How To Drive A Pontoon Boat

How To Drive A Pontoon Boat | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Jacob Collier

December 19, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Pontoon boats are easy to drive, if you follow a few safety rules.
  • Operators need to always be in control of the craft
  • Do not speed or drive wildly in a pontoon boat
  • Pontoon boats require a larger turning radius than V-shaped boats.

If you are thinking about buying a pontoon boat or renting one for your vacation, the question might have dawned on you. How do you drive a pontoon boat?

Driving a pontoon boat is a straightforward process, if you follow a few safety rules.

  • Make sure everyone wears a safety vest and follows rules.
  • Turn the ignition to the On position. Let the engine idle.
  • Trim the Motor Down into the Water. Look Around Before Moving.
  • Remove the Ties from the Dock
  • Put the Boat into Reverse, Slowly backing away from the Dock
  • Steer the Boat in the Direction You Wish to Go
  • Throttle up slowly to cruising Speed, and Keep a Safe Distance
  • Make Turns Slowly, and Use Reverse to Slow down if needed.

With pontoon boats becoming a staple for American families who love recreational water activities (sales are expected to almost double in the next five years), learning how to operate them safely is essential. While pontoon boats are one of the safest crafts on the water (rarely do they sink), it is still a good idea to know the basics of driving one before hitting the water. While boating accidents don’t happen that frequently, they happen, and most of the time, they result from operator errors. The last thing you want is to cause an accident on the water and cause damage to your boat, yourself, your family, or anyone else.


Table of contents

What is a Pontoon Boat?

A pontoon boat is a flat-decked boat with two or three aluminum tubes (pontoons) on either side of the deck. The pontoons run the length of the craft and provide enough buoyancy for the decking (boat) to stay afloat. Unlike V-shaped hulls, the pontoon tubes slice through the water, carrying the deck above them.

The configuration of a pontoon boat allows for different seating configurations, with the seats facing each other or positioned around the edge of the decking. Pontoons are generally powered by an outboard motor between the two pontoon tubes in the center rear of the deck.

It is important to remember that as a flat-decked boat, a pontoon is designed as a cruiser, rather than a boat built for speed. Even though, some manufacturers are equipping some pontoons with larger motors (meaning they go faster), the design of the boat is not built for this purpose.

How Do You Drive A Pontoon Boat?

A pontoon boat is one of the more accessible boats to learn to drive because they move slower through the water and sit higher than many other boats, which allows for a better sightline for the driver.  Assuming that you have already brought a fully charged cellphone with you, have a working radio, checked your fuel tank and other safety equipment, you are now ready to learn how to drive a pontoon.

Make Sure Everyone is Wearing a Life Jacket

Anytime a boat is in the water and passengers are on board, they should always wear a life jackets. One of your responsibilities as the operator is to ensure that everyone on your boat follows safety protocols. (I have no problem shaming people into putting them on, before I move the boat anywhere).

Turn the Ignition to the ON Position.

If your pontoon boat is push-button start, dial ignition, or with a key, you must determine what to do to start it up. Once you perform the task, (push the button or turn the key), the electrical system will come to life. Most manufacturers suggest that the motor should idle for a couple of minutes to warm up.

Trim the Motor Down to the Water

Most pontoon boats have a trim motor button on the side of the gearshift. Move the motor down to the water, completely submerging the propeller so that the motor sits just above the water. (Do not trim the motor all the way down if you are in shallow water). This action will allow you to control the pontoon's movement in response to the commands you are about to give it.

Take A Good Look at Your Surroundings.

You want to be conscious of your surroundings and make a plan for movement. If you need to reverse out of a slip or into deeper water, and you should always check to ensure that there are no obstructions behind the boat. Develop a plan for maneuvering in your head, and be sure that everyone is seated evenly on either side of the pontoon to balance the weight.

Remove the Ties to the Dock

The pontoon is tied to the dock with ropes that need to be loosened. This is a great moment to have a buddy do the work so you can stay in the command chair.  If something happens, you can stay in control of the ship.

Throttle Into Reverse Gently

After the last rope has been untied and secured correctly, gently move the throttle into Reverse. Don’t throttle with too much power and risk scraping the side of the boat. Slow is the best speed to clear an obstruction like a dock or slip. (Always ensure the immediate area is clear and free of swimmers or other items).

Turn the Steering Wheel as Needed.

The steering wheel of a pontoon works in the same fashion as the one in your automobile. Just turn the steering wheel gently to navigate away from the pier.

Trim the Motor Downward, if needed

If you need to trim the motor down more, do so. Most handles have a trim button. The lower the number, the lower the motor sits in the water.

Push the Throttle Forward for Cruising Speed

Gently push the throttle forward to reach cruising speed once the pontoon is pointed in the direction you wish to go. Many reservoirs and coastal bays have designated speed limits and traffic lanes, so be sure that you follow all rules and regulations.

Keep Your Hands On the Steering Wheel.

It should go without saying that a driver should keep their hands on the wheel. Refrain from allowing any other rider to distract you from operating the pontoon safely.  Just as you wouldn’t let go of your car's steering wheel, keep your hands on the wheel and close to the throttle.

Be Aware of Your Surroundings

You want to maintain a distance of at least 100 feet between you and any other vessels on the water. Use side-view and rearview mirrors to keep you mindful of any issues. (I always ask someone to be another pair of eyes on the horizon to warn me about potential issues that I might not have noticed. It never hurts to have help when on the water).

Keep Your Speed Down. Don’t Make Abrupt Turns.

Remember that pontoon boats are more extensive and less responsive than other V-shaped boats. In addition, there are no brakes (only a reverse), so it is best to go at slower cruising speeds rather than all-out blazing across the water.  (Remember that a slower cruising speed uses less gasoline and makes the boat easier to control).

Since pontoons are generally floating decks, they require more time to make a turn. That means you should plan on making a turn before you need to make it and turn in a larger arc than you might typically do. This watercraft is not the car that you are driving. Do not expect it to be as elegant as your car is.

Above all, be safe and careful so that you and your family can enjoy a wonderful afternoon of cruising without incident.

How To Drive A Pontoon Boat
Jacob Collier

Jacob Collier

Born into a family of sailing enthusiasts, words like “ballast” and “jibing” were often a part of dinner conversations. These days Jacob sails a Hallberg-Rassy 44, having covered almost 6000 NM. While he’s made several voyages, his favorite one is the trip from California to Hawaii as it was his first fully independent voyage.

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