How To Drive A Boat: Basic Boat Handling

Driving a boat can be a fun and enjoyable activity, but it is important to understand the proper techniques and follow all safety guidelines to ensure a safe and pleasant experience. Here are some general steps for driving a boat:

  1. Before getting on the boat, make sure you have all necessary safety equipment, such as life jackets and a fire extinguisher.
  2. Familiarize yourself with the controls of the boat. This will typically include a throttle for accelerating and decelerating, a steering wheel or handle for turning, and possibly additional controls for things like the bilge pump and navigation lights.
  3. Check the weather forecast and water conditions before setting out. Avoid boating in rough or stormy conditions.
  4. If you are driving a motorboat, start the engine according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
  5. If you are driving a sailboat, hoist the sails and adjust them according to the wind direction.
  6. When you are ready to depart, slowly and carefully maneuver the boat away from the dock or shore. Use the throttle and steering to control the speed and direction of the boat.
  7. Follow all relevant laws and regulations, including speed limits and rules for navigating in traffic.
  8. Always be aware of your surroundings and look out for other boats, as well as hazards such as rocks or shallow water.
  9. When you are ready to dock or beach the boat, reduce your speed and approach the shore slowly. Make sure to have someone on the shore or dock to assist with mooring or beaching the boat.

Driving A Motorized Vessel

For a more in-depth look at driving and operating a motorized vessel, Boat Trader has covered a lot more boating basics for a beginner to study and learn. Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to learn to how to drive a trailerable recreational boat. In fact, these days even medium to larger yachts between 30-60 feet have become simpler to drive (thanks to modern innovations like joystick controls, bow thrusters, assisted docking systems, Volvo IPS systems and GPS systems) making them ideal “owner operated” vessels. However, it’s best to start on a small boat until you gradually gain enough confidence to work your way up in size and power, and you’ll certainly want to take a boating course or two along the way.

Beyond that, become familiar with these simple but critical boat maneuvers:

bayliner m17 running
New boaters are usually most comfortable starting off with a relatively small boat, like this Bayliner M17. Photo via Marine Center of Indiana.

Starting A Boat and Leaving the Slip or Marina

Starting a boat isn’t all that different from starting up your car, but there are a few additional key points to keep in mind.

  • Turn the battery switch on (typically located inside a hatch or on a console).
  • If your boat has an enclosed engine compartment, run the exhaust blower as per the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Turn the key or press the button, as appropriate, to start the engine.
  • If you have an outboard engine, check the tell-tale (the visible water discharge on the motor) to make sure water is flowing as it should. Sometimes the tell-tale can become clogged by salt crystals or detritus; spinning a length of fishing line between your fingers while running it up the discharge hole will often break it free.
  • Attach the emergency cut-off switch (ECOS) lanyard on a life jacket ring or belt loop. The ECOS switch stops the engine in the event of the helmsperson being thrown out of their seat.
  • Make sure all your gear and passengers are aboard and secure.
  • Look around and take note of the wind speed and direction, and if there’s any significant current you may need to account for. Work out what the elements are doing before you move the boat. 
  • Cast off the lines, shift the throttle into gear, and let the adventure begin… slowly. Remember that your wake affects other boaters, and in marinas or around docks speed should be kept minimal.
boat leaving marina
Idle slowly away from the docks and other boats, so you don’t rock them with a wake. Photo via Lenny Rudow.

Steering A Boat

Steering a boat is more or less like steering a car: turn the wheel left to make the boat turn to port, and turn it right to make the boat turn to starboard. There is, however, one important difference in that boats don’t have the benefit of rubber touching the road, so they get shoved around by environmental influences. Remember how we recommended you take note of the wind and current? That’s because those forces can constantly move your boat around. As a result, while steering the boat you may have to apply more or less wheel to get the desired result.

Another factor that can change a boat’s reaction to input from the wheel is thrust. When you steer, the entire lower unit of an outboard or stern drive turns. This directs the propeller’s thrust, which provides much of your steering control. So a boat moving at a fast pace may carve out a tight turn when you spin the wheel, but at very slow speeds, the same boat might take a significantly larger area to make the turn. On many boats, a slight increase in thrust can help the boat turn a lot faster.

mercury outboard on a sea ray
Since outboards (and stern drives) enjoy the benefit of directed thrust, they may be easier to steer when going fast as opposed to at idle. Photo via Sea Ray Boats.

On inboard boats and sailboats, steering is provided by the force of water passing across a rudder. Thrust can have a similar impact in this case since adding power means more water is washing against the rudder, but always remember that in reverse these types of boats won’t steer very well at all, because the propeller’s thrust doesn’t pass across the rudder. See Inboard Versus Outboard: The Next Boat You’ll Buy, to learn more of the differences between driving boats with these different propulsion systems.

Speeding Up And Slowing Down

Rather than the gas pedal found in a car, the throttle for a boat is usually operated by hand (some bass boats are an exception). To speed up, you simply push the throttle forward. To slow down pull it back. And to shift into reverse, pull it back even farther. But remember not to pull the throttle right through neutral and into reverse, which can cause transmission damage.

An even more important item to remember is to make changes to the throttle slowly whenever possible. Abrupt increases in speed or sudden slow-downs can cause gear and/or people to side across the deck or fall down. Before advancing the throttle it’s always a good idea to warn everyone aboard so they know to hold on. And if you have to suddenly slow down, shout out a warning as you do so.

caymas 34 running
When moving at fast speeds everyone should be holding on, but it’s always a good idea to give warning before making any abrupt changes at the throttle. Photo via Lenny Rudow.

Trimming A Boat

Your boat’s “trim” is essentially its running attitude – bow down, level, or bow up. On boats with trimmable drives or those with trim tabs, you can adjust the trim to get the best ride and the most efficiency. There’s also side-to-side trim, which can be adjusted with tabs or in some cases outboards, if you have multiple engines spaced well apart.

The tough part about trimming a boat is that there’s no one “correct” trim setting. Slightly negative trim (trimmed down) is best for getting up on plane, but once the boat is up and running, trimming the drive up a bit usually increases speed and efficiency. Plus, the ideal trim setting will be affected by variables like sea conditions and weight distribution. On top of that, on smaller boats once you find the ideal trim setting it can change with a weight shift as small as a person moving from one side of the boat to the other. The bottom line? It’s best to play with the trim regularly, while feeling for the difference in how the boat reacts to waves and watching the gauges to see if fuel economy improves (or drops) as you adjust it up and down. Just know that if conditions change or people move, you may have to start the process all over again.

Handling Large Waves

The best way to handle large waves is to avoid them in the first place – if the weatherman is calling for gusty winds and high seas, postpone the trip for another day. Of course, there may be times you’re caught unawares, or a big yacht goes by and sends a monster wave rolling at you. In that case, the best way to minimize wave impact is simply slowing down. You can further reduce impact by hitting large waves with the bow at a 45-degree angle. You may also want to adjust trim and/or power a bit, to make sure the bow stays high as it meets the waves.

boat hitting a wave
When crossing a large wave, approaching at at a 45-degree angle and reducing speed will minimize the impact. Photo via Lenny Rudow.

Docking A Boat 

Docking can be very different depending on whether you have a twin or single engine boat. But since we’re mostly concerned with relatively small boats and new boaters, we’ll keep things simple and focus mostly on single engines for the moment.

Above: Ryan McVinney with Boat Trader and Captain Jeff Lagrew with America’s Boating Club along with Brad Heil from Intermarine walk through the basics of how to dock a boat, including a step-by-step undocking and docking guide.

If the aim of the game here is to aim to dock your vessel parallel to the pier, follow this basic procedure:

  1. Prepare dock lines on your bow and stern and attach fenders the side of the boat that will be brought against the pier.
  2. When entering the marina, slowly approach the dock using a combination of forward gear and neutral, shifting in and out of gear to maintain minimal headway. Aim to approach the dock at a 30 to 45 degree angle. 
  3. When you are about a boat length away from the pier shift the engine into neutral.
  4. Turn the wheel all the way away from the pier.
  5. Shift into gear briefly, to swing the bow away from the pier and push the stern of the boat closer.
  6. Shift back to neutral and watch as the boat drifts in; make corrections using the wheel and apply power as necessary to reposition the boat until its sidled up against the pier.
pontoon boat docking
As the blue pontoon boat pulls in, a couple of crewmembers from the other boat came over to assist with handling the lines. No matter how experienced you are or are not it’s always nice to lend a hand to a fellow boater attempting to dock. Photo via Lenny Rudow.

If you’re backing into a slip, these are the steps:

  1. Pull forward perpendicular to the slip, about a boat length away from it.
  2. Stop with the helm even with the center of the slip and the engine in neutral. Then cut the wheel all the way away from the slip.
  3. Shift into gear long enough for the bow to swing out, aligning the stern of the boat with the slip.
  4. Shift into reverse, and back into the slip.

On twin engine boats, it’s often best to center the steering wheel and maneuver the boat entirely by using the throttles. By shifting one engine into forward and the other into reverse, you can usually spin a twin-engine boat in its own length. But remember, every boat is different – some are easy to control in this manner, and some are not.

outboard engines far apart
As a general rule, the farther the engines are spaced apart, the better a boat will handle when maneuvering with the throttles, only. Photo via Lenny Rudow.

Naturally, we’re making it sound a lot easier than it is in reality. In the real world, a gust of wind or a blast of current can throw you out of kilter even if you do everything perfectly. So, always be ready to make adjustments on the fly. Also, always remember the cardinal rule of docking a boat: never approach a pier, piling, or any other fixed object faster than you’re willing to hit it.

Editor’s Note: This article was last updated in January 2023.