If you are considering buying a boat that can carry a lot of passengers, you might be debating between a deck boat vs pontoon. While they offer similar benefits, there are a number of differences between the two types that will impact your on-water experience. In this article, I discuss some of the key differences and share my thoughts regarding which type is best based on the activities you plan to do with the boat.
What are Pontoon and Deck Boats?
Most all boaters know what a pontoon boat is. It is basically a large, rectangular deck attached to two or three aluminum tubes. The perimeter is bordered with aluminum rails or fencing and nearly all are outboard powered. They come in two varieties – pontoons which have two tubes and tritoons which, as the name suggests, have three. The advantage of the latter is that the extra tube provides added buoyancy which enables you to have a larger engine and increases the weight capacity. Plus, the middle tube is often mounted slightly lower in the water which enables the boat to lean a bit on turns – more like a bowrider.
Bennington 25 RFB
Deck boats, on the other hand, are typically made of fiberglass and have a V-shaped hull. But, unlike a bowrider, the bow is wider and is more squarish to provide increased interior space. They are available with both outboard and sterndrive power. However, outboards are much more popular for saltwater use because they are easier to maintain and present fewer corrosion concerns.
Hurricane 235 OB
As someone who has spent considerable time with each boat type over several decades as a boater, here are what I believe are the main differences between the two.
Though both boat types are designed to maximize space and passenger capacity, pontoons are the clear winner in this regard. Because the wide beam of a pontoon runs the entire length of the boat and there are no wide gunnels, there is more floor space to move about. And, even if the total weight capacity of the two boat types is similar, pontoons generally can comfortably hold more people because there are typically more seating areas. So, if accommodating a large number of guests is important to you, then a pontoon might be an excellent choice.
Ride and Stability
Because of their very different hull types, pontoons and deck boats handle very differently on the water. Whereas a pontoon essentially floats on top of the water, deck boats slice through waves because of their v-hull design. As a result, the ride of a pontoon tends to be much smoother in light to medium chop because you don’t “bounce” from one wave to the next as you do with a deck boat. However, pontoons are not suitable for operation in rough waters with waves over 2′ as will be explained later in this article.
Another advantage of pontoons is that they are more stable. Because there are tubes on each edge, they do not roll from side to side like a v-bottom boat which naturally pivots on its axis (the keel). As such, they are great for families with young kids, people with mobility issues, or those who are prone to sea sickness.
One other thing I absolutely love about pontoons is their ability to travel at a slow to moderate speed and still be able to move around and converse with your guests. By contrast, v-hull boats like deck boats are sluggish and tend to wander at low speeds because you are essentially plowing the water. The speed required to get them on plane often makes it difficult to converse with guests until you reach your destination. Therefore, if you like to do a lot of sightseeing and entertaining, then a pontoon boat might be the right choice for you.
Generally speaking, deck boats tend to be quicker and capable of higher speeds than pontoon boats. This is because the v-hull design is very efficient once the boat is on plane. This is not to say that pontoon boats are not capable of going fast. Today’s pontoon boats are often equipped with 200 HP or larger motors and I’ve even seen pontoons approach 100 mph with multiple big engines. But in general, if you are looking for the rush of going fast, then a deck boat is probably a better fit for you.
Deck boats are also more maneuverable because the v-hull design will lean and carve into turns. Pontoons, on the other hand, tend to turn flatter and require a wider radius. This makes deck boats advantageous for things like water sports where you need to occasionally make sharp turns to pull a tuber or pick up a downed skier. However, a tritoon (vs. a traditional pontoon) can do a decent job as well because the middle pontoon is often set lower in the water to enable the boat to lean a little like a v-hull boat.
Pontoons can also be more difficult to maneuver in wind or current because the floating pontoons are more easily pushed along the surface vs. a v-hull boat that sits deeper in the water. This makes pontoons a bit more challenging for close-corner maneuvering such as docking or loading the boat.
Because pontoons are made of aluminum, they are easier to maintain because they don’t require the periodic waxing of a fiberglass boat. An exception to this is if you plan to use a pontoon in saltwater which I will address a little later.
It used to be the case that pontoon boats were much less expensive than deck boats. But now that pontoons often carry larger engines and are loaded with comfortable upholstery and accessories, the price disparity is not that great. For example, a Sun Tracker Party Barge 22 XP3 (a tritoon) retails for approximately $64K at present. By comparison, you can get into a Hurricane SunDeck 217 OB for around $70K. These are both “value” brands and I equipped each with a 200 HP outboard engine for this comparison.
And this brings up a good point – the engine accounts for a large portion of the package price so your total cost will be driven, in part, by what engine comes with it. However, this is not a great place to cut corners if you have a choice. In my decades of research experience with boaters, underpowering is a common reason for dissatisfaction among boat buyers. If you plan on using your boat for watersports activities, it is especially important to get an engine that is at, or close to, the maximum horsepower limit.
Suitability for Various Activities
Given the above differences, the following is an overview of how a deck boat vs pontoon stacks up for various activities.
This is where pontoons really excel because of their ability to accommodate a lot of guests, the roominess to move about, and the fact that passengers can converse while the boat is underway.
Pontoons are also excellent when relaxing or swimming while the boat is at rest. This is because they are often equipped with plush chaise lounges for the ultimate in comfort, and one or more large bimini tops for protection from the elements. Many also have a large rear swim platform to make it easier to get in and out of the water. Advantage pontoons.
Both pontoons and deck boats are often used for fishing. However, pontoons are slightly better in this regard because of the added space to fish and because they typically have a smaller draft that enables you to navigate shallow areas. Plus, there are specific pontoon models designed for fishing that have special features such as pedestal seats, rod holders and livewells that make them especially conducive to this activity.
While pontoons are fine for “light” watersports such as pulling a tube or a child on two skis, they are not great for things like slalom skiing or wakeboarding because of their relative speed and maneuverability. Plus, the shape of the wake behind a pontoon is much flatter and doesn’t provide much of a thrill for wake jumping.
Overall, pontoons are extremely versatile and better suited for most applications. This is part of the reason why they have become so popular in recent years.
What About Rough Water?
As mentioned earlier, pontoons deliver a smooth and dry ride in light to medium chop. However, this might not be the case if the waves are over 2′ (taller than the height of most pontoon tubes). This is because the tubes might “spear” the waves causing the water to break over the deck which is not good for passengers and contents. Check out this video to see what can happen to pontoon boats in rough water.
Though v-hull boats like deck boats can also spear waves, you typically can get greater bow lift to minimize the chances of this happening. Plus, the more pointed hull does a better job of splitting the wave and guiding much of the splash away from the boat.
If you have a pontoon and find yourself in rough water, there are several actions you can take to improve the comfort and safety of your trip.
Slow down – by reducing speed, you might be able to more gently roll up and down the wave rather than popping over one and spearing the next.
Trim boat up – though they don’t have the lift of a v-hull, pontoons can be trimmed up slightly. This will reduce the chances of waves breaking over the bow.
Move weight to the stern – this, of course, will help you to get additional bow lift.
Hit waves at an angle, not straight on – by traveling at an angle, you might be able to roll up and down the waves rather than spearing them. This might require you to tack (zig-zag against the wind) or jibe (zig-zag with the wind) to get to your destination.
Is a Pontoon or Deck Boat better for Saltwater?
Deck boats are fairly popular in saltwater bays and protected areas. They can handle both pleasure and fishing activities and are easy to wash down at the end of the day. Pontoons, however, are not well suited for a saltwater environment. One reason is because their aluminum construction combined with other metal components (bolts/screws, cleats, etc.) is prone to galvanic corrosion. To combat this, some manufacturers offer “saltwater packages” that include sacrificial zinc anodes and special measures to isolate and/or insulate metal connections. Plus, you will want to paint the tubes and your engine’s lower unit with a special paint to protect against corrosion and marine growth.
The other key reason why pontoons are not ideal for saltwater is because of their inability to handle rough water as discussed previously. If you are thinking of buying or using a pontoon boat in saltwater, check out this excellent article that describes the risks and precautions for pontoon boats in saltwater.
The bottom line is, while you can use a pontoon in saltwater under the right conditions and with the proper precautions, chances are there are other boat types like deck boats or bay boats that might be better suited for your needs.
If you are contemplating between a deck boat vs pontoon, recognize that they are two very different styles of boats designed to address the same basic problem – how to comfortably accommodate a large number of guests. However, of the two boat types, pontoons are more versatile and better suited for a wider range of needs and uses. If accommodating a large number of guests or entertaining/socializing is your main priority, then a pontoon is tough to beat. Same too if your focus is fishing. Pontoons are also better for families with young children or for those with mobility issues.
Conversely, if you are a watersports enthusiast, enjoy the thrill of a faster, sportier ride, or plan to use the boat in saltwater, then a deck boat might be a better fit for your needs.
To see a comprehensive list of pontoon and deck boat brands, check out our interactive manufacturer directory where you can filter brands by boat type from the drop-down list at the top left side of the page.
About the author
Jerry Mona is a long-time boating industry insider, research expert and avid boater and angler. He began his research career with the Coca-Cola Company, Foods Division, where he learned research from some of the best in the business. In 1991, he left Coca Cola Foods to follow his passion for the water to head up the research function at Mercury Marine. After climbing the ranks within Mercury and later at the parent company, Brunswick, Jerry left Corporate America in 2000 to launch his own company – Left Brain Marketing, Inc., a research firm specializing in the boating industry and outdoor recreation.
Over the past 20+ years, he has helped leading organizations such as Mercury, Brunswick, White River Marine Group (Tracker, Sun Tracker, Nitro, Mako, Regency, Tahoe), Polaris (Bennington, Hurricane), the National Marine Manufacturers Association, Discover Boating, the Marine Retailers Association of America, the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation (TakeMeFishing.org) and others to better understand the needs and wants of boaters like you. Widely recognized as the leading research expert with boaters, Jerry has conducted hundreds of studies and has received responses from over 350,000 boater participants since launching his firm.
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