Being the new owner of a pontoon boat is incredibly exciting – suddenly, the summer and the water are open to you in new ways as never before. But it can also be a daunting prospect, especially if you are a first-time boat owner with little training in how to operate and enjoy your new pontoon boat. If that’s the case for you, it may help to go back to the basics with this guide on how to drive a pontoon boat.
1. Learn Key Components of Driving a Pontoon Boat
The first and most important step in learning how to drive a pontoon boat is to get to know your boat. This means learning the terminology for its components and its parts and understanding how everything works together to make your boat function.
Pontoon Boat Motor
Most pontoon boats have outboard motors, which function just the same on pontoons as they do on other vessels. The motor, of course, provides the propulsion necessary for your boat to move forward and maneuver in the water. It will be located in the back of your pontoon boat, and its size will depend largely on the size of your boat. On a simplified level, outboard motors operate like a car engine, with fuel burning in the cylinders to move pistons, which turns the driveshaft. This motion is converted into forward motion by the propeller.
At its most basic, a pontoon boat’s throttle is a lever that can be pressed forward to increase the speed of the boat. Your throttle control also incorporates a gear shift to facilitate the transition between forward, neutral and reverse. The biggest difference between driving a car and driving a boat is that in a car, the wheels directly connect to the pavement, while a boat is moving through a fluid. This means there is a slight delay between any adjustments to the controls and the motion of the boat through the water. You should try to become familiar with the handling of the throttle and its interaction with your engine and get a real feel for how the boat will respond to you when you drive it.
2. Check the Boating Conditions
Before you try to take your pontoon boat out for a spin, it’s worth being mindful of the weather conditions around where you’re planning to be. If it looks like there will be high winds or a lot of rain or any other sour conditions, it might not be the ideal day to take your boat out. It’s also important to research where you intend to take your pontoon boat, as the local conditions will impact how you operate the boat.
How to Drive a Pontoon Boat on a Lake
Lakes are a common destination for many pontoon boat owners, and they’re a great place to get a lot of use out of your pontoon boat. When boating on a lake, there are some practices you should keep in mind to keep yourself and your passengers safe. Make sure you’re constantly paying attention to your surroundings so you can avoid hazards and try to keep your speed at a level you are comfortable with so you have time to maneuver if something changes. When turning, try to take wide, gentle turns, as pontoon boats won’t lean into turns the way a V-hulled boat will. It’s important to keep weight distributed evenly to help facilitate steady turns. Try to leave space between yourself and others on the water, and just generally be cautious and considerate of other boaters and lake-goers to ensure everyone has a good day.
How to Drive a Pontoon Boat in Rough Waters
Weather changes and sometimes you can’t avoid foul weather or rough water in your pontoon boat. Maintain similar practices as during regular boating conditions, by driving with caution and keeping weight distributed as evenly as possible. Try not to force your turns so the boat keeps its balance, and be careful of wind affecting your ability to corner safely. The most important thing is to keep your bow and your boat’s pontoons above the water, so try to take larger waves at an angle.
3. Get On the Water: Driving a Pontoon Boat
Much like driving a car, once you get the basics down it won’t be hard to build good habits until it becomes second-nature, and just another part of a fun-filled day out on the water.
Turning the Engine On
The first step to getting underway is turning your engine on. Yes, most pontoons have key starts just like a car, but there are a few things to keep in mind before turning the key. Outboard motors are water cooled and must be in the water when you turn them on. So, the first step is to tilt the engine or engines down fully. You also must make sure your throttle and gear shift is in neutral to ensure the prop doesn’t start spinning immediately causing unanticipated movement and a hazardous situation. You also should check around to make sure there are no people or debris around the boat or engine before you turn it on. Once you’ve started your engine, give it some idle time to let it warm up a bit and ensure cooling water is coming out the side of the motor. Now you are ready to get going.
Trimming a Pontoon Boat
Trim is a fine tuning of the angle that your propeller shaft is relative to your boat and changing it will change the angle at which the boat is powering through the water. As a boat picks up speed trim keeps the bow down. Think of a boat with the bow up plowing through the water or a boat with the bow down skimming across the surface. Proper trim can impact speed, fuel efficiency and the comfort of your passengers and requires practice to get your boat running at peak performance. These adjustments should be made in small increments as you get underway.
Using the Pontoon Throttle
As you try to get a feeling for the controls, it’s a good idea to move the throttle very gently and take it easy, especially if you’re reversing to begin with. Try to keep your early movements small and controlled and build up to higher speeds slowly.
4. Exercise Pontoon Boat Safety
The most important thing to keep in mind when driving your new pontoon boat is making sure that you’re operating it safely. Keeping yourself and your passengers safe on the water should be your number one priority, and there are a few steps you can take to lower your risk and engage in boat safety practices.
Boat Safety Gear
Every boater should bring safety equipment such as life jackets and other personal floatation devices and signaling devices such as flares in case of emergencies. Having throwable floatation devices is also necessary, as is having a fire extinguisher on board. A prudent mariner also brings a first aid kit, oars or paddles and a cell phone or radio in case it becomes necessary to call for help.
Part of boating safe is boating smart, and that includes knowing what kind of rules and regulations your pontoon boat must operate under. Make sure that you know your local boating laws – this will help keep you out of trouble, but also, most of these regulations are designed with boater safety in mind. If you’re following the rules, chances are you’ll keep yourself and your passengers safe, and ensure that your time spent on the water is fun.