can’t take a pontoon boat out on the open water, but a catamaran can handle both open and shallow water. These vessels range from around 40 to even 145 feet in length.
Pontoon boats are great for short-term social gatherings, fishing, and watersports like skiing and tubing. They are intended to be used as recreational vessels and they are absolutely outstanding in that regard.
Catamarans are meant for travel while being at the highest tier of the luxury and performance side of things. Thus if you’d like to have everything on your boat, because you travel from one place to another, yet want to maintain comfort, speed and then some, then catamarans are for you.
Propulsion is the method by which a boat moves forward, thus we’re going to be comparing the catamaran and the pontoon boat in this aspect. But before that, we need to understand that the catamaran and pontoon boat are designed differently and there will be a clear winner in each category.
Catamarans are mostly powered by sails. High-end catamaran boats do have engines, but they use these sparingly and only in emergencies. Being powered by sails, engine noise is not an issue for catamarans.
Pontoons, on the other hand, can be mounted with multiple engines of varying horsepowers, and a solar-powered version can even come with an electric engine if you prefer a more silent ride.
Sails rely on wind and can be powerful when used correctly, unfortunately, there will be some use cases where there are no winds, and using the catamaran’s engine just doesn’t cut it. That said for long-distance travel out in the open water, nothing beats the efficiency of being able to move your boat for free.
As pontoons have their own dedicated engines, power is constant and can be delivered on cue. If you want power at any given time rather than over a period of time, pontoons have this in the bag.
Pontoons can travel at around 15-25 miles an hour, which is more than enough speed for your average watersports enthusiast and can cruise slow enough for more relaxing boating trips. For more details see our guide: Pontoon Boat Speeds
Catamarans can travel around 11-17 miles an hour and are roughly a third faster than their monohull counterparts. As previously discussed, catamarans rely on the wind thus their speed varies greatly, however for long-distance trips over a comparably long span of time where high speed isn’t really a necessity, catamarans win easily.
Pontoons can carry a relatively sizeable number of passengers during a single trip and are capable of pulling inflatables or nets when needed as pontoons tend to be quite powerful despite their compact size.
Catamarans can do almost everything that a pontoon can do and more. It has viewing decks, living quarters, bathrooms, and a fully functioning kitchen. However, it isn’t entirely perfect since it can’t produce power on cue due to its reliance on wind power, thus although it can be used for watersports, it can be very unstable in that respect.
Catamarans generally are the more expensive type of boat, as they are practically floating hotels, with a living room, sleeping quarters, bathrooms, and a fully furnished kitchen. They cost roughly around a few tens of thousands to a few million dollars depending on the size, capabilities, and luxuries included.
Do take into account the fact that a catamaran is basically a floating hotel, and by comparing the cost of staying in different luxurious hotels over a long period of time vs the cost of owning and maintaining a catamaran, the catamaran is a more practical choice.
The most expensive pontoons out there can rival the lower tier catamarans in terms of price, but do take this comparison with a grain of salt as this is an apple to oranges kind of thing.
Pontoons do come with a lower price, but they are focused purely on the recreational types of activities and are severely limited compared to the versatility of a catamaran.
A pontoon boat requires regular hull and deck cleaning as well as engine maintenance. Interior and hull detailing is required for salt, or wax buildup as well as regular upkeep of the upholstery. The upholstery on a pontoon boat can be a big problem when not properly maintained as they are constantly exposed to the elements thus a good pontoon boat cover when not using the boat is advised.
A catamaran is designed to face the weather 24/7 and has no engine for the most part thus requires significantly less maintenance compared to a pontoon. The interior is affected less by the weather and more by passenger use, but it still needs to be checked every now and then. Do expect an estimate of around 10% of the catamaran’s price for the cost of maintenance each year.
For catamarans expect a depreciation rate of around 5% on average every year, and maybe more if the boat is not properly taken care of. Some catamarans that are built and ordered abroad will have their resale value affected by currency fluctuations, so if you’re lucky enough you could sell it for the price you bought it, after currency conversions.
As for pontoons, the depreciation rate is somewhere around 8-9% per year over the course of a 10 year period, but this rate can drop down to 4% per year for the largest of pontoons. Pontoon boats are easier to acquire thus you will always sell them for a loss. We have written extensively on pontoon boat depreciation so check that guide out for more details.
What a Catamaran is Best For
The experienced boater. For those who are skilled and capable and want to go on marine voyages for extended periods of time. That said even though the passenger numbers are limited it can go further and through a variety of weather conditions, in complete luxury and safety.
What a Pontoon is Best For
The weekend warrior. Pontoon boats work best during day trips and through a plethora of water-based activities and can be versatile due to their simplistic design. The capability of bringing a relatively large number of passengers and equipment for its size, make it an ideal workboat for transport if that be the case.
In summary, pontoon boats are focused on short-term recreational trips and are generally cheaper in cost and maintenance. Catamarans on the other hand are luxurious and designed for longer trips out on the open water, accompanying these capabilities are equally more expensive price and cost of upkeep.
Given that it is necessary that in order to make an informed decision, one must consider each factor regarding what use case scenario the boat will be involved in so you yourself won’t have any problems when on the topic of a pontoon boat vs catamaran.