Learning to drive a boat isn't as easy as it looks. And yet it won't be an exercise in frustration and failure if you take a little time to learn the basics, master them and ... relax.
Boats are steered either by a rudder or vectored thrust from a propeller. In either case, the steering effort is applied at the back of the boat. That's exactly the opposite of automobiles, where the steering is done by turning the front wheels. First-time skippers who bring automotive driving skills to the water get into trouble.
A car pivots roughly over its back wheels. You turn the front end of an automobile toward the destination and the back end follows. On the water, the pivot point of a boat is roughly one- third of the way aft of the bow. Because of this difference in pivot point, successful boat handling is really a process of learning to turn the stern away from the destination rather than the bow toward it.
Another major difference between the automotive and marine worlds is that pavement doesn't move, while water is never static. The movement of water and the effects of the wind always play a part in boat handling. Except in a major earthquake or a tornado, moving earth or high winds have only negligible impact when parallel parking a car.
Another difference between cars and boats is the means of propulsion. The driving wheels of a car are aligned with its centerline so they move it forward with no sideways pressure. A propeller, on the other hand, rotates at right angles to the boat's centerline. This means that in addition to producing forward thrust, every propeller also produces sideways pressure that causes the boat to fall off course. Sideways pressure is most noticeable when operating in reverse.
Here are seven boat-handling situations faced by every skipper during an ordinary day of boating. Both the wrong and the right ways of solving these problems are given. Keep in mind that these situations have been simplified for clarity.
Situation #1: Getting away from the dock.
The boat is tied alongside a pier, such as at a gas dock. How does the boat get away without damage?
Wrong: All lines are cast off and the skipper turns the steering wheel away from the dock while applying forward power. The bow pivots away from the pier, while the stern swings a larger circle.
Right: A dock line is run from the bow cleat to a cleat on the dock about one-third of the length of the boat aft of the bow. All other dock lines are cast loose. The skipper turns the wheel toward the pier and gives slow forward power. The boat cannot move forward because of the remaining dock line, but the stern is free to pivot away from the dock. Once the stern is clear, the skipper quickly turns the steering wheel away from the pier while the crew casts loose the dock line. Then, the skipper applies stern power. The boat backs away from the pier without damage.
(Note: When making this maneuver the bow of the boat may contact the pier. A fender should be used to cushion this contact.)
Situation #2: Coming alongside a pier with wind or current pushing inward.
In this situation, wind or current is carrying the boat toward the pier. This seems to be an easy situation, but in reality can be the most difficult condition under which to dock a boat without damage.
Wrong: The skipper attempts to drive the boat alongside the pier much like parking a car. The effects of wind and current are ignored. The wind/current pushes the boat sideways at the same time, causing the hull to strike the pier well in advance of the skipper's planned landing.
Right: The skipper makes an approach designed to bring the boat to the right position along the pier, but several feet (perhaps a full boat width) away from the structure. By gentle use of reverse or forward power the skipper allows the boat to drift sideways to the fenders.
Situation #3: Coming alongside a pier with wind or current pushing outward.
The wind or current is now pushing the boat away from the pier. While this appears to present difficulties, it can be the easiest approach if you know what to do.
Wrong: The skipper tries to pull the boat alongside the pier and then get lines ashore. The boat never quite gets into its dock space before the wind or current carries away. Several attempts at lassoing dock cleats or pilings are unsuccessful and foul language begins to turn the air blue.
Right: The skipper noses the boat up to the pier using only enough power to offset the effects of wind and current. A line is sent from the steering wheel and uses only enough forward power to bring the line taught. Captured by the dock line, the boat pivots into its dock without the need for curses and epithets. Additional dock lines are attached while a bit of forward power keeps the boat parallel to the pier. Once all lines are set, the engine is secured.
Situation #4: Coming alongside heading into wind or current.
This type of situation is often faced on rivers where current can be a critical factor in docking. Wind may be more important when docking in coastal harbors where current is negligible.
Wrong: It's really hard to mess up a head-to-wind/current docking except by applying too much steering or too much power.
Right: The skipper slows the boat as it approaches the dock with the hull almost parallel to the pier. The steering wheel is turned toward the pier only enough to cause the boat to begin moving sideways, into the dock. With judicious use of power by a skillful skipper, it is possible to "walk" a boat sideways parallel to the pier in this manner. A bowline is sent ashore first and the stern is allowed to drift into position along the pier while the rest of the lines are attached.
Situation #5: Coming alongside heading away from wind or current.
Wind or current at your back while docking is almost the same as having a runaway engine pushing your boat ahead. You can't shut off wind or current.
Wrong: Any downwind or down-current approach is dangerous and should be avoided if possible.
Right: Go downwind or down current of the dock space and turn around so that the boat is now heading into the wind or current. Make the approach as in technique #4 above.
Situation #6: Backing.
Boats are intrinsically a one-direction vehicle: forward. Even the most docile craft will become truculent in reverse. Learning to back is the hardest skill in boat handling.
Wrong: The skipper remains seated at the helm, looking over one shoulder as the vessel proceeds backwards.
Right: The skipper stands to one side of the wheel, steering from the top of the wheel. In this position the skipper's natural inclination to turn the steering wheel in the desired direction will be rewarded. No boat will back in a straight line without some steering. The amount of "helm," or turning, required varies from boat to boat and with the amount of wind or current present. As a general rule, the bow will blow downwind.
Situation #7: Turning in a narrow channel.
Boats with a single propeller on a fixed propshaft, such as waterski boats, always back to one side or the other. This is a result of sideways thrust from the propeller. Stern-drive powerboats do not have this handling quirk. Boats with right-hand rotating propellers (in forward gear) back to port. This knowledge helps when operating a single-screw vessel making maneuvers in tight spots.
Wrong: The skipper turns the boat to the left in the narrow channel, then attempts to back to starboard. Instead, the boat goes almost straight backward. This requires another turn to port in forward and a second or third backing to get the boat turned.
Right: The skipper first turns to starboard. Then, the boat with its right-hand screw is backed to port. Because of sideways pressure from the prop, the boat makes a nice arc to its left in reverse. Reversing the helm to a slight right turn, the skipper moves forward, having completed the maneuver with the least amount of shifting and steering.
(Note: If your boat has a left-hand propeller, you would first turn left. Backing would be done to starboard so that sideways pressure causes the boat to make an arc to its right.)
Boat driving isn't magic and it requires no extraordinary talent. Applying the basics will help you stay out of trouble and maximize your pleasure, which is what powerboating is all about.