12 Tips To Drive A Pontoon Boat Like A Pro

Pontoon boats certainly are a lot of fun, but they can also be a bit of a challenge for novice boaters. If you’re intimidated by the pontoon you have decided to rent or have recently purchased a pontoon boat, then you’ve come to the right place for tips on how to drive the boat like a pro!

The most challenging aspects of pontoon boats are typically navigating through tight spaces and learning how to dock a boat. Read on for other valuable pieces of pontoon driving advice.

1. Learn How To Use The Throttle Control

Like other types of recreational crafts, pontoon boats are driven with throttle control. Move the throttle forwards, and your boat accelerates while pulling back on the throttle puts the boat in reverse. Typically, there is a trim button on the side of the throttle that allows you to bring the motor up and down.

Familiarize yourself with the throttle controls in your pontoon boat. Not every throttle system is equally responsive, and you will likely notice that pontoon boats are the trucks of the boating world. They simply don’t travel at the same speeds as bass boats or ski boats. Also, know that neutral is your friend. It is better to come in nice and slow in neutral instead of full idle speed towards a dock.

2. How To Steer A Pontoon Boat

Pontoon boats are more of a challenge to maneuver than most other types of boats. You are encouraged to avoid tight spaces until you become more comfortable steering the boat, which has a wider turning radius than ski boats and fishing boats.

When you are steering pontoon boats: make sure that you are taking turns slowly. Learn which type of steering system you have and consider making upgrades if you feel that it is excessively difficult to steer your boat and it doesn’t seem to be getting any easier. When practicing you can either go forward left to turn left, or you can turn the wheel to the right and use reverse to go left.

An Improvement Over Mechanical Steering

Hydraulic steering offers an improvement over simple mechanical steering systems. This is typically included in pontoon boats with an HP rating of 115 or higher. It is also standard on boats with tritoons.

Here’s how it works: a hydraulic pump located at the helm of the boat draws hydraulic fluid through the boat in a way that reduces the effort required to steer. You can expect to pay something in the range of $1,500 to upgrade a pontoon boat with mechanical steering to have hydraulic steering.

Power Assist Hydraulic Steering

Power assist hydraulic steering is the best way to make steering your pontoon boat easier. Power assist hydraulic steering systems make it much easier to maneuver the pontoon boats, thanks to an extra pump that pushes fluid through the system helping you turn the wheel like in a car.

3. Distribute Weight Evenly In The Boat

It’s vital to ensure that the weight is evenly distributed throughout the boat. This applies not only to the passengers but to all the items in the boat as well. Pontoon boats come with several storage compartments and plenty of seating, so this should not be a difficult task to accomplish.

Also, pay attention to the boat’s capacity limitations, seen on a metal plate located somewhere along the side of the boat. This will be shown both in terms of the number of passengers allowed and the weight capacity of the vessel. Exceeding these values will run you the risk of causing the boat to take on water.

If you have too much weight over the right pontoon, your boat will tend to want to turn right easier, and turning left will be a challenge when you are going slow.

4. Focus On The Top

If you’ve never had a boat with an awning or roof before, this will be a new item of concern. Pontoon boats commonly come with bimini tops that can be adjusted appropriately. Pay attention to the height of the boat’s awning to avoid a collision under bridges.

A bimini top can also act as a sail, make sure to consider the wind when docking your pontoon boat. If it is going the direction towards the dock, you can use it at an advantage, if it is not, then you may have a hard time docking.

Always be aware of changing water levels. Just because you have been able to pass under a bridge in the past, this doesn’t mean that you will be able to pass through every time without trouble. The best bet is to collapse your top every time if there is ever a question about whether you will make it.

Also, if the awning is up while trying to dock the pontoon boat it’s important to be aware of the wind. The wind can really catch the awning making docking a pontoon boat very challenging. To make docking the boat easier in windy conditions it is recommended to put the bimini down.

5. Pay Attention To Changes In Performance

Before you head out, make sure that your propeller is in good shape. This can make a big difference when it comes to overall durability and fuel usage. A chipped or damaged propeller reduces the fuel economy of the boat.  Excessive vibration is also often a sign that the propeller needs to be replaced. Also, a damaged prop can cause your bearing to go out on your outdrive, so always repair your prop immediately.

It’s a good idea, in general, to take note of changes in your boat’s performance while you are driving it. If the boating season is almost over, make sure that you are able to take care of engine problems before the next season.

You are encouraged to keep a notebook onboard to keep track of any potential problems as they come up. If strange noises continue to occur, this is a good sign that there is some kind of an underlying issue. A good example of this is a motor that hesitates at startup. This is usually a sign that the starter battery may be going bad.

6. Track Fuel Usage And, Where You Can, Refuel

When you’re out having a party on the water, it’s easy to lose track of your fuel use. Unfortunately, it’s a little harder to get a good picture of available fuel mileage on boats versus cars. Modern pontoon boats do often come with fuel gauges, which allow you to at least get an idea of when your tanks are about to get empty. These gauges are not very accurate though.

In our case, we have a 40-gallon tank, usually, when the boat says it is almost empty we only need to put in about 25 gallons. We had an extra 15 gallons left due to the way the pontoon sits in the water and the gas gauge float in the gas tank. We still never run on empty even though we know there is more left. Always save some for reserve just in case.

The best option is to always top off your gas tank before you hit the water. If you need to get gas while you’re out on the water, be on the lookout for marinas. They’ll have pumping stations where you can refuel your boat without even having to leave the water.

How To Use Less Fuel In Pontoon Boats

The way that you drive your pontoon boat can affect overall fuel efficiency. When you’re operating at full throttle, you’ll be eating into your fuel reserve at a much quicker pace. Any time that you are towing skiers and tubers, you should be aware that this will put a drain on your fuel tank. Consider this if you are considering a day of tubing. A steady-state speed will be the best way to use less fuel while out on the boat. 

7. How Shallow Can A Pontoon Boat Go?

Running a pontoon boat aground can lead to costly repairs. You may end up with a busted propeller or damage to the pontoon floats. You can prevent this from occurring by being aware of the current depth and the limitations of pontoon boats.

Pontoon boats can go as shallow as two feet of water during navigation. If you are going to shore the boat onto a shallow sandbar, make sure that you trim the motor up and move forward slowly, closely watching for rocks and boulders that may damage your boat.

Why You Should Get A Depth Finder

There are plenty of reasons to invest in a quality depth finder. This provides you with real-time water depth information, a precious asset for navigation in rivers and reservoirs. You can also find depth finders with built-in features that’ll help you land your next big catch.

Here are some of the most popular depth finders on the market:

8. Learn How To “Read A River”

Navigating a river requires a different skill set. You have to contend with rapidly changing depths, unpredictable currents, and floating timber and debris in the river. Learning how to read a river will help you avoid peril on the waters.

Here is how to read a river:

  • The outside bends of curves will be the deepest. The inside of a curve is shallow and should be avoided.
  • Understand navigation buoys for channels: green buoys should be kept to your right if you are heading upstream; red buoys should be kept to your left if you are heading upstream. 

9. Understand Safety Regulations & Boater Etiquette

The rules of the road and the rules of the water are not the same. Boating regulations help ensure that serious boating accidents do not occur. Be sure to familiarize yourself with these before you head out and be sure that you are equipped with all the right gear.

Take Online Classes

It’s never a bad idea to take an online boating safety class, and many jurisdictions even require that you have completed an approved boater safety course. Just because you have a driver’s license doesn’t necessarily mean that you are legal to drive a boat. Contact your local regulatory authority to find out more.

How To Safely Drive A Pontoon Boat

Assuming that you are familiar with all the regulations, there are still some challenges posed specifically by pontoon boats. 

  • Double check for personal flotation device: Every personal watercraft is required to have enough life jackets for every passenger on board. Since pontoons usually carry larger groups, it is easy to overlook this detail.
  • When towing skiers or tubers: It is essential to remember that you must have a lookout at both the front and rear of the boat. 
  • Be aware of your boat’s wake: Since these boats are larger and usually relatively powerful, you need to be aware of the wake that your boat is throwing so that you don’t swamp the other boats nearby.

Get A Boat Horn

Boat horns may not be mandatory, but it’s always a good idea to have one on your boat so that you may communicate with other boaters. Boat horn sounds have specific meanings, depending upon the length of the horn blast.

  • 1 Short horn blast: Use these to let other boaters know that you are about to pass a boat on their port (left side).
  • 2 Short horn blasts: This indicates that you are about to pass another boat on its starboard side (right side).
  • 3 Short horn blasts: This indicates that you are about to throw your pontoon boat into reverse gear.

Many pontoon boats come standard with horns, but your older pontoon boat may not have functioning boat horns. It’s never a bad idea to consider an upgrade to a horn that sounds better.

One of the most popular boat horns on the market is the Marinco Compact Electric Horn. This boat horn runs off a 12-volt battery and can be mounted just about anywhere, thanks to its compact size and the mounting kit that the horn comes with. 

10. How To Drive Your Pontoon Boat Through Rough Water

Pontoon boats are not designed to run through rough water. They don’t cut through the waves in the same way that v-hull boats can. A ride across choppy water can be a wet one, with waves crashing over the boat’s front deck in some cases. It’s a good idea to pay attention to the weather and avoid going out on days when the forecast calls for high winds or storms.

Even if you’re careful, there will be times when you encounter rough water in your pontoon boat. For one thing, the weather can be somewhat unpredictable. Also, you can get artificial wave action from other boat traffic going in all directions. On a busy day, a body of water can get rough, even if the winds are light.

Here are some tips for driving through rough water:

  • The boat should be steered so that the waves are at a 30-45 degree angle from the boat’s center. Taking waves at an angle is safer than allowing your vessel to get crosswise to big waves.
  • Don’t slow down before you hit a big wave. Rather, you should trim up and give it some gas in order to lift the boat’s bow.

11. How To Dock A Pontoon Boat

Experienced boaters can make this look easy, but beginners will find that it is more challenging than it looks. In the section below, you’ll learn how to approach a dock in a pontoon boat.

It’s Good To Have A Lookout

The elevated sides and long deck of a pontoon boat make it challenging to approach a dock without ramming your pontoon into the dock. This is where a lookout comes in handy. This is a crew member who sits up front and directs you through traffic and tight spaces. They should ideally be standing on the port (or left) side of the boat.

How To Deal With The Wind

Having to fight the wind is a routine part of the boating experience: learning how to deal with it makes all the difference when it comes to having control of your boat. Regardless of the conditions onshore, it will always be windier out on the water.

  • If you have a choice, always attempt to dock your boat onto the side where the wind will blow you into the dock rather than away from it.
  • Approach from a 30-45 degree angle at a slow and controlled speed. The bow should be aimed at the center of the landing point.
  • If the wind and current are pushing you away from the dock, use a steeper angle (the stern of the boat should’ve been closer to the dock).

Once you have come within half a boat length of the dock, turn the steering wheel hard away from the dock and throttle the engine. End by the wheel back toward the dock and put the engine in reverse to bring yourself parallel.

How To Avoid Damaging The Boat (Or The Dock)

The landing procedure is perhaps the most hazardous part of driving a pontoon boat. It’ll seem like the conditions are never perfect. Also, some piers are much more complicated than others because of their location. You may have to deal with the unfortunate combination of a shallow, rocky boat launch located on the lake’s windward side.

You can prevent your boat from taking damage from the dock or causing damage to the dock by purchasing fenders for the sides of your boat. These inflatable fenders absorb and reduce the impact of landing. They are certainly cheaper than having to repair a dent.

12. Advice on Loading/Unloading Pontoon From A Trailer

Loading and unloading a pontoon boat from a trailer can be a bit of a challenge. The trailers are harder to back in, and it can be difficult to load the boat onto a trailer, especially on a windy day.

Here are some tips for loading/unloading pontoon boats:

  • If this is your first pontoon boat, be sure to do some practice runs at a less-crowded boat ramp.
  • Make sure that your vehicle has mirrors that give you a good view of what’s going on behind you.

Final Thoughts 

Since pontoon boats are larger than most other types of boats, they can be more of a challenge to drive as well as dock. Your primary focuses should be on learning how to work the throttle controls, how to steer, avoiding shallow water, and how to approach a dock.

Tips on these often challenging aspects of boating are included in the sections above. Pontoon boats are great fun, and there is no reason to be intimidated by their size once you learn these helpful tricks.