Pontoon boats are one of the easiest boats you could ever learn to drive. I firmly believe that if you have experience in driving a car, you can drive a pontoon boat. But, in fact it’s actually way easier.
If you are thinking about buying a pontoon boat or are nervous about an upcoming boat rental on a vacation, then please don’t be. Pontoon boats rarely sink and are very safe boats to drive.
When you buy your boat, the dealer will give you some initial lessons if you ask them. There will also be people in your local area offering boating lessons. And rental companies won’t even let you step onto the boat until they have given you a full safety briefing and taught you what you need to know in order to get started safely.
But if you still want some pointers on how to drive a pontoon boat before you step onto one, then here’s a very good primer which will give you a massive head start with what you need to know with some basic controls and driving tips.
How to Drive a Pontoon Boat
Step 1: Leaving the Dock or Slip
The first thing we are going to learn about driving a pontoon boat for the first time is how to prepare your passengers, how to secure the boat, how to start the motor, and then leave the dock, marina, or slip safely.
1. All Passengers Should be Wearing Life Jackets
Before you do anything, make sure that everyone has a properly fitting life jacket.
There are laws that slightly differ from state to state, but at the very least any passenger aged 6 years and under will need to be in a PFD (personal flotation device) that is US Coast Guard approved.
Life jackets should be worn before a passenger even walks down the marina dock, and definitely before they even think about stepping on the boat’s deck.
Your job as the pontoon boat captain is to ensure your passengers’ safety, so check everyone is wearing a life jacket that fits them before they come onto the vessel.
In addition to life jackets, there are other safety items I recommend, many if which you can read about in this safety equipment checklist.
2. Make Sure the Fuel Tank is Full, and Radio is Operational
Once you have checked the passengers’ safety and have them seated in evenly distributed spaces – i.e. don’t have them all sitting on one side of the boat – check the fuel indicator on the console. Make sure that the fuel tank is full and you have enough gas for the journey (and over estimate it).
Next check that the radio is fully operational. If you’re new to marine radio, ask the pontoon rental crew to give you a basic tutorial.
Handy Hint: The Boat US website has a very easy to understand guide on how to use marine VHF radios.
Another tip is to make sure that you have a fully charged phone with you, as this will be the first method you would use to communicate back to shore with in the event of any unlikely emergencies.
3. Secure Your Equipment
Any loose and heavy items on the pontoon boat deck will need to be secured or fastened down to avoid passenger injury.
This can include checking any fishing rods, water sports equipment, bags, and cool boxes are either strapped down with bungee cords or placed on the deck and pushed up against a lounger or side railing for stability.
4. Turn the Ignition to Start the Motor
Now you are ready to start the motor (most pontoon boats use outboard motors).
To do so, turn the ignition or motor to the “on” position and then let the engine warm up for a couple of minutes.
The warm up time will differ from boat to boat, so check the manufacturer spec, or ask the pontoon rental team what they recommend, but in most cases it will be between one and five minutes.
5. Trim the Pontoon Motor
Trimming is the definition of how far into the water your boat’s motor sits. Before you set off you will need to trim the motor down, so it sits into the water at a shallow level and not deep in the water.
Most pontoon boat controls have a trim button located on the throttle, so adjust it so that the trim value is high – that will mean the boat’s motor will be sitting just in the water and the right level. But not too deep like I said. I can’t reiterate this point enough.
6. Untie the Deck Ropes
Your pontoon boat will be attached to the dock using deck ropes. Have one of your passengers (crew members) untie them from the dock, whilst you gently place the throttle into reverse.
You will now start to back out of the dock or slip, but before you start to reverse too much, make sure that your passengers are all seated securely and are ready to go.
Using the pontoon’s throttle should be something done with a very gentle motion. Don’t reverse with too much power and take it very easy.
Your outboard motor should be touching the water as you reverse back and should not be trimmed all the way up. If it is trimmed all the way up, it could cause water to spray up and damage the motor.
7. Reverse Back Slowly with Small Throttle Bursts
Check behind you to see that there are no obstructions in the way such as other boats or swimmers.
If you have a clear path in which to drive back into, make small and controlled bursts on the throttle to back the boat out of the slip.
8. Turn the Steering Wheel
Next you will need to start turning using the steering wheel.
The easiest way to do this is to turn the wheel so the bow (front) of the pontoon boat is pointing the way in which you want to travel.
It’s just like driving a car.
Also make sure that you point the front of the pontoon boat into the wind as this will help offer a smoother drive through the water.
9. Move Up to Cruising Speed
Providing you are facing in the direction that you wish to drive and travel, shift into “forward” mode and push forwards gently on the throttle.
It’s best to make short incremental speed increases as a beginner, until such time you are cruising at a sensible speed, and you are comfortable with driving the pontoon boat.
If do go too hard on the throttle at first, and you aren’t used to driving, you could lose control of the pontoon boat.
Step 2: Driving on the Lake or River
Now we’re going to look at how to operate and drive a pontoon boat once you are out of the dock or marina area and heading out into the open water.
1. Keep the Motor Trimmed Down
Once you’re out in the open water, you should have the motor trimmed into the downwards position, which means a lower number on the throttle’s trim button.
By doing so, you will keep the motor deeper into the lake or river which will help to keep the pontoon boat rising at the bow as you speed through the water.
Always stay in complete control of the pontoon boat by keeping one hand on the wheel and one on the throttle at all times unless unavoidable.
2. Be Aware of Hazards at all Times
Just as you should do when driving a car, try to look into the distance at all times to ensure no hazards or other boats are approaching.
When driving a pontoon boat, the recommended distance to look to is around 30 metres ahead of you (which equates to around 100 feet).
You will need to be constantly aware of your surroundings, so also make use of the side and rear-view mirrors as you drive to avoid any obstacles, boaters, swimmers, or animals in the water.
3. Distribute Weight Evenly as You Drive
When driving, make sure that the weight on the boat is distributed evenly.
And I don’t just mean the passengers, who should be sat evenly through the sides, rear, and front of the boat.
If you are carrying large loads of equipment, also make sure that is evenly spaced to reduce the chances of flooding – which is very rare in a pontoon boat as I said. They are truly one of the safest vessels you can take on the water in the United States and Canada.
4. Keep Your Speed Down
There are no brakes on pontoon boats, so it pays to keep your speed down. Pontoon boats aren’t the fastest boats in the world (but here is a record holder if you want to know more), but the types you will be driving could still have a top speed of up to 30 miles per hour.
My advice here is to cruise at around 4,500 rpm of lower when driving through the water.
By driving at slower cruising speeds, you will help to keep your fuel costs down and will find your pontoon boat is far easier to control.
5. Turn in Gentle and Wide Arcs
Pontoon boats don’t have small turning circles, so you should think in advance before turning in the water.
If you take a turn too sharply, the rear of the pontoon can fly sideways. Your passengers can get flung around too and get hurt at higher speeds.
Plan your turns well in advance and make them in a gentle sweeping maneuver and you will reduce the chances of injury and losing control of the boat.
6. When Turning in Wind, Position the Boat Downwind
Pontoon boats aren’t that good at turning into wind.
If it’s windy, I would recommend positioning the front of the boat downwind, in the opposite direction of the wind.
This will mean you can turn a lot better, particularly if you do so at a medium speed and reduced acceleration.
7. Warn Your Passengers About Sharp Turns
If you do need to make a sharp turn, make sure that you tell your passengers first, so they can get say down and comfortable.
Pontoon boats can lean during turning, so by giving your passengers warning you reduce the risk of injury.
It’s just as simple as shouting to them that a “sharp turn is coming” or “sharp turn ahead”.
Step 3: Docking the Pontoon Boat
Now it’s time to come back to dry land, with the final step of 3 being the parking of the pontoon boat back in a dock slip or marina.
1. Approach Docks and Slips Slowly
When approaching a dock, marina, or slip, come in slowly and surely.
You can do this by reducing the boat’s speed in incremental steps as you position the boat towards the dock.
Harbours and docks will have their own set rules, and you should see speed limits signs up, so please always obey those limits and keep safe.
2. Reduce Acceleration and Shift to Neutral
As you get nearer to the dock slip, bring the acceleration down and then shift the engine into neutral to let you coast into position.
If you approach at high speeds, you will risk damaging the boat and dock – and hurting your passengers.
Your speed should be slow, even, and steady giving you just enough power to get the pontoon boat driven into the slip space.
3. Turn the Wheel so the Boat’s Bow is Centred to the Slip
If you can imagine an pretend line, draw it so it forms an arc from the center of front of the boat to the middle of the slip’s parking space.
As you move the pontoon boat in, keep it on your imaginary line as much as you can.
If the pontoon does start to drift out either side, just make small adjustments to the steering wheel to keep yourself on track.
4. Shift into Forward Position as You Turn
As the pontoon boat turns, shift into “forward” gear.
Whist turning the wheel, push the throttle gently forwards as this will let you slide into the parking slip slowly.
The pontoon boat should now glide into position. Don’t worry if it’s not perfect, it will take lots of practice over a few weeks to get this part completely right first time of asking.
5. Make Small Adjustments in Reverse
To get the ideal position, you will have to shift into reverse to make little adjustments to get the parking just right.
If you are at an angle, you can centre yourself up by little reverse movements, but you might face a little bit of a battle with the wind or a water current.
If it is windy or you are in a current, you might need to adjust the wheel and how much you power you give to balance things out.
6. Ask a Passenger to Jump onto the Dock to Help
Once you are just about in position, ask one of your passengers to jump onto the dock sides where they can use the ropes to help you adjust into the correct position.
Your passenger (also known as crew member) can pull you and help you get into the best place and straight aligned in the slip before tying the boat to the dock.
7. Secure the Pontoon Boat to the Dock
The final part is to tie the pontoon boat to the dock using the ropes.
And there you have it – you have successfully driven a pontoon boat or rental for the first time.
Recommended Additional Reading
So, there you have it.
As you can see, it’s actually incredibly simple to drive a pontoon boat.
As long as you are safe, take care, and are a responsible captain, I genuinely believe that within 10 minutes you will be entirely comfortable operating one of these amazing vessels.
If you are thinking about buying your own soon, then please do bookmark the Pontoonopedia website as there are hundreds of tutorials and guides available here.
For first timers, I would also recommend reading some of the following resources.
- The ultimate pontoon boat buyer’s guide
- How easy is it to drive a pontoon boat?
- Pontoon boat safety equipment checklist for beginners
- Can a pontoon boat tip over
- How to launch a pontoon boat safely
- How to park a pontoon boat in a slip
- How to anchor at a sandbar
- How to beach a pontoon boat easily
- How to get a dog onto a pontoon boat
For those with young children I would also encourage you to fully explain to them the correct safety procedures and considerations for boating.
My wife and I put together a boat safety briefing that we designed for our own kids. Please do read that before setting off.
Handy Hint: If you are going to be buying a pontoon boat, take a look at my gear and accessory recommendations that all pontoon owners should have.
As with most things, sometimes it just helps to watch someone do it before you do it.
Here are some of the best videos that I have found on YouTube for first time pontoon boat driving tips.
If you want relaxed days on the water, like to spend time playing water sports with the family or go on fishing trips with your buddies, then look no further than a pontoon boat.
The design of these boats is 100% geared towards leisure.
The flat bottom and wide-open deck space mean you can lounge around, play, entertain, and even cook meals from a rail-mounted grill.
They do differ a little though in driving style, when compared to a traditional v-shaped hull boat.
The main differences tend to be how you pull away from the dock or marina, and performance on the waves. For example, yes, a pontoon boat can be operated in rough water, but I wouldn’t recommend that for any beginner. I would also like to make you aware that pontoon boats are not designed to be taken out onto open water, such as the sea or ocean. They are designed purely for rivers and lakes.
If you take in the 3 driving tips shown above on how to drive a pontoon boat, there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t be up and running in minutes.
And before you know it, driving a pontoon boat will be like second nature.
Genuinely, don’t be afraid or nervous.
I remember the first time I ever drove a boat, and I was nervous. But once I had a briefing from the boat rental company team and then got out into the water I realized that with a boat this simple, there really is nothing to be worried about.
References: This guide on how to drive a pontoon boat was heavily influenced by a guide on the WikiHow website. To read that guide in full, please visit WikiHow and search for “how to drive a pontoon boat”.