Catamaran vs. Pontoon Boat: The Differences Explained


If you’ve taken an interest in yachting, you have heard of either pontoons or catamarans. That is because modern engineering allows for affordable luxury yachts to be built in either form at a fraction of a monohull’s cost. But to know which one is right for your sailing adventures, you must know the difference between them.

Catamaran and Pontoon boats use slightly different methods to stay afloat: A catamaran has two hulls that displace water, while pontoons use airtight tubes with reserve buoyancy. Catamarans are usually more expensive but can travel offshore.

In this article, you will learn about both types of vessels and discover the benefits of each. We will also discuss their drawbacks, so you have the complete picture before deciding whether to buy or rent one.

Catamarans: A Brief Overview

“Catamaran” is a term evolved from an Indian indigenous language where the term kattumaram was used to describe two logs tied together by rope. The word also describes the vessel physically as it roughly means “two tied logs.” 

However, Catamaran boats are not engineered to float by the same principle as tied logs. In fact, a pontoon is significantly closer to the tied-logs vessel of ancient India.

While Catamarans borrow the name because they have two hulls, these vessels’ buoyancy principle relies on water displacement. Just like a monohull boat, a catamaran’s hull penetrates the water and, by pushing down, causes an upward reaction thanks to the action-reaction principle.

However, instead of having one hull penetrate too deep, it has two hulls that penetrate the water at a shorter depth but a broad area between the two hulls. This broad area creates stability without the need for deep and heavy keels.

Boats and ships with a single hull (monohull) rely on being heavy and massive to cause the right amount of downward force that leads to sufficient buoyancy. This makes them very expensive to build. They are also differently engineered as a larger vessel requires more technical attention to stay balanced.

Catamarans are a scalable design that can go from a simple jet-ski to a massive yacht. And at almost every level (boat, yacht, and ship), the catamaran alternative is cheaper than a monohull. Tourist destinations with a lot of open-water activities have become a profitable place for non-sailing buyers of catamarans.

A secondary leisure-renting industry has popped up in Bali, for example. Companies are buying and holding Catamarans as non-taxable investments while renting them for a fraction of the value. This means people with a one-off interest in sailing can rent a catamaran without spending a fortune and incurring the upkeep and maintenance costs.

Pros of Owning a Catamarans

While we have just covered background information about the vessel while briefly going over its advantages, let’s dive deeper and look at what makes the Catamaran the ideal boat/yacht for its buyers. 

You Have the Prestige of a Catamaran Owner

Let’s face it: you are probably not going to live in your Catamaran (unless you’re sailing around the world). And renting these boats is cheaper than owning one.

But those who invest in Catamarans aren’t as interested in how far they will sail as they are in having an asset that can enhance their life experiences. There is no feeling like knowing that you can invite your friends over for an open-water adventure whenever you want.

You Have the Reliability of Sailing Deeper Waters

While sailing close to land and dining with friends is nice, you may be an adventurer looking to create memories or spend time in solitude. There is no place like open waters to be with yourself. The calm blue ocean can have a positive, relaxing impact. 

While Catamarans may not be ideal for very shallow waters, they allow you to sail further than pontoons. Deeper hulls allow better stability, and depending on design and size, certain Catamarans will allow open-ocean cross-country sailing.

You Have More Options When Customizing

Whenever you order something of significant value, it is advisable to consider the opportunity costs. Catamarans are better than pontoons in terms of variety in designs and scale. Whether you’re purchasing a second-hand vessel or ordering a customized vehicle, you have more options to choose from. This means you get to decide on the boat that matches your social circle, activities on-deck, and the amenities onboard.

Hulls Can Be Used for Space

Unlike pontoons, a catamaran has more room aside from the deck and whatever it supports. The hulls are hollow and will house berths, head(a sailing term for toilet), and luggage. As they are submerged in water, having a window allows you to look at the fish and what lies underwater.

Cons of Owning a Catamaran

While there are considerable advantages to having a catamaran, we must remember that no vessel comes without its drawbacks. In this section, we go over the disadvantages of being a Catamaran owner.

You Own a Depreciating Asset

Although Catamarans don’t lose value as fast as cars or jet-skis, they lose value to wear-and-tear. Because these vessels are significantly better-designed than pontoons, people purchase them for more superficial reasons. As a result, any visible damage, usage-signs, etc. Create significant depreciation as potential buyers are turned off.

How to fight this drawback: You can use this apparent disadvantage to your benefit by buying your Catamaran from a current owner. Listings on Yachtworld.com include prices, pictures, and often the time a vessel was used. This lets someone else bear most of the depreciation because it gets reduced most significantly immediately after the first purchase.

Maintenance and Upkeep Costs

While all boats incur up-keep and maintenance costs, catamarans require more than pontoons. That is because they’re more sophisticated, and even the smallest amount of damage matters. Alternatively, any parts requiring replacement means you have to choose from fewer providers. In fact, most catamaran owners find themselves tied to the manufacturer as no one else wants to provide “spare” parts for a Bali or a Lagoon.

How to fight this drawback: You have two options. The first is to rent a Catamaran, so the upkeep isn’t on your balance sheet. And the second is to purchase your Catamaran from a smaller workshop than a massive brand. Given that you can trust the smaller provider, you’ll receive new parts, replacements, and upgrades at a smaller cost.

Pontoon Boats: A Brief Overview

Pontoons emerged as a DIY project of Ambrose Weeres, a Minnesota Farmer who crafted his first motorboat back in 1951. He welded together columns of steel barrels to produce a floating pontoon on top of while a wooden deck could be placed with reliable stability. 

Eventually, he started selling his creations and built a pontoon manufacturing company. You can think of him as the Elon Musk of Pontoons because he created a successful commercial model, which led to enough competitors joining the market that a separate category of products came into lasting consumer awareness.

If you take a swimming pool float and superglue some plywood on top, you’ve built a pontoon. However, it goes without saying that you cannot host a party over its “deck.” That’s because the swimming pool float doesn’t have enough reserve buoyancy to support a lot of weight.

That is why modern pontoons have come a long way from Weeres’s steel barrels. The floats underneath a pontoon boat are also called pontoons. These are hollow and airtight and have enough tube-surface that they can support medium-sized yacht decks. 

You can learn about a pontoon’s working principle and even build one using only glue, plywood, and afloat signifies the simplicity of engineering one. This makes them more cost-effective, but let’s take a more in-depth look at the pros and cons of owning one.

Pros of Owning a Pontoon Boat

As mentioned above, you must learn more about the advantages and disadvantages of owning a pontoon before committing to your purchase. Here are the benefits you have as a pontoon owner.

You Have More Buying Options

While pontoons might not be as customizable as catamarans, their simplicity allows many manufacturers to enter the market. As a result, a variety of options are available to you. Sizes, brands, and price-points are all available in a relatively wider variety. Whether you’re looking for a pontoon boat to go fishing on or a vessel to host a weekend party, you will find the right pontoon.

Pontoon Boats Are Generally Cheaper Than Catamarans

If you wish to have your sailing adventures without breaking the bank, a pontoon is the right choice because it will likely be available at a lower price. Many hobbyists might assume that lower cost reflects the lower quality. 

But that is a myth as costs reflect competition. As mentioned earlier, Catamarans aren’t easy to manufacture. And while pontoons require precision and expertise, more businesses can start manufacturing them without being too specialized. The competition cited in the previous advantage also plays a role in bringing the retail price of pontoons down.

Can Float on Shallow Waters

Pontoons do not have deep hulls that would get stuck on bank or beach sand. That is why pontoons fare better than catamarans in shallow waters. Many buyers opt for catamarans over monohull boats because they can tread into shallower waters. Pontoons take this advantage further, allowing you to get as close to land as possible, given there aren’t sharp rocks around.

Cons of Owning a Pontoon

While they are available at lucrative prices and in a large variety, pontoons are far from a universally ideal vessel. There are several reasons why Catamarans aren’t disrupted by pontoon boats. Here are some of them.

Pontoons Aren’t Excellent for Deep Open Seas

One of the most significant drawbacks of owning a pontoon is that there is a strict limit to how far you can go into the water before putting your vessel and yourself at risk. Even disturbances in shallow waters can interfere with a pontoon’s stability because it isn’t anchored into the water to any degree. 

Just like it is easy to flip over a swimming pool float, a strong enough wave can do the same to a pontoon. While no vessel is entirely immune to rough swells, hulled-vessels have some “root” in water as the hull is submerged.

Make sure to purchase a pontoon only if you wish to sail it in calm waters and close to the shore. If you want to venture out a little farther, opt for a catamaran. And if you wish to sail the open seas, get a mono-hulled boat. In this hierarchy, pontoon boats are the least capable.

Pontoon Tubes Are More Vulnerable Than Catamaran Hulls

One of the results of using different mechanisms to keep afloat is the difference in the vessels’ sturdiness. A pontoon relies on the airtight tube to stay afloat. Any damage to the tube can render the boat unusable. On the other hand, a Catamaran uses its hulls as weights. That means any damage done to the sturdy hull can be offset by a simply filling-job.

It is worth noting that pontoons now come with multiple-compartmentalized sections. This allows the vessel to damage one area while retaining buoyancy in the remainder of the pontoon. If you’re purchasing a pontoon boat, ask the manufacturer whether each tube is a continuous column or there are sections that can hedge against breakage.

There Is an Upper-Limit to Pontoon Size

While one can theoretically build a pontoon the size of titanic, it becomes functionally inefficient to manufacture pontoons behind a specific size. You have a lot of pontoon-purchase options in the lower range, especially among solo-use vessels. 

But as you move up the use and size ladder, you notice fewer options. As mentioned earlier, pontoons are attractive to manufacturers because they’re easy to design and build. And as manufacturing, marketing, and selling larger vessels becomes harder, pontoon manufacturers mostly opt not to build at such a scale.

Which One Should You Buy?

Now that you know the pros and cons of each, you’re in a better position to make your buying decision. Let’s go over these differences from the perspective of usage so you can gain further clarity.

You should buy a pontoon if you wish to hang out in shallow waters with one or two friends. This will be significantly cheaper. In contrast, if you want to cruise open waters and bring along crowds, a catamaran is a better option. Just keep in mind that you’ll not be able to take the boat into shallow waters depending on the hull length. To help you categorize your purchase by use, below are the different uses of each vessel.

Catamarans Can Be Used for Fishing

If you are even remotely interested in angling, leaning towards catamarans is a better choice than pontoons because you get to venture into deep enough waters to drop the line and catch interesting fish. Pontoons do not provide much leverage and may give you only as much advantage as a local pier for fishing.

Catamarans Are Great for Filming

Whether you are shooting a travel video for social media or filming a scene in the ocean, a catamaran is the better choice. If you have a social media presence and haven’t even thought about shooting travel vlogs, you should still lean towards buying Catamaran over pontoons because the choice gives you room to create exciting content if you wish.

Catamarans Are Great if You’re a Party-Person

Regardless of whether you host parties or not, if you enjoy hanging out with large groups of people, a catamaran gives you enough room not to exclude your friends when you’re throwing your yacht party. Pontoons allow this to some degree as well but aren’t specialized in this area because of size limitations.

Pontoon Boats Are Amazing for Family-Men

If you don’t throw extravagant parties and enjoy time with your family, a pontoon can be a blessing. While not great for rough waters, the vessel becomes insurance against risky behavior. You’re more likely to stay in safer waters with your family if you’re all on a pontoon. Moreover, calmer waters mean a more tranquil sailing experience. Your next family dinner could be on a pontoon yacht.

Pontoon Boats Are Ideal When the Bank Is More Interesting Than the Water

For lakes with interesting scenery, pontoons are the perfect vessel. Floating through the calm waters and taking in beautiful scenery can have a therapeutic effect. If you live in a place with tourist-attraction lakes, there is an exciting income opportunity in offering paid rides.

You Can Lend Your Boat to Friends if It Is a Pontoon

Catamaran expenses and sophistication means you’ll need to trust someone’s expertise a lot before lending the one you own to someone. You have to be sure he can take care of her. However, a pontoon is more comfortable to lend because it is cheaper, easier to sail, and, most importantly, great for beginners.

Final Thoughts

Both catamarans and pontoon boats are (usually) cheaper alternatives to monohull boats. However, pontoons are more affordable and most suited for shallow waters, while catamarans allow you to go a little deeper at the cost of a significant price-point increase. You should buy a catamaran for fishing or yacht parties, while pontoon boats must be your choice for cruising calm lakes and hosting small dinners.

Gabo

Owner of CatamaranFreedom.com. A minimalist that has lived in a caravan in Sweden, 35ft Monohull in the Bahamas, and right now in his self-built Van. He just started the next adventure, to circumnavigate the world on a Catamaran!

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