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Pontoon Safety, Licensing, and Trailering

Taking your pontoon out on the open waters with the sun and the waves can be an incredibly relaxing experience. The worries and cares of life on dry land can melt away as you enjoy fun in the sun. Even though time on your pontoon boat can seem like pure bliss, even paradise requires attention to mundane details, such as licensing, safety, and trailering. With a small amount of thought and effort, you can take care of these small details and ensure as much relaxation on your pontoon boat as is possible.

Your pontoon boat must be properly licensed to operate on waterways and the individual requirements are similar to obtaining license plates for your car or truck. Nearly every state in the union requires that pontoon boats be issued state titles to prove ownership of the craft. This process is very similar to obtaining titles for automobiles. If you go through a boat dealer, they will handle the change in title, but if you buy from a private seller, youíll have to deal with the paperwork yourself. You must obtain a title for your pontoon boat before it can be registered. All states require the registration of powerboats in accordance with rules established by the U.S. Coast Guard. Again, like automobile registration, pontoon boat registration requires regular, usually annual, fees to keep the registration current. At the time you register your pontoon boat, youíll be issued validation stickers and a registration card or other registration paperwork. You must attach the registration stickers to the exterior of your pontoon boat and keep your registration card or paperwork onboard your pontoon boat at all times.

Pontoon boats are not assigned license plates, but like automobiles, they are assigned a coded series of letters and numbers to help authorities identify vessels at a glance. At the time of registration, youíll be given a certification with a series of numbers and letters. You must attach this identifying code to both sides of your bow and most people use long-lasting self-stick vinyl letters and numbers. There are also strict requirement for how these are attached. They must be plainly visible and high enough as possible above the waterline. The code must be read left to right on either side of the bow. The numbers and letters must be no less than three inches in height. Also, they need to be of a contrasting color to the background of the pontoon boat. If you are concerned about the aesthetic of your pontoon boat, know that the regulations do not require a particular color for the code and only require that it stands out from the background of your pontoon boat; feel free to find bold, complementary colors for the display but be sure that you use block letters as required by law. Separate letters from the numbers of the code with a hyphen or space.

Properly trailering your pontoon boat to transport it to and from the water is another important consideration. Although pontoon trailers often vary in size, construction, and features, there are a few basic characteristics common to properly towing your pontoon. Check the pressure of the trailerís tires before departure. Under-inflated tires produce excess heat and friction, which can often lead to tire blowouts. Also, check to make sure that your side-view mirrors provide a view along both sides of the pontoon trailer. Safety chains must be attached from your pontoon trailer to your automobile as required by state law. The chains should hang loosely enough to allow for turns but should not drag along the ground. Orient the hooks of the chains to face backwards to ensure that they donít bounce out of position. Federal law also requires you to have working lights, turn signals, and brake lights on your pontoon trailer. Be sure to check that your lights are working before leaving for that long trip. Itís also a good idea to have spare light bulbs on hand in case one of your lights burns out unexpectedly. Many experienced boaters travel with a breakdown kit, equipped with a spare tire, jack, lug wrench, road flares, and extra light bulbs. Finally, and most sensibly, be sure to check that the pontoon boat is tightly secured to the trailer. Itís foolish to expect that the trailerís winch cable could properly hold the entire weight of a pontoon boat. Instead, the pontoon boat must be secured with a series of tie-down straps. Littering is annoying on its own, but it is even more so when you see your valuable personal possessions and pontoon boat accessories strewn across a busy stretch of road. Make sure that anything onboard the pontoon boat itself is safely and securely tied down so that none of your personal possessions or pontoon boat accessories blows out onto the highway. Tie down or otherwise secure hatch lids, loose cushions, life jackets and anything not bolted down; even the most unlikely object, such as an unsecured anchor, can leap out of a trailered pontoon boat on bumpy roads. Itís also a good idea to stop on a regular basis and check out the state of your trailer to see that your lights, chains, tires, and everything is safe, secure, and in good working condition.

Safety, for both themselves and their crew, should be of paramount concern for any pontoon captain. The first step toward pontoon boat safety includes having the right equipment with you on the water. Some safety equipment is required by law. Every person on board must have an appropriately-fitting personal flotation device (PFD). Federal law requires that every power boat have a fueled and working fire extinguisher on board at all times. In addition, if your pontoon is longer than 16 feet, you are required to have visual distress signals, such as flares or special marine distress flags, with you. Beyond this legally required gear, itís also a good idea to include some additional safety equipment. Include a basic first-aid kit to treat minor injuries. If you are planning to drift along the currents or consider the possibility of engine failure, itís always wise to have an anchor and line to avoid drifting too far out into waters that are more than your pontoon boat can handle. Youíll also want to include some means of bailing out water in case of a leak, like an electric bilge pump, a manual pump, or even a bucket.

While the addition of alcoholic beverages might increase the fun for some, the most dangerous thing to do, according to the statistics, is for the pontoon boat captain to drink while on the water. The majority of boating fatalities each year are a result of boating while intoxicated (BWI). Although different states have varying standards for what blood alcohol level constitutes BWI, the levels are quite low, in the .05 to .08 range. It is also important to underscore that the very conditions that make pontoon boating enjoyable can also make drinking alcohol that much more dangerous. Exposure to the wind and sun can lead to dehydration and, along with the rocking motion of a pontoon boat on the water, can exacerbate the influence of alcohol on judgment and hand-eye coordination. The safest thing, for the captain and his or her crew, is for the skipper to avoid drinking until all hands are safely on dry land.

Being forewarned is being forearmed. With a minimum amount of effort, by following these steps, you can insure a safe and enjoyable time for your family and friends with a minimal amount of hassle.

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