Pontoon Boats in Rough Water: How Do They Handle?

pontoon boats in rough water

The pontoon boat has always been recognized as ‘unsinkable’ because of its intuitive design that incorporates extra buoyant tubes and a double-hull structure. They steer pretty easily and are incredibly stable on the water, which is also why they’ve become the boat of choice for recreational use.

One thing you’ll notice however is that most manufacturers recommend against using pontoon boats in rough water. Intended for use in inter-coastal areas and sheltered boating conditions, pontoons were never really designed for choppy, strong waves. But that doesn’t mean you’ll never encounter them. With that in mind, you might find yourself asking - how do pontoons handle in rough conditions?

How Do Pontoon Boats Handle in Rough Water?

how do pontoon boats handle in rough water

For the sake of clarification, no pontoon boat owner should consider bringing their pontoon to rough waters. In fact, most manufacturers sticking to rivers and lakes, since that’s what pontoon boats are designed for.

If you ever decide that you want to take your boat out to ocean waters, it’s recommended that you avoid open areas. On a calm day, you should be able to enjoy a trip a few miles out of a bay, cove, or inlet where the sheltered conditions prevent waves from getting out of hand.

But then again, there’s never a guarantee that your boat will never be met with choppy waters - no matter how careful you are with choosing your locations. So when might you find yourself having to face off strong waves? We can name a few possible scenarios:

Sudden Weather Changes

Weather forecasts are often reliable, but that doesn’t mean Mother Nature never throws a curveball. Sudden changes in wind strength and direction, and even the unforeseen storm can hit your local lake or bay, causing significant changes in water conditions.

Wash from Larger Vessels

Yes, bigger boats out on the water can create large waves that could give you a taste of what it feels like to navigate choppy waters. Of course, these waves won’t last for long, but some of them can be strong enough to throw off your steering.

Lack of Preparation

Newbie pontoon boat owners might think that they can just head out to the lake without checking the forecasts and finding out what to expect. And this lack of preparation can often lead to major struggles out on the water, especially when those big waves come crashing in.

Reasons Why It's Not Recommended for Use in Rough Waters

So, why are pontoon boats not typically recommended for use in rough waters? Well, there are a few good reasons.

Shallow Draft

A draft refers to how deep the boat sits in the water. A deep draft boat has most of its hull immersed, letting it cut through the waves. Imagine a deep V-hull fishing boat, with its V-shaped profile slicing through waves at high speed.

And then there’s the pontoon boat. Unlike a deep draft boat, the pontoon is a shallow draft boat that quite literally sits on the surface of the water. It’s logs make sure that it’s extra buoyant, which also means that it can’t cut through waves and will ultimately be at the mercy of the surface conditions.

Surface Area

Pontoon boats have significant surface area because of their high walls and railings. It also rises higher up above the waterline compared to other low profile, streamlined boats. So when the wind starts to pick up, you can expect your pontoon to take most of the force head on.

This also gives waves more to crash into. Unlike streamlined fishing boats and other deep hull boats, the pontoon’s bulky build means it has to fight harder to move in rough water because its surface area creates more resistance.


Even the smallest fishing boats can cut through water at speeds of 50 miles per hour. At top speed, a pontoon boat might be able to go as fast as 25 miles per hour maximum, but most of them average just 18 miles per hour.

Now imagine going at those speeds against strong winds and choppy waters. It becomes even more difficult when the waves work against your boat, dragging you back and slowing you down even more.

What Happens When Pontoon is in Rough Water

So, how is a pontoon boat in rough water? You can expect a pontoon boat to operate at less than optimal performance when placed in rough waters. That also means you might put both your passengers and your vessel at risk of accidents if you don’t get out of choppy water conditions as soon as possible, and these include:

Engine overwork and fuel consumption

Your engine will work harder to navigate difficult water and that also means you may have to use more fuel than usual. If you only have enough gas to see you through for the duration of the trip, slicing through rough waters might burn up your supply before you can get back to dry land.

Unstable movement

Sure, the pontoon boat might be ‘unsinkable’ in theory, but everything can sink under the right circumstances. Winds that are too strong and waves that are too high can make it exceedingly difficult to even operate your boat (specially if you experience seasickness), increasing the risk of having people tossed overboard or worse.

Boat Damage

All of those churning waves can make it difficult to steer, which also means you might not be able to see rocks and other obstacles in the way. In the worst situations, some boat owners might even drive their boat straight into a rock formation and cause serious damage to their vessel.

Will a Pontoon Boat Capsize in Rough Water?

Most experts believe that it’s more likely to capsize a pontoon boat than to sink it with damage to the logs. But then again, that doesn’t mean that flipping it over is that easy. It should take some serious waves and wind to get the job done since a pontoon’s wide floor area and generally flat design that sits parallel to the water’s surface isn’t as easy to toss around as deep V-hull boat.

However even then, strong waves and winds can capsize a pontoon if they crash in at a bad angle. Waves that are too strong can bury the nosecones under the surface and cause water to come crashing into the playpen.

Another way that a pontoon might capsize is when waves and poor balance mix. As a general rule, you’re going to want to make sure weight on your boat is evenly distributed so it sits as parallel as possible to the surface of the water. If any part of your boat dips slightly deeper under the surface because of poor weight distribution, then that may become the perfect spot for waves to fall into.

On the upside, pontoon boats are incredibly buoyant and their logs are designed to create the perfect conditions to keep your boat upright on the water. If we’re being realistic, the kind of waves and wind it would take to capsize a pontoon boat would probably only occur on the high seas. So even a stormy lake might not be able to produce those conditions.

How to Handle a Pontoon on Choppy, Rough Water

how is a pontoon boat in rough water

Well, it happened. You’ve found yourself in the middle of an angry lake during storm season, and you’ve got no other choice but to face the music and take control of your vessel. Just stay calm, don’t panic, and try to put these tips into practice:

Stay Connected

Before anything else, you’re going to want to inform your local coast guard or even your marina that you’re out on the water. You never know what might happen next, and it’s always best to keep the appropriate authorities informed to make sure you can get help and assistance when you need it.

Radio in and let them know your situation. If there are other people on your vessel, hand them over the task of keeping connected with people on dry land so they know everything that happens blow by blow.

Trim Up Against the Waves

The thing about waves is that you can anticipate when they’re about to come crashing. In fact, most waves come in at regular intervals, so you should be able to tell when to brace yourself.

As you watch the churning water make its way towards your vessel, trim up. By pointing the bow of your pontoon slightly upwards right as you meet a wave, you can prevent your nosecones from getting buried in the water.

Meet Waves at an Angle

While there hasn’t been any news about pontoon boats capsizing in choppy water, some experts believe it can happen under certain conditions. And one of the things they strongly recommend that boat owners do when faced with strong waves would be to meet them at an angle.

Instead of taking them head on, try to angle your boat at 35° to 45° in relation to the waves. This minimizes the risk of having your nosecones dive into the water and allows for a more stable, controllable ride.

Spread your Weight

As you navigate the choppy waters, it’s best that you distribute the weight on board to prevent any areas of your vessel from dipping lower into the water’s surface. That means telling your guests to seat themselves at distance and avoid clustering together in one area.

If you’ve got a bunch of gear like food, fishing equipment, and anything else that might weigh down on a certain area of your boat, try not to keep them all in one area.

Don’t Slow Down

A tendency among boat owners is that they slow down when faced with strong currents and waves. And that’s an absolutely natural response, especially when you feel like you want to gain better control. But experts actually recommend against it.

Slowing down places your boat at the mercy of the waves. With less force driving you forward, your vessel becomes less capable of combating every crash of water. A slow boat also can’t trim up, which means that when those waves come rolling in, you’re likely to bury your nosecones.

When Worse Comes to Worst

If you’re not confident you can safely navigate the water and you’re worried you might cause more harm than good, deploy your anchor (given the right conditions) and hunker down. Radio in for assistance and wait for help to arrive.

Tips for Preparing for Rough Water

No one wants to be faced with the unfortunate situation of handling a pontoon boat where it shouldn’t be. So to make sure you won’t have to find yourself in that place, here are some helpful tips:

Watch the Weather

Keep an eye out for dark clouds and strong winds. If the weather starts to pick up and you’re not sure if you’re expecting a storm, err on the side of caution and just head back to shore.

Check the Forecasts Before You Go

There are loads of reliable sources for weather forecasts, and that should be part of your prep before every ride.

Inform Someone

Make sure you always tell someone that you’re heading out to the water before you do. Whether it’s the guys at the marina or a family member or friend, you want to see to it that people know where you are when those rough waters come around.

Wear the Proper Gear

Most local jurisdictions will not allow boat owners and their passengers to go for a ride without proper personal flotation gear. Life vests and even life savers should find a space on your boat.

Upgrade your Boat

There are lots of upgrades you can get to improve your pontoon’s resilience in less than ideal conditions. These can include barracuda nose cones, triple tubes, sea legs, power steering, and of course, an upgraded engine.

Facing the Wind and the Waves

How do pontoon boats handle in rough water? Well, they’re not designed for it, but they can see you through. With the right technique and know-how, you should be able to see your pontoon boat out of the choppy conditions and back to safety. But more importantly, the right preparations and foresight should prevent the need for using pontoon boats in rough water in the first place.

Scroll to Top