Ding, Ding, Ding: Small Catamarans vs. Pontoon Boats
Both small power catamarans and pontoon boats are often called multihulls, but, depending on the day on the water you have planned for yourself, one will ultimately be better than the other. Pontoons typically have two hulls (those with three hulls are called a tritoon). These hulls are joined together with a grid and topped by a plywood deck. The ancient pontoon was a slow moving boat, however, today with larger engines (up to twin 450-hp outboards), they can go in excess of 60 mph.
Small power catamarans (under 32 feet), also known as a dinghy catamaran, have twin hulls connected by a crossbeam. They’re generally built of fiberglass but what sets them apart from pontoons is that they’re a sailboat. Now that you know what they’re made of, we’ll take a look at the pros and cons of each boat type.
Pros of boating with a pontoon
Stability-Pontoon boats have a wide stance and good buoyancy, and they’re very stable on the water, so they’re good for older boaters, pets, and families with kids.
Deck space-Speaking of bringing your pet, family, or friend group on a boating trip, pontoons are perfect for medium to large groups. Their spacious deck typically seats for 8-12 people.
Versatility-Today’s pontoons with their larger engines can go fishing, towing, or entertaining. Some even have refrigerators and sinks so they take entertainment to a new level.
Shallow draft-Pontoons are great for lakes, estuaries, and rivers where the waters are shallow and where other boats can’t venture. Pro tip: Thinking about venturing into the deep blue sea? Read this first: Can a Pontoon Go Into the Ocean?
Propulsion-Pontoons use outboard engines for power, and some carry more than one for higher speeds and more torque.
Options- Modern pontoon boats can be optioned out with diving boards, boarding ladders, navigation electronics, premium sound systems, towing pylons, electric Biminis, premium lighting and galleys.
Trailering-Pontoons can be towed from lake to lake and may be stored on a trailer which is generally cheaper than keeping a boat in a slip.
Approachability-Pontoons are incredibly user friendly. Their simple design makes them an easy choice of novice boaters, or anyone without previous boating experience, to get behind the helm. Most people that have rented a pontoon and operated it themselves say they feel confident that they will be able to operate a simple pontoon boat quickly.
Although top models with multiple large outboards can cost in excess of $300,000, pontoon boats are among the most affordable family boats available, often starting under $40,000 for a new model.
Cons of boating with a pontoon
No interior-Pontoon boats generally have no interior accommodations and the hulls have little to no stowage space.
Saltwater applications- Since the hulls are made of unpainted aluminum, pontoons aren’t appropriate for extended saltwater use due to corrosion issues.
Maneuvering- With twin outboards, pontoon boats are relatively easy to maneuver but with a single outboard, they can be tricky to dock.
Aesthetics- Not everyone likes the look of pontoon boats with their aluminum fencing and rectangular shapes.
Pros of boating with a small powercat
Stability-Like pontoons, powercats are wide and stable on the water and they induce less seasickness than monohulls even in ocean swells.
Versatility- Some powercats are designed for cruising while others may have a center console so they’re good for fishing. Either way, they induce less fatigue since twin hulls offer better comfort than one.
Space- Powercats have more deck space than monohulls but usually less than pontoon boats because they often have an interior for sleeping accommodations, lounging and cooking.
Propulsion- Powercats can have either outboard or inboard engines. With inboards, they’re usually more fuel efficient but a bit slower at the top end and generally aren’t used for watersports towing. (This may not be the case with outboard motors.)
Maneuvering- With twin engines (one in/on each hull) set wide apart, powercats are fairly easy to drive and dock even without side thrusters.
Seaworthiness- Powercats are fiberglass and are often outfitted for distance cruising or ocean fishing so they can go just about anywhere.
Options-Powercats offer plenty of options to customize your boat from engine size to electronics, finishes and more.
Cons of boating with a small powercat
Trailering- Some powercats under 30 feet may be trailered but most will be stored in a wet slip which will add to their mooring cost.
Intimidation factor- New boaters are often intimidated by the size (length and width) of a powercat and its complex systems. For whatever reason, boaters aren’t as confident in taking on a powercat rather than a pontoon although the latter may be easier to drive.
Price- Even small powercats can be expensive so unless you have ocean or distance travel in mind, you may not need to stretch your budget to a powercat.
The winner… by unanimous decision… is…
Pontoons meanwhile, have grown stronger, larger and faster in recent years and they continue to be the fastest growing segment of boating. Models from builders like Bennington and Godfrey have high top speeds and plenty of power for watersports. To know which boat type is the winner of this match, then ask yourself this:
- Which boating and on-water activities am I interested in?
- How much money are you working with? Pro tip: Pontoons and power catamarans are available to be rented for half-day or full-day trips.
- What route do you plan to take? Inshore or offshore?
- Do you plan on riding solo or going out with a group?
Based on what you learned here and your answers, you know who it is.
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Zuzana Prochazka is an award-winning freelance journalist and photographer with regular contributions to more than a dozen sailing and powerboating magazines and online publications including Southern Boating, SEA, Latitudes & Attitudes and SAIL. She is SAIL magazines Charter Editor and the Executive Director of Boating Writers International. Zuzana serves as judge for SAIL’s Best Boats awards and for Europe’s Best of Boats in Berlin.
A USCG 100 Ton Master, Zuzana founded and manages a flotilla charter organization called Zescapes that takes guests adventure sailing at destinations worldwide.
Zuzana has lived in Europe, Africa and the United States and has traveled extensively in South America, the islands of the South Pacific and Mexico.