I’m a local towboat captain down in San Diego. I’ve been doing it for over ten years and can tell you I’ve seen different types of boats in locations they shouldn’t be.
And today, we’ll discuss the idealness of pontoon boats in rough water.
Usually, pontoon boats are safe to use in the choppy water in general, or rather the fair conditions. However, they’re not recommended for use on the high seas and offshore.
Of course, many variables dictate the right conditions to use a pontoon boat in rough water.
And if you’re worried about using a pontoon boat in rough water, we’ll put your troubles at rest.
In the guide below, I’ll share everything you need to know about using pontoon boats in rough water.
What are the Optimal Conditions for Pontoon Boats?
Generally speaking, pontoon boats are meant for lake and calm water use. They’re considered “lake boats” and one of the popular boats for inland lakes.
I’ve had the opportunity to go out on a couple of different pontoon boats, and they’re perfect for lake cruising.
They’re efficient, big, have tons of room for friends, and have a shallow draft making them ideal for a smooth ride for most water sports.
Generally, if you’re looking for a nice laid-back cruise with the family on a peaceful lake, I couldn’t think of anything more suitable than the pontoon boats.
However, I feel they leave a lot to be desired and probably one of the reasons they don’t get as much love as other types of boats.
Besides the calm lake cruising, they don’t ride well on rough weather or chop.
I’m currently in South West Florida, and I usually see pontoon boats out on the nice days, but the instant there’s a bit of chop, they all stay in.
Even a windy day on the bay is usually too much for them.
My family also used to have a pontoon boat, which was perfect for the lake, but my dad wouldn’t want to take it out in real & extreme weather.
Our boat would accommodate plenty of people and provide a nice ride on very calm days, but I wouldn’t expect it to cross inter coastal areas such as the Chesapeake Bay or the Long Island Sound.
The pontoons feels almost like a barge because they can twist from one corner to the other and won’t hold its stability when cutting the heavy chop or other wakes in rough conditions.
In a nutshell, pontoons are the minivans of boats. They’re among the most practical and utilitarian vessels in the water but not something to lust for.
How Well Do Pontoon Boats Handle Rough Water? (Are Pontoon Boats Safe?)
Pontoons fare pretty well in fair windy conditions and relatively choppy water. They’re almost unsinkable.
They’ve better performance in fair water conditions than other recreational boats with one hull.
While they remain relatively safe to use in different weather conditions, common sense, maritime experience, and skills also go a long way in the water.
Usually, the main element that contributes to a pontoon’s relative safety on choppy & rough water is its design.
See, pontoon boats are named after the silvery tubes (at least two hulls) they float on, also known as pontoons.
The two hulls provide better stability on rough water than a single V-shaped hull that other boats come with.
However, the hulls are seemingly their poison chalice, as we shall see later.
The two hulls create more friction between the boat and the water, making the pontoon stable and great at roughing the ocean waters.
I’ve used a pontoon boat and some rough waves, and if the waves aren’t that big, then it’s not bad. Of course, you might get wet, but that’s half of sailing a pontoon boat.
I also own a large 25′ tri-toon, and I’ve no problems getting over the 3-feet waves. I’ve never experienced any handling issues and can drift 25mph.
Yes, there’s immense rough water spray when I hit 30mph, but you also get that when there’re other boats in the lake.
Overall, a ponton offers a better and more fulfilling ride, and mine has been ultra-stable when riding the large waves.
However, riding the pontoon in severe weather can be dangerous, and we shall see shortly.
Can a Pontoon Flip in Rough Water?
Yes, pontoons do flip pretty easily on the rough waters. They’re unsinkable, but that doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous on the rough water.
The problem with pontoon boats is that they can’t roll with or push through the water like traditional V-hulls.
Pontoons tend to “sit” on the water and hardly cut through the big waves because of their hull design.
It means they’re likely to dive into a larger wave or wake than slice through it, allowing them to take on water.
Plus, they’ve a shallow draft, which makes them less secure in rough water than the deeper draft ship.
From personal experience, pontoon boats are designed for use in the river and inland water. The wide, stable, and low HP to push it makes it economical for inland water.
However, I wouldn’t recommend it for offshore and high sea use.
I agree, there’s an opening every year when the sea mirror calms, and you feel like a kayak would even be sufficient for sea use.
In such conditions, a pontoon boat would be great to use.
However, time usually dictates whether I should take my pontoon even when the conditions are mirror-like, especially offshore.
And by offshore, I mean taking my pontoon boat out of sight of the mainland.
For example, the weather is usually less predictable from June to August, and you’re unaware when the cold fronts come through. So, I’d be wary of taking my pontoon on high seas during such a time.
I recommend boat owners steer away from the high seas during summer.
I know the sunny weather can be tempting, but pop thunderstorms can make your day a living hell.
I’ve been out on a sunny day in mirror-like conditions, only for thunderstorms to pop out of nowhere and drag me to God knows where.
So, if your region experiences unpredictable weather, I’d suggest not to bother taking it offshore, on high seas, or in rough waters.
Instead, keep it in the water the pontoon boat was designed to run, the inland waters.
And if you focus on more offshore fishing, get an alternative boat for the high seas.
After all, no boat ticks all the boxes, which is why I’ve four of them for different uses.
Why aren’t Pontoons Ideal for Rough Water Use?
Pontoons aren’t ideal for rough water use because of their design element. For example, their double hull design makes them feel tippy in harsh conditions.
Here’re other reasons I wouldn’t recommend a pontoon for rough water use:
The biggest culprit is the double hull design.
Its unique design offers the most stable riding experience on smooth waters. However, it can feel tippy on the rough waters.
I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but the slender V-hull actually performs better on choppy water.
The double-hull tends to “sit” on the surface of the water instead of cutting or slicing through the water as the V-shape hull does.
Thus, the double hull will likely get dragged in the turbulence causing the pontoon boat to submarine.
On the other hand, the deep V-hull will take on any conditions the ocean throws at them because of their deep draft.
Most pontoon boats have cabins, and executing high-speed maneuvers in high winds can lead to capsizing.
See, when the boat’s bow dips, the ocean waves and turbulence are likely to rip off the fittings, bend your vessel and wash the deck.
Water ingress can lead to engine cavitation and destruction of the electronics, which may stall you in the ocean.
High Center of Gravity
Pontoons have a higher center of gravity than most recreational boats.
The higher COG can exacerbate pitching and rolling.
While a multihull usually counteracts the higher boat’s center, it can only go so far if your pontoon boat rolls too far.
Remember, pontoons can flip over extremely fat, and when they do, there’s usually no chance of recovery.
On the other hand, the V-hulls have positive stability, meaning the further they roll or tip to one side, the greater the buoyancy from the exposed surface.
The exposed surface provides a greater buoyancy and counteracts the rolling motion until it regains stability.
Finally, a pontoon’s high-profile design may risk high wind flipping.
I wouldn’t recommend taking the ocean on a pontoon boat because of all a pontoon’s drifting and uncontrollable elements.
Unless you’re going directly into or with the wind, the high-profile design of the pontoon boat will have your boat acting like a sail and shoving you all around.
Handling Pontoon in Rough Water: How to Keep a Pontoon Boat Stable
Pontoons are generally stable, thanks to their double hull design. Even then, you must know how to handle a pontoon boat in rough weather.
In the unlikely event that you find yourself in trouble at the high sea, here’re some of the tips you could use to successfully get you onshore.
Weight Distribution is Key
The first thing to do is to maintain an even load on board.
Evening the boat load goes for more than just the passengers; it includes your cargo and equipment.
Understand that your pontoon boat’s weight distribution will affect how it handles the rough water.
So, when the water rises, make your passengers aware of the importance of evening out their weight, so they balance the boat.
Understand that some pontoon modifications can also affect the even distribution of weight.
For example, my family’s pontoon boat came with a customized double deck, which affected the COG by shifting the weight at the back.
It put the boat at risk of tipping, especially in the rough waters.
Consider your Speed
The other crucial detail that affects your handling of the rough waters is speed.
A common misconception is that you should slow down in choppy waters, but from personal experience, it depends on the conditions and your boat.
For example, if you’ve a longer pontoon and there’s a short chop frequency, I’d recommend you carry some speed while trimming the nose down to break the chop with the bow.
Now, in case you slow down, water is potentially going to come on board when the pontoon crashes over the bow.
On the other hand, if your ponton is smaller and the waves have a longer frequency, then backing off a bit on the speed would be a good idea to minimize the impact and avoid stuffing the bow.
Either way, the trick to keeping your pontoon boat afloat in choppy waters is not burying the nose cones. At whatever instance, you don’t want your bow to drop and submarine your pontoon.
But if you’re taking on the big waves, there’s not much you can do to avoid submarining your pontoon boat.
Instead, I’d advise you to align your course.
The best way to align your course is cruising at a 30 to 45-angle against the windy weather waves rather than facing riding head-on.
Positive angle lifting strakes and nosecones keeps the bow high and from submarining in high waves while allowing the boat to ride properly and smoothly over the troughs and peaks.
Even then, you risk dipping pontoon’s corners, but I usually avoid that by trimming up just before hitting the large wave.
Regarding the handling, pontoons aren’t designed for hairpin and performance radius turning. Take your boat easy and wide on rough waters for a smooth ride.
Watch Out For Weather Updates
Checking on the weather update is a sure-fire way of avoiding getting stuck in rough waters with your pontoon boat.
I’m a big fan of the marine forecast, which gives me an idea of how the weather for the day is going to be.
However, it’s sometimes not full-proof, and if you notice the conditions start to change mid-way, your best course of action would be to turn back.
Consider Shape of the Wake
Following another boat, you must also consider the wake’s shape.
Avoid the low spots in the wake because most pontoons tend to plow into these spots.
The large, flat, and forward deck of your pontoon boat is likely to catch water like a scoop, pushing the bow deeper into the water and creating drag.
If possible, it would be best to avoid tailgating another boat, especially the bigger boats with bigger wakes.
Docking your Pontoon
Navigating your pontoon from the tough water is only half the battle; you must safely dock your pontoon boat.
In normal circumstances, docking a ponton is easier, but the high-profile design makes docking a challenge in bad weather.
High winds and tide can push the boat against the dock and possibly damage the boat.
So, if you come across stormy weather or see heavy winds, you must get back to the shore and have it loaded before the weather gets bad.
Generally speaking, a pontoon will work well under mild waves, much better than regular recreational boats, but it’s likely to struggle in rougher waters.
While navigating your pontoon in rougher waters is still possible, it takes a lot of work at the helm and is exhausting at the very least.
It requires more skills than usual, and ultimately, it will result in a few expensive impacts. The fiberglass used in modern boats can take a bit of beating, but the flexing and slamming aren’t great for the internal components.
So, you want to avoid getting into the rough water or high seas on a pontoon.
And even with great planning and everything, you need to use common sense.