Boat Handling Basics

All boats are handled differently but with hands-on practice you can become a proficient in handling your boat.

Learn more about steering, speed, gear shifting and how different hull types can affect how your boat handles. Familiarize yourself with factors you can control, and you’ll be well on your way to a more enjoyable boating adventure.

  1. Steering: On a small boat with an outboard motor, the motor's handle is used to steer the boat. Since the engine is mounted on the rear of the boat, it pushes the stern around, making the bow go in the opposite direction. To turn to starboard (right), move the handle to the left. To turn to port (left), move the handle to the right. You maneuver larger boats with a steering wheel, much like driving a car.
  2. Speed: The speed of a boat depends on both the size of the motor and the boat. The speed of the motor is controlled by a throttle in much the same way a gas pedal works on a car.
  3. Gearshift: The smallest outboard motors have no gearshift. The boat moves as soon as the engine is started. Larger motors have a gearshift lever. There are three positions—forward, neutral and reverse. Place the lever into neutral to start the engine, then, when it's running, put the lever in forward or reverse gear to move forward or backward.

Placing the shift lever in neutral will not stop the boat. Since a boat does not have brakes, you must learn to judge your speed and maneuver carefully, using the forward and reverse controls to avoid hitting docks and other boats or objects.

How Planing Hulls Operate

Boats with planing hulls are designated to rise up and glide on top of the water when enough power is supplied.

Displacement Mode: A planing hull, when operated at very slow speeds, will cut through the water like a displacement hull.

Plowing Mode: As speed increases, a planing hull will have a raised bow, reducing the operator's vision and throwing a very large wake. Avoid maintaining a speed that puts your boat in plowing mode.

Planing Mode: Your boat is in planing mode when enough power is applied so that the hull glides on top of the water. Different boats reach planing mode at different speeds.

Learn more about specific hull types.

Boat Docking Basics

Boat handling also involves making sure your boat is docked safely. Here are some basic tips:

  • Decrease your speed when approaching the dock, secure fenders on the docking side, and ready the docking lines.
  • If you are headed to a marina with limited docking stations, be patient and courteous. Communicate your intention to other vessels that are departing.
  • Take water current into account when docking as it can have much of the same affects as wind.
  • Take wind into account when docking. If the wind is in your face approach the dock at a steep angle of 30 to 45 degrees and swing the boat quickly.
  • If the wind is at your back approach the dock at a shallow angle of about 10 to 20 degrees, stop the boat, and allow the wind to drift the boat into the dock.