How to drive a boat

How to Drive a Boat

Written by Boatsetter Team
June 10, 2021

When you are first getting started in the boating world, you are probably the most curious about how you drive a boat. Learning to drive a boat may seem like a daunting prospect, but you can get the hang of it very easily in most cases. So, let’s take a look at how you can become a master of the waves in no time at all!

Where to Begin

How to practice driving a boat

Think about your first lesson driving a car. Did your driving instructor take you straight to the highway and throw you in the deep end? No, you more than likely started in a parking lot so that you could work out the basic maneuvers before mixing in on the public roads. You should apply this when you start off boating. Choose a fairly quiet area near the marina and take your boat around slowly and steadily. From here, you can build your way up slowly as you gradually get used to the controls.

Choose the body of water that you practice out on wisely. We recommend an inland lake as a great starting point. Here the weather is more predictable, the water is calmer, and you tend to be able to find a quiet spot fairly easily. Going straight out to the sea the first time you drive a boat may be an unwise plan unless you are accompanied by someone very experienced. Of course, it is best to have an experienced person with you no matter what body of water you are on. It’s great to have someone alongside you to show you the ropes and to explain everything. As well as that, they should have the know-how of what to do if something were to go wrong.

It is also recommended that you undergo some form of training before you set out on a boat. The majority of states require you to undertake a boating safety course before you are allowed to get out behind the boat’s wheel. These can be completed in person or online. As well as this, there are various schools where you can get proper instruction on how to operate and drive a boat correctly. To find an approved boating safety course visit Boat US.  As a boat operator having the best possible education is essential for a safe and fun day out on the water.

For those of you who want to get serious about boating and make a career out of it, then we recommend that you get yourself a captain’s license. With this, you’ll be able to take out paying customers onto the water and run your boat charter tours.

How do Boats Function?

Boat horsepower

Before you get to the point of driving a boat, you, first of all, need to understand how boats function as you are, of course, aware that boats float. But do you know how they float? A boat needs to have positive buoyancy to stay afloat on the water’s surface. Essentially a boat or any object will sink if it weighs more than the same volume of water.

The boat is supported in the water by something called upward thrust. Water is pretty dense, and it is essentially impossible to compress. Its high density gives it a large weight that allows it to bring forth multitudes of pressure. Water pushes outward in every direction; the pressure is balanced in every other direction except upward where the boat is sitting. This is the essence of what allows objects to float, thus giving us the beauty of recreational boating.

Now, as you are probably aware, this means that there is a delicate balance that must be created for your boat to stay afloat. Part of your boat is submerged within the water and is not visible. You may have seen boats in the harbor that have been taken out of the water, showing off a lot more space than you would think when you’re observing them in the water. The more weight put on board a boat, the further into the water it submerges, and if you put too much weight on it, it shall not float and will instead sink.

Unless you are taking out a sailboat as your boat rental, your boat is powered by a propeller engine. This engine is either an outboard engine or an inboard engine. An outboard engine is typically found aboard smaller crafts such as skiffs at the rear of the boat. The propeller is submerged in the water while the engine is propped out with the water. These tend to be controlled by hand, using a tiller to move the propeller from side to side to change the boat’s direction. Some, however, are connected up the boat’s steering wheel, which is located at the helm of the boat.

On the other hand, inboard engines are built into the bottom of the boat’s hull and thus are not viewable if the boat is in the water. These tend to be placed upon larger vessels. The propeller works by spinning in a circle in the water, which thrusts the boat forward. The intensity of how fast the propeller spins is controlled by the throttle of the boat’s engine. The more power you give to the throttle, the faster the propellers will turn, and thus your boat shall move faster.

Let’s take a look at the steps you need to take before setting off into the water.

One of the things that you’ll notice that is different is that a boat has a kill switch. This is a small red knob that is located by the boat’s steering wheel or tiller. There is a wire attached to it, which you clip to your life vest or clothing. Should you leave the helm or fall overboard, this shall cut off the engine, so the boat stops moving. It is perhaps the most important safety feature of a boat. Should you fall overboard while manning the tiller at the stern, then the boat shall stop, and you can quickly swim back and jump aboard. If it were not for the kill switch, the boat would continue to race away, and you would be stuck in the water. The boat could continue on its course and crash into another boat or onto dry land, causing damage and chaos. Thus, you must attach yourself to the kill switch before you start the engine.

how to drive a boat-throttle

The next step is to start the engine. Most of the time, this will be a simple press of a button or the switch of a key to trigger the ignition. Often smaller boats will have a pull-cord which you need to tug strongly, perhaps several times to kick-start the engine into action. Make sure that the gear is in ‘neutral’ before you attempt this. Once the engine is running, your boat is ready to get moving.

Switch the gear from neutral into first and slowly and carefully rev the throttle. The boat shall move forward, and you’ve made your first big step towards driving your boat rental. If you are using a tiller system, you use your hand to move the direction of the tiller handle, which changes the rudder’s position. It may take a little bit of getting used to as you need to move the tiller in the opposite direction of where you want to move. After a bit of experimenting in a quiet body of water, you’re bound to get the hang of it quickly.

If your boat has a steering wheel at the helm, you use it similarly as you would for a car. You turn this wheel in the direction you would like to go and it will take you that way. Again, find yourself a quiet spot to get the hang of it before heading into a busier area.

How to Stop Your Boat

Before you start getting up to breakneck speeds, you need to know how to take your vessel to a stop. Unlike an automobile, a boat has no brake system, so other techniques must be utilized to bring it to a halt. The truth is that you can never really bring a boat to a halt because it is in the water, which is constantly moving. A car will not move once the handbrake is on. On the other hand, a boat shall start to drift in the water once the engine is off. This is why boats must be strongly secured with ropes when it is docked in the marina.

So let’s take a more detailed look at how to bring your boat to a stop. First of all, you need to be aware of your surroundings when you are on a boat since bringing it to a stop can be difficult, especially if you are moving fast. So keep a sharp eye on the horizon to see what is ahead and to see if any other boats may come close to you. If they are, then slow the engine down a touch to have as little chance of contact as possible.

The first step of bringing your boat to a stop is to stop acceleration. It is recommended that you gradually make your stop calmer and more comfortable for other people onboard. If you suddenly stop the engine, the boat may lurch and rock, causing people to perhaps trip depending on the conditions, rough water is not ideal for this type of stop. However, if the situation is critical, you should kill the engine either by taking all power away from the throttle or taking out the kill switch. This is not as ideal as a more controlled stop, but it must be done at times to avoid a potential boating accident.

Another tip to stop quickly is to switch into reverse gear. This shall cause the propeller to turn in the opposite direction, thus turning the direction of the water flow. This will stop the boat the quickest in most cases, but you must practice switching down the gears into reverse as fast as possible to achieve this. Another tip to stop your boat quickly is to turn the steering to one side; this will cause the boat to drift sideways and bring it to a stop. This is similar to when you do a handbrake turn on a car bringing it to a skidding halt. However, be careful when using this technique because if you violently turn it when going fast, it could cause the watercraft to jolt and perhaps flip. You should always have the appropriate amount of life jackets on board just in case the boat were to flip.

Another pointer for you is to keep a close eye on your wake. This is the stream of water you will see if you look to the rear of the boat, created by the boat’s propeller. Depending on how powerful your engine is and how fast you are going, the wake left in your boat’s drift will be bigger. If it is big, then you need to be mindful of other boats nearby as the back drift creates waves that will rock smaller boats that you pass by. So, if you are in a busier area, be mindful not to go too fast, not only because of a potential collision but from when you pass the boats ‘safely’. They might not be too pleased after their boat is left rocking from side-to-side after you fly past!

Final Verdict:

That is more or less the basics of how to drive a boat that has a standard engine. As a recreational boater need to know how to turn it on, steer it, reverse it, and stop. Practice is key to learning this, but most people should get the hang of it very quickly. It is of the utmost importance that you stay aware of the other boats in the area and the effect that your boat can have on them if you are not considerate. So, take it easy at first and practice with a small motor boat or pontoon boat. Find a quiet spot to practice before you go full throttle, and enjoy your boating adventures!

Browse by experience

Explore articles