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Pontoon Seaworthiness: Can You Use a Pontoon Boat in the Ocean?

Have you been stuck on a pontoon in storms or high seas? Then you know it’s not much fun.

It’s downright scary.

So if you love the idea of venturing out into the ocean for some pontoon partying, there’s a lot more to consider than just how saltwater can affect your ‘toon.

Even though pontoons aren’t the ideal watercraft for ocean travel, it’s not impossible to take a ‘toon on the open water. You just need the right information before taking off.

As a responsible boat owner, consider all negative saltwater scenarios before heading out to sea. The ocean is a smorgasbord of potential problems when you’re on a pontoon. And extra precautions should be taken, especially boating in rougher seas.

Think about it. A pontoon’s seaworthiness is determined by its construction, features and manufacturer recommendations. But it also depends on the knowledge, planning and safety precautions you put into place.

We’ll look at some considerations to determine your pontoon’s ocean-readiness.

Before that, though, here are some pontoon handling tips for ocean adventures.

How to Handle Weather and Choppy Waters on a Pontoon

Storm Avoidance

The safest decision for your boat and its passengers is to avoid waters when a storm’s coming. Period.

With all the weather technology and apps available, you can check the weather daily and hourly. If it looks iffy, stay off the water. Better safe than sorry!

If you’re unsure how to find the best marine forecast, check the National Weather Service Marine Forecast before you go. Just click on the map to get the area’s forecast.

Visibility

Mother Nature is unpredictable. Unexpected storms can pop up fast. When that happens, you lose visibility and risk a boating collision. When storms arise, take these six steps:

  1. Don’t panic. In most cases, storms pass as fast as they come.
  2. Slow down to a safe speed.
  3. Turn on all lights.
  4. Avoid shallow areas, shorelines, and other boats.
  5. Have passengers put on life jackets.
  6. Alert nearby boaters by sounding a horn at regular intervals.

Rough Waters and Wake Impacts

Pontoon boats are built for sun, fun and leisure activities. That’s what’s so great about their flat, expansive decks. But when it comes to high waves and choppy waters, that flat deck isn’t as seaworthy as other recreational boats.

Built to sit lower in the water to glide on the water, not cut into the waves. They weren’t designed for high wakes and rough seas, which can have negative effects on your boat and your passengers, especially when the unexpected happens.

So when waters get rough and waves become high, water flows over the front bow and onto the deck. And that’s not good. Especially if it happens over and over. To avoid this, you should…

Ride into the waves to avoid hitting them head-on. Steering your pontoon at an angle allows the ‘toon to ride the crests easier and smoother. If you’re unsure how to do it, get instructions. (As a teen, this was the first thing my dad taught me, and it came in handy lots of times.)

When you’re in the ocean, you’ll also be impacted by larger boats and bigger wakes. (And let’s face it; other boaters aren’t always watching out for their fellow boaters on the water, right?) It’s important to be mindful of other larger boats and even commercial freighters, which can create just as large of wakes as nasty weather.

Lightning

Unfortunately, you’ll probably be forced to deal with lightning at some point on the water. You can become a target quickly. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Seek shelter if the pontoon has any. This can be an enclosure, a portable changing room or bathroom, or if you’re lucky, a cabin.
  • Dry off. If you’re wet, lightning may be drawn to you.
  • Avoid metal objects, such as metal umbrellas and chairs, if possible.
  • Don’t hold onto metal railings, metal Bimini tops or ladders.
  • Avoid radio antennas and mikes.
  • Avoid anything copper or copper lined.
  • Lie or sit down.

These safety tips are a must during lightning storms on the ocean. Your ability to return to shore may be hindered and slow; so keep these safety precautions in mind.

Helpful or Hurtful: Pontoon Designs vs. Oceans

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Modern Pontoon Construction

Original pontoon boats were built with two tubes, gliding only 20 mph maximum.

But times have changed. You can buy larger, longer pontoons with bigger motors, huge, expansive decks and three tubes.

Yes, this makes them more seaworthy, but does it mean they’re meant for oceans? Pontoon boats have decks as short as 16 feet and as long as 30 feet. And yes, while it’s true smaller boats can flip and capsize easily and longer pontoons may be seaworthy just from their size, it doesn’t necessarily make them ocean-faring boats. Even the largest pontoons lack proper construction for rough waters and high wakes. Their length provides more deck space for passengers and all activities you wanna do but does not instantly make them suitable for the ocean.

If you’re thinking tritoons are more seaworthy, you’re partially right. Three tubes provide more stability and reduce the risk of flipping. If you have a long, large tritoon, then your best bet is to refer to the owner’s manual and/or call the manufacturer. What do they advise about ocean boating? Since they built the pontoon, they know what it was designed for and its capabilities.

But, once again, pontoons weren’t built for rough seas. They’re recreational boats and should be treated as such.

Front End Design

As we mentioned earlier, a pontoon’s front end design is flat and straight, designed to smoothly glide on water. But since the front end can be flooded with water, it hurts your chances of withstanding rough seas.

Pontoons are designed with a front deck railing, which can be damaged or dismantled by strong waves. The loose railing could injure passengers and even nearby boaters.

Maximum Boat Speeds

Your pontoon’s speed depends on many factors: Its motor size and horsepower, overall weight, passenger capacity, equipment and accessories, as well as weather and water conditions.

On average, most pontoons run 20 mph to 35 mph. Pontoons with larger motors and custom pontoons may be able to travel even faster.

In the ocean, speed may not be as much of a safety factor as the design of the boat. As a matter of fact, when there is rough water, high waves, and loss of visibility, slowing down is much safer.

Proper Weight Distribution

While a pontoon’s large deck is great for recreational activities and get-togethers, it offers more risk in the ocean.

Several pontoon features increase the risk of capsizing and flipping the boat. Smaller pontoons, with a higher capsizing risk, should take extra caution.

With spacious pontoon decks, it’s easy to have an uneven weight distribution. And proper weight distribution is necessary to keep passengers and pontoon safe in rough waters, even in smaller lakes. Even weight distribution allows the pontoon maximum stability, hindering it from capsizing and throwing passengers overboard.

Additional installed equipment also increases the chance of capsizing. Accessories such as towing bars and customized V-Bows increase weight and affect stability. If they add significant weight, I suggest contacting each accessories’ manufacturers.

Extra cargo can also add to instability. It not only adds weight, but can injure passengers if unsecured items become thrown about in high winds. Instead, consider limiting your cargo for ocean fun.

Passenger capacity should also be considered. Each pontoon manufacturer has issued guidelines and warnings, so refer to your owner’s manual. It’s imperative to follow their guidelines for maximum safety.

And if you own a double-decker pontoon boat, lucky you! While they’re great for extra passengers, more visibility and extra partying space, the height can cause instability. Be cautious and follow all manufacturer guidelines before taking it out to sea.

Preparing a Pontoon for the Ocean

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If absolutely determined to take your pontoon in the ocean, it’s important to follow all safety guidelines and provide the proper safety equipment for passengers. Safety is important, no matter what type of water you’re on. Water and weather conditions can change in a heartbeat, and without warning, so it’s best to be prepared.

Pontoon Safety

Heading out to sea, remember these three tips:

1. Avoid accessories and additions not recommended for pontoons. Any customized features that have been installed, but not recommended, can increase your safety risk. It’s best to follow the owner’s manual guidelines. And when in doubt, call and ask.

2. Check the pontoon for leaks. An unexpected leak can be disastrous. Check all drain plugs, fittings, pipes and valves. It’s also a good idea to check livewell plumbing, too, if you’ve installed one.

3. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions and guidelines. Increase your chances of having a safe, fun boating experience. (Yeah, I know I sound like a broken record, but safety tips can never be repeated enough, right?)

Passenger Safety

Keeping passengers safe is top priority. Make sure each passenger has a properly-fitted PFD life jacket, chosen specially for each passenger’s weight and size. You may also need other pontoon accessories, depending on needs.

Fines and Warnings

If you disregard safety guidelines and manufacturer instructions, you could receive a warning or even become fined. Laws vary from state to state, and even in varying bodies of water. Check the laws before you leave to be fully prepared.

Don’t know how to check? Harris Boats offers a convenient breakdown and if you need additional help, contact the USCG’s District or Regional Command Center or local authorities.

Taking your pontoon out in the ocean may be fun, but comes with many risks and considerations. Do the research to plan and prepare first. It’s always better to be safe than sorry, especially in the unpredictable world of boating and water.


Kelli Clevenger is a North Carolina freelance writer, blogger, and horse boarder. Since she was practically raised on the water, she enjoys writing about boats and water sports, and specializes in weight-loss and food writing. If you’d like, you can learn more about her on her blog.