Jun 5, 2024

Pontoon Boat Safety

Entry level pontoons like the Sun Tracker Fishin' Barge are economical, multi-purpose family boats that are very stable and safe in protected waters. (Tracker Marine)

The drowning of two anglers on a chartered fishing pontoon boat in Toledo Bend Lake last week is a reminder for all of us: pontoons are wonderful people-movers when seas are calm and winds are moderate, but just are not up to taking on serious waves and big winds or open water.

The fact that larger pontoon and tritoon boats are now being built, and that some have a couple of 300-hp outboards powering them to speeds over 50 mph may give a false sense of confidence as to their security. After all, you can load 10 people on some 22 foot pontoon boats and be within the recommended load limit, when that much weight would sink most bass boats of the same length.

I personally love pontoons, and own a 20’ Sun Tracker Fishin’ Buggy that I use a good bit more than my modest bass boat or my kayak—great for grandkids and tubing and lazy summer lunches and 4th of July . . . . 

But pontoons have a fatal flaw when it comes to really rough water. Their broad, flat bow is only a couple feet above the water on even the largest models. And the flat deck becomes a water scoop if the bow gets submerged.

What’s more, their tall, lightweight superstructure—the “fence” around the furniture--as well as the Bimini top—act as a kite in strong winds, pushing the upwind pontoon up, the downwind pontoon down. Too much wind from the side and the boat runs whopperjawed and becomes tough to control.

Lowe makes a wide variety of pontoons, including tri-toons that run better than 50 mph with a large outboard. (Lowe Boats)

Don’t “Stuff” the Bow!

But more likely to happen is to “stuff” the bow of a pontoon boat when running into head seas, or even on the wake of a large yacht. If you boat where big inboard yachts, barges or ships run, it’s essential to keep an eye out for steep wakes, and to take them on the beam or side of the boat, rather than straight ahead unless you want a foot of water pouring over the decks.

And while a single big wave usually runs off quickly, no harm done except soaking the sandwiches, multiple big waves can put a pontoon into deep trouble quickly. More boaters are taking pontoon boats into challenging conditions these days, and some of them are getting into trouble.

Many are running out coastal inlets these days, particularly in Florida and Alabama where there are a lot of relatively calm inlets on the Gulf side.

That is, these inlets are calm at slack tide with no wind. But when you come back there may be a strong outgoing tide running against a strong onshore wind. If there is, the waves will stack up vertically and your pontoon boat will be in deep doo-doo. As soon as the first wave comes over the bow, it’s likely that the boat will go nose down, maybe far enough that the outboard propeller comes out of the water. If that happens, the boat won’t steer, and it’s all over. That seemingly flat, stable platform that works so well in flat water or moderate waves becomes an uncontrollable piece of floating plywood.

Load Passengers Right

How you load a pontoon is also important in challenging conditions. There are often seats all the way to the bow in a pontoon, and these are fine at low speeds and in flat water. 

But weight up front reduces the limited freeboard even further, so if you run into a big wake or big waves kick up from a fast-moving storm, the boat will be even more likely to eat a wave. Move your load aft in rough water.

Regency is an upscale line and includes larger, more expensive tritoon models that can get to safety quickly, but even the largest pontoons are better off in the harbor when open water turns nasty. (Regency Pontoons)

Bottom line is all the usual safe boating stuff. 

If you get caught out in a blow, take the waves quartering on the bow rather than straight on if you possibly can. You may have to tack back and forth as sailboaters do to get to your destination, but you’ll get there safe—and you might not if you try running straight into tall seas.

Know your boat, know the weather before you go and check it regularly during the day, don’t overload the boat, particularly forward, and when in doubt, head for the marina or a lee shore to sit out difficult conditions—before conditions get tough. 

Last but not least, be sure to have all the required PFD’s aboard, and to quickly have everyone put them on when things get dicey. Kids, of course, are required to have them on to start with.

Frank Sargeant