How To Drive Boats for Beginners
Driving a boat is a bit more complicated than riding a bike. It is, however, arguably a lot less complicated than driving a car.
You may find yourself thinking your way through everything your first few times out. Soon, however, everything will become second nature.
You can speed this process along by familiarizing yourself with this guide.
Driving a boat includes registering the boat, carrying safety gear, pre-departure inspection, turning the engine on and off, steering, acceleration, and docking.
The Basics of Boat Registration
Boat registration requirements vary according to location. In the U.S. you need to register your boat in the state where you keep it. This may or may not be the state where you live. You might also want to register your boat with the U.S. Coastguard. This will cover you for federal waters. Registrations often need to be renewed. If so, make sure to renew in good time.
How Old Do You Have To Be To Drive a Boat?
The legal answer will vary from place to place. Assuming your child is old enough under the law then the practical answer depends on the boat and the child. Ideally, any child under the age of 18 should always be accompanied by an adult. Realistically, there can be some flexibility here particularly with older teenagers.
The Importance of Safety
When it comes to driving a boat, there are five main precautions you need to take.
Firstly, you need to make sure that the weather is safe. This is really the most important precaution of all. It’s particularly important when you’re new to driving a boat. If the weather takes an unexpected bad turn while you are out on the water, you should head to shore immediately.
Secondly, you need to turn on your ventilation blowers before starting the main exhaust. The manufacturer will give a recommended time for this. In general, however, you’ll need to run them for a few minutes to clear any fumes.
Thirdly, you need to make sure that you have the right safety gear on board and that everyone knows how to use it in the right way. In particular, you’ll probably find that your boat has an engine safety cut-off (usually called a kill switch). If so, you need to clip the key onto a loop in your lifejacket.
Fourthly, make sure that you only load up your boat within its limits. Overloading a boat will make it harder to handle and this can quickly become a safety hazard. Most boats will have a capacity plate on them. Respect what it says.
Fifthly, always undertake a pre-departure inspection.
How to do a pre-departure inspection
A pre-departure inspection makes sure that your vessel is safe and that you have all the equipment you need.
- Check your navigation lights, marine gps navigation, and instrument lights.
- Make sure your fuel tank is full and if possible carry extra fuel.
- Check your fluids (oil and coolant)
- Make sure you have carbon monoxide detectors in all (semi-)enclosed areas.
- Make sure there is sufficient ventilation in any cooking/heating areas.
- Check and if necessary clean the bilges.
- Check the condition of your anchor and dock lines.
- Check your power and if you have a selector switch, check it is in the right position.
- Life Jackets – you must have at least one per passenger with a minimum of two onboard. In some states, children under 13 must wear life jackets at all times. Best practice is that all passengers wear life jackets at all times. In fact, if you’re having dogs on board, they should have life jackets too.
- Whistles – at least one for each life jacket
- Throwable Floating Device – this is required for vessels over 16 feet and strongly advisable for all vessels.
- Horn – Check your horn regularly. It is a vital signaling device in low visibility and emergency situations.(also keep a spare air can if relevant)
- Flashlight – at least one for each life jacket
- First Aid Kit – Treating abrasions and small cuts is more common than you might think. Fishing with sharp hooks and cleaning fish with sharp knives can lead to smaller punctures and hopefully small cuts. Fully stocked first aid kits can be purchased in order to treat these types of injuries but always add items at your discretion. (including suncream and aftersun lotion)
- Tool Kit and Spares – Having the tools to perform minor maintenance or even emergency repairs at sea can be a life saver, literally. Even if you don’t know how to get back under way, in an emergency help is just a radio call away. And maybe they can help you perform an easy repair that could help tremendously.
- Signaling Device – Your signaling devices should include a number of different options. Flares make an excellent visual cue for rescuers in an emergency, as does a suitable fog horn and handheld air horn. But everyday communication is also a vital part of avoiding accidents as well as following the laws and protocols of coastal and inland waterways. Maintaining the lighting on your boat as well as staying up to snuff on radio communications is helpful, but also is part of your duty as a responsible boat owner.
- Fire Extinguisher – Boat fires happen every year. Accidental fires due to everyday activities or fuel leaks are an unfortunate reality, but more often than not they are easily stopped with a simple fire extinguisher. Your fire extinguisher arrangements will depend on the size of your boat, and you might even need multiple extinguishers to cover areas like a kitchen or an engine room.
- Ropes – A good supply of suitable rope is very smart to keep on board. Ropes get used hard and left out in very adverse conditions for long periods of time. Replacing old, tattered, and fraying boating rope is not only very common, but also a vital safety issue in some situations. Look around your boat and stock a backup supply of the various sizes of rope in use on your watercraft.
- Knife – sharp knives in the kitchen are important for food preparation, but for our purposes we are referring to a reliable emergency knife, or knives, that are set aside as part of a tool kit, or emergency kit. Morakniv makes very reputable fixed blade knives in stainless steel to help resist long-term use on the humid and salty environment of recreational boating.
- VHF Marine Radio – Taking responsibility for the guests on board your vessel is a continual priority. Owning and properly operating a marine radio is a vital part of boat ownership and use. VHF marine radios allow you to contact other boats, reach out for emergency needs, and stay informed on weather reports. As a boat owner, all of these are essential duties to prioritize in order to keep your passengers safe.
- Fenders and extra dock lines – When you need to dock your boat the last thing you want is potential damage to your expensive investment from ineffective boat fenders and dock bumpers. Or to be forced to use frayed dock lines that might potentially become unsafe and cause additional damage.
- *Day shapes – Day shapes are basically geometric shapes that can be used in place of lights in the daytime. Technically they are optional. In practice, they are so useful so often it generally makes sense to keep them on board all the time.
Obviously, undertaking checks and carrying equipment is only useful if you know what you are doing. It is therefore strongly advisable to do thorough reading on boat safety. You might also want to consider doing some watercraft safety training.
Parts of a Boat
The bow and the stern are the front and back sides of a boat. The back portion of a boat is called the aft. The port is the left side and the starboard is the right side (it has two rs in it). The distance between the two sides of a boat is called the beam.
Starting and Stopping The Engine
Assuming you have a regular outboard motor, starting it is now pretty easy. Generally, you just need to tilt the engine down and turn the key. Reverse the procedure to stop it. If a modern engine doesn’t start, the chances are that either the kill switch is on or the throttle needs to be put into neutral. If a modern engine doesn’t stop easily, the chances are that it’s damaged.
If your boat’s engine is older (i.e. old enough to have a carburetor), it’s advisable just to get a new one. It will be more reliable, more economical and easier to work. If you can’t do that, then get the details of your engine and search for any known issues and how to resolve them. It’s advisable to keep notes of this in your boat.
In principle, steering a boat works in exactly the same way as steering a car. In practice, the influence of wind and waves can make the experience very different. This probably won’t matter too much in open water but it can matter a lot if the water is crowded. It will certainly matter when docking. That’s why it helps to have fenders and extra dock lines.
Acceleration and deceleration also work in much the same way as on a car. There are, however, a couple of key differences. Firstly, with a boat, you can use the throttle to set a speed. You don’t have to keep your hand on it as you do with pedals in a car.
This has the advantage of allowing you to get up and move. It does, however, mean that the onus is on you to get back to the throttle in time to make any necessary adjustments. This is easy enough; it just requires you to stay awake and aware of what is happening around you.
Secondly, in a boat, you can only decelerate, you can’t brake like you can in a car. Again, this shouldn’t be a problem. You just need to stay aware of what is happening around you.
Check Out This Comprehensive Boating Tutorial
It takes a bit of practice to learn how to drive a boat but most people grasp it very quickly. It’s certainly worth the effort for the fun and freedom boats offer you.