PONTOON BOATING SAFETY GUIDELINES & REGULATIONS FROM STATE TO STATE
Recreational boats create wonderful opportunities for memorable family times, romantic cruising, or parties with friends. But owning a boat also carries certain responsibilities, and smart boat owners should know how to keep their guests safe on the water.
Adhering to marine laws is fairly simple, despite varying guidelines from state to state. The basic principals tend to be the same, so operating with common sense is the best place to start. Consulting the guidelines for the particular state you intend to boat in is step two.
See below for links to boating regulation guides for all 50 states.
THE RULES OF THE WATER
As with any form of transportation, boating carries its own set of rules and regulations for both boat operator and any guests onboard. Standard roadways are governed with state and federal laws, and waterways are protected and monitored in similar fashion. Guidelines that can vary from state to state include:
- Granting right-of-way and passing on a particular side given the situation
- Minimum operator age
- Mandatory life jackets for everyone onboard
- Illegality of operating a watercraft under the influence of drugs or alcohol
- Towing restrictions
- Boating license and insurance
Good advice before hitting the lakes is to carefully study your state's requirements and adhere to them fully. Just as automobile drivers can be ticketed or arrested for irresponsible behavior on the road, boat operators can be fined or imprisoned for reckless behavior. Even worse are the prospects of injury or death.
If the full set of guidelines in your state is overwhelming, at the very least make sure to watch your speed, stay alert, lay off the alcohol and keep passengers from getting rammy. Too much fun can quickly turn into no fun.
Click on any state below to read its boating guidelines:
Tiki Bar Inspires Couple to Go Afloat on a Pontoon Houseboat
Sitting lakeside at your own private tiki bar, sharing drinks and steaks with your loved ones.
How can life get any better?
Jeff and Julia Kloeckner of Laingsburg, Michigan asked themselves that exact question one afternoon, and Jeff decided what the tiki bar needed was a houseboat.
I sat down one sunny afternoon recently to talk to the Kloeckners, my friends and neighbors. We sat on their back deck and enjoyed the view of the lake and their pontoon.
Jeff proudly talked about his pontoon and the story behind it, while Julia grabbed her photo album and displayed all the pictures documenting her husband’s boat creation.
The Pontoon Houseboat JourneyThe 1987 Manitou Pontoon was built at the original Delta Township factory, not far from Kloeckner’s home. It was sold to a family who took it up north to Gaylord, and they enjoyed it for many years, until the Kloeckners bought it from them in 2009.
When the Kloeckners purchased their pontoon, the recession was affecting gas prices so much that they soon found they used the boat less and less.
Their 18-foot, ’87 Manitou Pontoon had been sitting idle at the dock throughout the summer. The more it sat, the more Jeff pondered over what he could do with it.
He wanted to be able to use his pontoon for fishing and floating. Better yet, to turn it into a houseboat to enjoy at their location on Round Lake and take it to other lakes too.
Round Lake is known as Al Capone’s hideaway spot. The current Lakeview Banquet Center on the lake used to be a dance hall with big bands and bootleg booze.
Today Lakeview is a busy reception hall for weddings and other gatherings. Locals on the lake boat out near the hall to watch wedding ceremonies, listen to the music and take in the occasional evening firework displays.
Fireworks, beautiful sunsets and star-filled nights are just a few more good reasons a houseboat would be fitting on Round Lake.
Not only that, but Michigan has over 11,000 lakes to explore. There are so many different things to do in and around Michigan lakes. You can check out the “Lake Effect” at Pure Michigan.org and discover the endless opportunities of fun things to do and enjoy.
If you’re looking to camp on your pontoon or conversion pontoon, check out this pontoon camping guide.
The Kloeckner’s have known firsthand what lake life is all about and were ready to discover new adventures with their houseboat on Round Lake and other lakes up north. Thus, they began their own DIY pontoon houseboat project.
How to DIY Your Own Pontoon HouseboatLuckily, Jeff had the capability to configure his own houseboat design and structure.
His 30-plus years of construction experience and a jack-of-all-trades know-how gave him the confidence and skill to tackle this type of DIY project.
Less experienced DIY folks may want to use a kit to transform their pontoon. There are hundreds of ideas—some crazy!—that you can find online.
However, you really need to sit down and decide what you want for your houseboat, what will work for the size of your boat frame and the budget that you have to work with.
The possibilities can be endless!
What about adding a bathroom? Or a hot tub? Or even a second deck with a slide down into the water? The sky truly is the limit for just about anything you can imagine for your own houseboat.
Need some ideas? Go to Pinterest, type “conversion pontoons” in the search bar and you’ll discover an endless stream of pictures of the most amazing pontoon houseboats, and houseboats from around the world.
Once you choose your style, whether it’s simple or a floating Jimmy Buffet theme, build it with passion and keep safety in mind.
Some Takeaways: Consider Safety, Weight, Capacity and Insurance
Conversion projects like this bring up a number of questions on transforming a pontoon into a houseboat. One question for converting into a houseboat would be the framing structure and weight distribution.
The Manitou pontoon’s initial construction is ideal for strength and dependability. When you’re adding weight and height to the framework, you’ll just need some guidelines to keep it safe. The United States Coast Guard has a booklet to calculate your precise weight and capacity limits.
Manufacturers place a weight and capacity limit sticker on the boat at the factory. I called a Manitou dealer in Michigan and they recommended staying within the limitation that’s posted on the boat, for safety. Adding weight and height to a boat frame can make the boat unstable.
Another question would be insurance. Do you keep the same coverage for your boat as you would for a houseboat? I highly recommend contacting your own insurance agent to make sure you have the best coverage suited for your needs.
How to Expertly Use Recycled MaterialJeff created his houseboat using recycled material. Lansing’s Cooley Law Stadium, home of the minor league baseball team the Lugnuts, had just undergone major updates and Jeff was able to use the steel sides from the outfield storage unit.
The steel sheets were used as the sides of his 8′ x 10′ houseboat construction. He used steel studs for the framework to keep costs and weight down on the pontoon.
He also wanted the boat to be self sufficient, so he designed a way to use solar energy to power a Minn Kota Electric 55-lb thrust trolling motor. Jeff added a ceiling fan to the interior for cooling, installed sunglass material for the roof and placed house windows on the sides to also allow light and air flow.
A screen door in the front adds to the charm! And the inside has room for their queen-size air mattress (for when the fish aren’t biting) and storage for fishing equipment.
On the front of the boat, Jeff has two spots to insert fishing seats. He and his wife can comfortably sit, dangle their feet in the cool lake water and fish to their heart’s content!
What’s in a Name?
On the side of the boat Jeff added the boat’s name, Lily pad.
Fitting for floating on their small lake like… a lily pad! Jeff cut and designed lily pads from a steel metal sheet, painted the boat’s name on them and then attached them to the side of their houseboat.
When I asked them what they love best about the boat, they both replied that “it’s one of a kind!” Jeff loved working from his own ideas and how the solar unit helps keep their Lily pad self sufficient.
If you’re looking for recycled building material for your pontoon conversion, check out Habitat for Humanity. It’s a great place to look for recycled items for your project and help your community at the same time. Habitat stores are filled with building material, cabinets, furniture and so much more.
Think outside the box and find new treasures to go afloat!
- Amy Cabanas
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Women at the Helm | Pontoon Depot June 2018
I recently read an article that said only 23 percent of women ever put themselves in the captain position on their own boat and only 12 percent of watercraft are registered to females. Can that be right?
I promise you I’m not an over-the-top feminist but this seems a little off to me. To be honest with you, my husband gets in my way on the water, probably because our agendas are different. He sees the lake as one big fishing hole, but after a tragic fish hook to the finger accident where I had to be taken to the Urgent Care Center because I refused to calm down, I would rather avoid the sport altogether. Plus after 30 minutes of being on the boat with him, he’s already interrupted me 31 times letting me know the part of fishing he enjoys the most is the silence. I can’t handle just sitting there—not doing anything, not moving and just being bored. So while we enjoy each other’s company for the most part, we don’t agree about time spent on the water. The point of this story is that I don’t depend on my man for stuff like this. Brace yourself for the motivational statement of the day: You don’t have to either.
Women Do Own Boats
So I set my sights on finding a woman who owned her own boat. I reached out to our Facebook fans and asked if women felt comfortable operating their boats. When Pam Thomas from
Thomas shared some great thoughts with me on women in the boating industry.
“In this area many women do captain their own boats. If a woman likes to boat and can afford it, she should get one!” says Thomas. “It's just that simple. There's no reason why women should have to wait for an invitation to do what they love.”
The area she’s referring to is a canal in the
“I love the water, have been on or around it most of my life. Family members lived on lakes and had boats. As I got older, many friends had boats,” says Thomas. “When I was married we were avid boaters. After my marriage ended I bought my very own boat, a Yamaha Exciter jet boat.”
But when the jet boat was no longer appealing, Thomas set out to find her next boat. She knew she wanted a pontoon but wasn’t quite sure which would be the best.
“I like to be an informed consumer; I thoroughly researched all pontoon makers,” says Thomas. “I was looking for comfort on the water and the Manitou 22 Aurora VP met my needs. My Manitou dealer, Bill Rose Marine, is right around the corner. Mark Santavy, my salesman, was very informative and made the purchase process easy.”
Part of the appeal for Thomas was Manitou's V-toon technology. It allows for a smooth, stable ride through the rough water from the weekend boat traffic. She went with a 150hp Evinrude E-TEC motor to give her the speed she desired.
“The deck layout is spacious, comfortable and great for entertaining,” says Thomas. “It's like having your living room on the water.”
I ended our conversation by asking Thomas what advice she would offer other women looking to be more comfortable behind the helm.
“First, take a Boaters Safety Course to learn the rules,” she replied. “Then you just have to do it! Get behind the helm; get comfortable with steering, maneuvering through traffic, and practice docking the boat.”
That’s great advice from someone who’s been there.
Do Some Research
I ran across a book called It's Your Boat Too: A Woman's Guide to Greater Enjoyment on the Water by Suzanne Giesemann. While the book is written from more of a sailing aspect, Giesemann addresses common fears and self-limiting attitudes that apply across the nautical lineup. She clearly outlines how everything on a boat is gender-neutral with this great statement:
“There is nothing on a boat a man can do that a woman can’t. Well actually, I’m wrong. There is one thing. We can’t pee over the rail. But considering that doing so can easily lead to a man-overboard situation, I don’t recommend it for either sex. All other boating activities, however, are gender-neutral. Driving, docking, navigating, performing maintenance…you can do it all. You, too, can be an equal partner aboard your vessel.”
Make A Day Out Of It
Doesn’t a girl’s day sound like a blast? If you are one of those women who don’t feel as confident in the captain seat as you would like, keep your first outing small. Invite a few close friends that will be understanding of the learning curve. Depending on your locale, pack a picnic and take the ladies out for a day they won’t forget.
Practice Makes Perfect
I’ve found over the years that the best way to learn is to just immerse yourself. You will get better. It’s okay to be scared but you can’t let fear dictate your life. Take the boat out for a spin by yourself when someone you know is available close by to help out if need be. Ask questions when you’re out with someone who has more experience and be ready to take control. Even if you are comfortable with your current role, you may have to take over one day in the event of an emergency. If you are one of two people onboard and the other person loses consciousness, it becomes your responsibility to get to safety.
Now that you’ve read this whole story, I hope you don’t feel like I’m a man basher. That is exactly the opposite of what I was trying to accomplish. I want both sexes to feel like they are on an equal playing field on the water. Except for my husband, just because I’m sure he didn’t make it to the end. He probably got through the first paragraph, read the part about my horrific fishing accident, rolled his eyes and then turned the page. So I can freely tell you that I’m confident I have a better understanding of the technical aspect of boating. Yes, he’s rebuilt an outboard before but I can define “displacement.” And since there can only be one captain, I guess it’s me. Yay for being female.
Low-budget pontoons designed to maximize family fun
The large necklace Cathy Santogrossi wore was a miniature neon sign. Much like a flashing sign that might be seen in Las Vegas, her few-inches-long advertisement grabbed the viewer's eye with rotating letters: "Boats = Fun."
Such a description may be true of all boats--and because her family business is Fox Valley Marine in Naperville, Santogrossi would tell you that--but it's possible that no boat is more fun for more people than a pontoon.
Large, stable, slow-moving, seemingly indestructible, pontoons really do live up to the cliche of "fun for the whole family." It is a curious quirk of nature and commerce that the best time to buy a boat is when the water is frozen. The annual Chicago Boat, RV & Outdoors Show takes place in January so it won't interfere with prime boating time and a purchase will be ready for delivery when there's actually water available.
Maybe it's because my knees are senior citizens, but I confess to a growing fascination with pontoons. Once it was easier to identify with cigarette boats (thank you, Don Johnson) and their high-speed capability. Now I'm partial to the Volkswagen of boats.
There were a variety of pontoon boats on display at the recent show at McCormick Place, but even though they barely register on the price chart next to the million-dollar yachts, they seem to be inching up in cost.
Still, when I compare the price of a pontoon with the cost of a new car, I don't feel badly about the potential investment.
"Women like the boats because they're safe and they're like a home on the water," Santogrossi said. "Women like something safe and enclosed. There is more interest. It's going up. These people just want fun on the water. They can bring Mom and Dad with."
I lump pontoons with VWs because of their general lack of glamor. But I compare them to Hummers for their sturdiness. Basic pontoon boats measure 18 feet. They grow a bit longer from there. All models are 8 1/2 feet wide. Most accommodate wheelchairs. They are high-sided and, depending on the motor (25 horsepower and up), usually travel at speeds of around 10 m.p.h., or slightly faster than Fred Flintstone can go with foot power. When the Pontoon Boat Racing Circuit is started, I want to know about it.
The price is $10,000 to $40,000. Try to buy a 2007 car for 10 grand.
It is no surprise that the young, single guy with a sports car is not the target customer for pontoons.
"The demographic for the pontoon boat is Grandpa and Grandma," said Wayne Libera, who operates Water Werks boat sellers in Country Club Hills and Naperville. "They want to take the grandkids fishing and riding. You're going out there and puttering around on the water. And young parents buy that pontoon boat for large families.
"It's real safe and an 18-footer will hold 10 people. But that's no boat you would want to put in Lake Michigan."
Libera said a solid pontoon can be found for lake and river use for $12,000. Whatever happened to the old $5,000 model?
"Five thousand dollars will buy you junk," he said.
Some pontoons come with individual fishing seats at front and back to complement couch-style seating in the middle. Others have couches all around.
Pontoons are for the low-budget buyers whose only connection to fancy yachts is admiring them in magazines. If they want to live it up, they pay extra for an on-board portable toilet, a changing enclosure or a canopy for weather protection.
Tom Tepe and his wife, Priscilla, of Oak Park are looking toward retirement next year. They were window-shopping at the show for a pontoon of about 20 feet long and a $16,000 to $22,000 hit to the pocketbook.
"He wants to fish all day," Priscilla said.
"Maybe twice a day," Tom said.
They do plan to take the grandchildren out and want four seats.
"But it would probably be the two of us most of the time," he said.
Brad Frystak of Great Lakes Yacht Sales said parents of very young children set up playpens and that pontoon boats are ideal for wheelchair boaters.
"They're floating living rooms," Frystak said.The market is seeing the first signs of the young single male pontoon buyer, he said, as long as modifications are made.
"Believe it or not," Frystak said, "they are buying these because they're becoming performance-oriented with 175-horsepower engines."
Somehow that seems like equipping a yellow school bus with a jet engine.