Towing ‘Toons

Pulling a pontoon on a trailer is different, but it doesn't have to be intimidating.

I had towed boats of many sizes and types all over the country for a couple of decades, so I, of course, thought I knew it all. And then I towed a pontoon for the first time. Yikes! I climbed into the cab of my SUV and glanced in the rearview mirror. Double yikes! The ’toon filled not only my center rearview mirror but both side mirrors too. My rear vision was somewhere around zero. That was lesson number one: Make sure the driver can see behind the vehicle. Especially if backing down a launch ramp is in the plans.

Lesson number two came when I hit the highway. In my state, the posted speed limit is 65 mph, but anyone going 65 is like a rock in the middle of a fast-moving stream. But when I hit 65, I felt like I was pulling a huge parachute. I had my foot well down on the throttle, and I could tell the engine was pulling hard. Believe me, there is a lot of windage to a pontoon boat in tow.

Despite the common problems associated with towing a pontoon, there are solutions.

1 / Pontoon boats are wide. It’s a fact boaters buy pontoon boats for their space, so pontoon boat manufacturers always design them — regardless of their length — to the maximum trailerable 8-foot, 6-inch beam. That wouldn’t be a problem except that ’toons are box-shaped, so they block the view. A conventional boat tapers from the maximum width at deck level, so drivers have some vision to the rear along the boat sides, but not with a pontoon. It not only fills the view but the traffic lane as well.

The solution is to fit truck-style extendable rearview mirrors on each side of the tow vehicle. They retract for normal driving but can be extended to provide a look behind during towing. Drivers just can’t forget how wide the mirrors are when driving into a carport or garage.

Recently, I’ve seen some ’toon skippers clamp a backup camera to the transom of the pontoon boat and put the monitor on the dash, giving them a live video view.

2 / Pontoon boats are wide. Sounds like the previous one, right? Well, pontoon boats are not only wide but they’re square. So a ’toon is about the same width at the bow as it is in the middle, unlike a conventional boat. This can pose some problems during backing procedures, and there are more than a few tow vehicles with interesting vertical creases in their side from backing sharply enough that the ’toon’s bow bit the side of the tow vehicle. With a conventional boat, it’s possible to turn so the trailer is almost 80 degrees from the tow vehicle, but not with a pontoon on a trailer, so don’t get bitten.

3 / Pontoons sit high. Because of the intricacies of the trailer rails, most ’toon trailers place the carpeted bunks for the pontoons atop the rails, which jacks the boat up higher than a conventional boat. Two problems here. First, the center of gravity is raised, and second, it’s more difficult to launch and retrieve from a shallow ramp without getting the tow vehicle in the water.

Of the two problems, the easier to solve is the launching issue: Just choose ramps carefully, or add an extension to the trailer tongue so the boat floats off in deeper water.

The higher center of gravity, however, suggests pontoon owners need to change their driving style, if they have any cowboy tendencies. The trailer tires aren’t far apart and, if a driver turns sharply at speed, he can tip the whole pontoon boat and trailer over.

A high center of gravity combined with the windage of the pontoon boat can make for some challenging moments in a crosswind, or when an 18wheeler blows by at 80 mph. Highspeed swaying is never fun, but the cure is to slow down without hitting the brakes, because brakes can complicate things.

4 / Some ’toons ride on scissor-lift trailers. Rather than bunks under the pontoons, these have rails that fit between the pontoons to lift the underside of the deck. Since these supports can be raised or lowered, shallowwater launches are a cinch. The downside is that the wheelbase on a scissorlift trailer is very narrow — perhaps half that of a conventional bunk trailer — which means these can be very squirrely in turns, in crosswinds and during emergency maneuvers. Each trailer type has its pros and cons. Each owner has to consider his needs and choose wisely.

Towing Tips
It’s going to take some oomph to tow all that windage and still move at highway speeds, so pontoon owners are likely looking at needing a pickup or a large sport utility vehicle. Which brings us to engines and transmissions. I can’t think of a reason to regret having more engine than might be absolutely necessary, because my experience has been that I always end up needing it. I had a Suburban 2500 that I thought was plenty for ’toon towing, but it got a little weary on a long uphill to Lake Tahoe and kept wanting to kick down.

Many modern trucks and sport utes allow the driver to choose either manual or automatic use of overdrive, and it’s always better to turn off overdrive, because the engine will probably struggle. In automatic overdrive, the engine wants to kick down into passing gear and that gets old after a while.

I installed two things that haven’t improved my actual towing but made my tow vehicles last longer: a transmission cooler and a transmission temperature gauge. The cooler can keep the tranny from overheating, and the gauge tells me when I need to slow down or let the engine cool off. Either way, they have added thousands of miles to my truck’s transmission.

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