According to 2017 data from the United States Coast Guard, there were 4,291 recreational boat accidents that year. Of those accidents, 2,629 people sustained injuries and 658 people died. Those incidents aren’t limited to pontoon boats at all, but injury and death can occur on any boat, even pontoons. How do you stay safe in a pontoon boat? The following is a complete pontoon boat safety guide!
You can prioritize safety in a pontoon boat by doing the following:
- Bring the right safety items and equipment
- Know how to boat with children and pets
- Learn how to give and understand distress signals
- Avoid getting too close to other boats
- Limit driving at night unless necessary
- Check the forecast and know how to get back to shore in inclement weather
In this guide, we’ll expand on the following safety areas in much more depth. From how to stay safe with children and pets onboard to navigating storms, you don’t want to miss this one! Keep reading.
Safety Items and Equipment to Have on Your Pontoon Boat
Before you ever set sail, you should ensure you have the following items and equipment onboard your pontoon boat.
A bailing device is sort of like a bucket, but not exactly. It has a specific purpose, and that’s to remove water if it starts leaking in your pontoon boat. It can also temporarily keep a fire from spreading if one breaks out onboard.
Boat Battery Charger
You might feel eager to get going, but you have to make sure your battery’s ready for a day of boating, too. If your battery dies midway through the day, you’re then stranded out in the middle of the water. How will you get back? That’s something you’ll have to figure out for yourself. It often involves calling the Coast Guard or hoping a friendly boater will pull you to shore.
If you ever have an emergency, you’ll need a phone in which to make calls to 911 or the fire department. Never go out pontoon boating without a fully charged phone. Also, make sure you get a signal where you go, or else your phone’s useless.
Toolset with Parts
Uh-oh! Did that thing you were meaning to take care of finally break? You knew you shouldn’t have waited to tackle it, but now it’s done for and you’re out in the middle of a lake or stream. By having a toolset and some spare parts, you can get most minor issues with your pontoon boat taken care of.
First Aid Kit
While you hope no one ever injures themselves onboard your pontoon, you should prepare just in case. This way, if the worst ever does happen, you can quickly treat your friend or family member.
Here’s what you should keep in your first aid kit:
- Eye bath and eye wash
- Distilled water
- Antihistamine tablets or topical cream
- Cough medication
- Ibuprofen, aspirin, paracetamol, and other over-the-counter painkillers
- Antiseptic ointment
- Bug sting and bite spray or cream
- Calendula or hydrocortisone for skin rashes
- Digital thermometer
- Sticky tape
- Cleansing wipes
- Sterile gloves
- Bandages, both crepe-rolled and triangular
- Eye dressings
- Gauze dressings of various sizes
Feel free to tweak this list if necessary.
Emergency Propulsion Option
Your emergency propulsion might include something as simple as a paddle, but that’s okay. Anything that can get your boat moving if your engine dies will work.
Line and Anchor
You need to park your boat at some point. With a line and anchor, you can ensure your boat won’t move far from where you left it.
Should you ever go boating after dark and lose power to your pontoon, you’ll be glad to have a flashlight handy. Make sure it has batteries, and fresh ones at that.
You have several navigation lights on your pontoon boat: at the boat’s top and at the deck’s front. The top light is often white, and the other green and/or red. If these work, then other boaters should see you on the water. This prevents accidents.
Distress Signal Items
We’ll talk about these later in the guide, but for now, just make sure you got ‘em.
Sunburn doesn’t just feel bad. In severe cases, it can be life-threatening. Don’t assume your passengers will bring some. Always have sunscreen onboard. Also, double-check that it’s not expired.
Life Vests or Rafts
Whether you prefer wearable floatation devices or ones you can toss into the water and ride on, you should not go pontoon boating without them. In fact, doing is more than likely illegal.
Tips for Boating with Children
Bringing your children on your pontoon boat lets you and them enjoy a day of family fun on the water. That said, dangers can abound. We’re not saying you should always leave the kids at home, but make sure you know how to handle them on your boat.
These safety tips will get you started.
- Make sure all passengers onboard will willingly look after the children. Don’t make a friend double as a babysitter when you promised them a relaxing day, but no one should see the kids doing something risky and not speak up.
- Bring several outfits, even more than you think you’ll need. If your kids take a dip, they’ll get cold. Even under a Bimini top or awning, the winds can make them cranky and unhappy fast. Have dry clothes at the ready.
- Always ensure your children have water wingies, inner tubes, or some means of floatation if they’re going in the water outside of the boat.
- Have some Dramamine ready in case you have seasick kids on hand. You often never know how your children will react to the water until they’re on the boat.
- If you have babies or toddlers onboard, make sure they sit with you. You cannot outfit pontoon boat furniture with a car seat, as it’s just not made for that.
- Lotion your children up with sunscreen! With most sunscreen brands, you should reapply every two hours, unless your kids got wet. Then you’ll want to dry them off and lotion them up again.
- Teach your kids what not to touch. While this doesn’t always keep them from doing it, it’s better than giving them free reign of the boat.
- Always have children-sized lifejackets onboard. Before you ever need them, try them on your kids and check for the fit. If it’s too loose, the jacket might not work as well as intended. A jacket that’s too tight can incentivize a child to try and take it off.
Tips for Boating with Pets
If you have a dog, there’s no reason they should have to miss out on all the boating fun. You can indeed bring them onboard your pontoon boat, but you’ll have to take some precautions. Man’s best friend will certainly appreciate your level of care and dedication to their safety.
Here’s our tips for taking Fido on a pontoon boating adventure.
- Keep the floor from getting too wet and slippery at any one time. Your dogs may have padded feet, but these don’t provide the best traction in all conditions. If the dog slips and falls, they could severely injure themselves. That’d send your day to a screeching halt.
- Your doggy can get sunburn, too. Remember that under all that fur, they do have skin, and tender skin at that. As you apply this skin protection, focus on your dog’s hind legs and stomach especially.
- Speaking of sunscreen, try to get brands with products made for pets. These won’t have zinc oxide and other potentially toxic ingredients. After all, you can’t always guarantee that Fido won’t lick the stuff off. Pet-safe sunscreen keeps them from getting sick.
- Have a reliable freshwater source your dog can drink from all day. Since dogs can’t sweat, when they get warm, they’ll begin panting. Encourage them to drink lots of water while on your pontoon boat so they don’t dehydrate.
- All that water will have to come out sometime. When your dog has to go to the bathroom, offer them a pee-pee pad, fake grass, or even pieces of carpet. You will have to find a safe, sanitary place to keep these items until you can get off the boat.
- You should never take your dog on your pontoon boat without a collar or a harness. This way, if your dog gets loose and they’re wet, you have something to grip.
- Prepare a first aid kit. You don’t want the same products you’d include for people. Instead, add Dramamine, bandages, and other dog-friendly items.
- Never, ever let your dog on your boat without a lifejacket. Your dog might know how to swim and do great in the water, but you do not know how they’ll react to riding on a boat. Have a lifejacket they wear the whole time they’re onboard.
- Speaking of riding in a boat for the first time, don’t plan a full day with your dog if they’ve never been on your pontoon. You don’t know if they’ll love it or hate it. Even if they seem to enjoy boating with you, you want to let them adjust to the experience more and more. Gradually increase the longevity of your rides, working your way up to a full day.
How to Give off Distress Signals on Your Pontoon Boat
Earlier, we mentioned we’d touch on distress signals and the items you need. Now, it’s time to do so.
You should have an array of visual distress signals. You can use these to warn of a possible threat or danger. They’re also useful for indicating to other boats that you’re stuck or stranded. Of course, if you misuse them or have too great a distance between you and another boat, these distress signals do no good. That’s why most boating authorities divide these items into those for daytime and nighttime use.
Daytime Visual Distress Signals
Orange signal flags will certainly catch a passing boater’s attention due to their bright, vivid color. However, at night, that color would fail to stand out.
A floating orange smoke signal serves the same purpose. Since it’s a brighter color, it’d be tough to miss during a day of pontoon boating. You can also use traditional handheld orange smoke signals in the daylight. Once darkness falls, such a device gets rendered useless, so keep that in mind. Also, make sure you’re close to passing boaters if you’re going the handheld route. Otherwise, they’ll miss your distress signal.
Red meteors, due to their vividness, work during the daytime and at nighttime. You can also use a red handheld flare either time, although these might make more of an impact in the daylight.
Nighttime Visual Distress Signals
Besides red meteors and red handheld flares, you can also try a parachute flare at night or in the daytime. To use one of these flares, you’d set it off so it can float from a parachute. Again, you’ll want to make sure you’re in proximity to passing boaters so you don’t waste your item.
You should only use electric distress lights at night. Since they illuminate, these lights make almost no difference during the daytime.
Besides knowing which visual distress signals to use and when, you should also learn these for the sake of other boaters. If, by chance, you pass by a boater who’s stranded or needs help, you’ll know by the visual distress signals they use. You can then try helping them yourself, or at least contact the Coast Guard so the boater can get some assistance.
Pontoon Boat Safety Tips
Avoiding Hitting Other Boats
You drive a pontoon boat, and they don’t go very quickly. Remember, on average, you can expect a base speed of about 25 miles per hour (MPH). Is it possible for some pontoons to go faster than that? Yes, absolutely. You can modify your boat to reach speeds of maybe 30 MPH or more. Some boats with heavy horsepower engines can even get close to 50 MPH.
Let’s assume you have a basic pontoon boat that’s unmodified. It doesn’t go very fast. Great then, you’re thinking. What’s the risk of you hitting another boater? Just about nothing? No, not exactly.
Your boat might not go very fast, but you absolutely cannot say that for every other boat on the water. If people prefer speedboats and even deck boats to pontoons, then these boats can run circles around yours. That’s just how it is.
Now, pontoon boats, in addition to their slowness, also possess a kind of awkward shape. Their large, rectangular base makes them an easy target for hitting. That’s certainly true compared to the sleek body designs of most speedboats.
When you’re driving your boat then, it’s as important that you avoid other boaters as it is that they avoid you. How can you prevent unnecessary accidents? Make sure you keep these tips in mind each time you ride your boat.
Have a Lookout
If you have another passenger onboard your pontoon boat, then put them to work. They can act as a lookout. If you’ve ever asked someone to get out of your car and help you back out of a tight space, the concept is the same.
Your lookout should keep an eagle eye on your surroundings. If any other boats enter the water, they should tell you. Also, a good lookout will watch for debris, weather changes, choppier currents, and other boating dangers.
This may seem super common sense, but we have to mention it anyway. If your pontoon boat goes at max speed and a smaller, sleeker boat drives at even half its max speed, bad things will happen. An accident is so much more severe the faster both boats go. In that regard, it’s not different from a car crash. When both vehicles speed up, it’s often with catastrophic results. If one motorist goes a bit slower, there’s a less severe impact.
Given that pontoon boats don’t really go all that fast, you don’t have to concern yourself with speeding too much. Still, don’t gun it just for the sake of it. You never know who you’re sharing the water with.
Get Off to the Side During Boat Failure
Just like you would move to the shoulder if your car fails, you need to get out of the way if your pontoon boat begins having issues. Perhaps you run out of fuel or the engine chose an inopportune time to die. Regardless, you can’t get the power to continue boating.
If your boat can’t move and you’re right in the middle of the waterway, you’re a sitting duck. You need to get out of the way. That’s why you need a propulsion device like an oar, as we mentioned before. Now you can paddle to safety.
Don’t Do Maneuvers Your Boat Can’t Handle
We’re sure this isn’t the first time you’ve heard this, but pontoon boats don’t really do cool tricks. In fact, they’re not so adept at tricks at all. They turn slow and wide, so you need to plan your maneuvers carefully. Trying to impress your pals with a sharp maneuver probably won’t have the results you wish it did.
The more your boat turns and careens on the water, the less attention you’re paying to other boaters. You could end up hitting one trying to pull off some stunt. It’s not worth it.
How to Boat at Night
Should you go pontoon boating at night? Not really, especially if you’re still green when it comes to handling your boat. You cannot see debris and other hazards nearly as well at night as you can during the daytime.
Still, maybe you’re not so new to this boating thing and you’re thinking of riding under the stars. How can you do so without disaster striking? We’re glad you asked!
Keep Your Eyes on the Prize
If you’re a passenger, you can feel free to gaze and marvel at the stars all you want. As the driver, no such luck. It’s not safe to take your eyes from the boat for too long. In fact, you can get vertigo from your starwatching. There’s something about the motion of your boat and your looking upward that will make you feel not so great for the rest of the night.
No Need for Spotlights
If you’re riding in the water at night for the first time, you might think you need to turn on every light your pontoon boat has to offer. That’s not true. You don’t want to blind other boaters with your glaring illumination.
We recommend killing the spotlight and only using your headlights. You’ll see better, too, since there’s less glare reflecting off the water and into your eyes.
Bring a Lookout
Lookouts come in handy even more when boating during the evening hours than they do when it’s nice and sunny out.
Slow and Steady
It’s hard to tell what’s out there in the inky blackness. You don’t want to find out the hard way, either, do you? To keep yourself as safe on the waters at night as possible, don’t speed up. You may even want to go a bit slower than you usually do, just as an extra precaution.
Handling Sudden Inclement Weather
You looked at the forecast this morning and it wasn’t calling for heavy rains and gusting winds, yet here you are, dealing with just that. You’ve always avoided boating in bad weather before now, so you’re not exactly sure what to do. How do you go about surviving an unexpected storm?
Focus on Getting to Shore
Your goal when boating in bad weather shouldn’t be to grin and bear it. That’s a great way to end up capsizing your pontoon. Instead, you want to get back to safety, such as the dock from which you left.
Make your way towards that general direction, but expect it to take longer than it usually does. Also, depending on the kind of weather you’re stuck in, you may have to put forth greater effort to get your boat back in one piece.
Ride with the Wind
As we’ve said on this blog before, there’s no greater enemy to pontoon boats than wind. You could wage a war against the wind, but you’ll never defeat Mother Nature. Instead of fighting the wind so hard, ride with it. You may have to turn or otherwise maneuver you pontoon boat to do so.
Once your boat moves in the same direction as the wind, you’ll find it’s easier to get back to shore.
Maintain Your Visibility
If the weather has produced more heavy rains than strong winds, you might have problems with visibility. At times, you can’t see at all, which terrifies you. It should. You need to do whatever it takes to improve your visibility as best you can when driving your pontoon boat. Whether your driver’s cockpit has an enclosed roof, you get a Bimini cover for the driver’s area, or you wear headgear that keeps the rain out of your face, do it.
Don’t Chance Lightning
Lightning strikes can lead to death on and off the water. Never go boating if you see a thunderstorm on the horizon. It’s better not to risk it. You can always take your pontoon out on a day with a better forecast.
If you do ever find yourself boating when there’s thunder and lightning, don’t touch anything metal. Encourage everyone to wear their lifejackets. Move away from the topmost parts of your boat, as the lightning will likely hit there. While everyone stays clustered and huddled together, get to a dock or shore as soon as possible. Then exit the boat when it’s safe.
Check the Weather Frequently
We all have little weathermen in our phones. Don’t use the free weather app that comes with most devices. Take the time to download a better one. Weather.com, AccuWeather, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA all have free apps that will predict forecasts much better.
You can watch radars and check the weather hour by hour with these apps. If you plan on taking your pontoon boat out tomorrow, check the weather the night before. In the morning, refresh the feed and see if anything’s changed. Make sure you look at the hour-by-hour forecast. Don’t skip the radar, either.
Are these weather-tracking measures always accurate? No. Sometimes the app will say it’ll rain in 10 minutes and it never does. The temperature may feel warmer than what the forecast said. Still, you’ll have a more accurate forecast to go off. You can then decide whether you’d rather boat today or wait until tomorrow.
Pontoon boats are generally safer than most other vessels, but that doesn’t mean bad things can’t happen. Reckless behavior, inexperience, and ignorance can all lead to disaster. The tips, advice, and pointers in this article will make you a safer pontoon boater. Good luck!