First-time boat owner? Learn these skills

4th July 2021

First-time boat owner? Learn these skills

So you’re about to buy your first boat. It’s an exciting time. Soon you’ll be off on some wonderful boating adventures. Before you skip to the fun part, you’ll want to learn some essential boating skills, to make sure you can handle your vessel in all situations. Let’s look at them.

Towing, launching, and retrieving your boat

If you’re buying a trailerable boat, you’ll need to learn how to tow her, launch her, and retrieve her. These are not difficult skills to master, but you need to understand the principles behind them. Watch some tutorials online and read about the topic, or get a friend to teach you. 

Once you’ve got a handle on it, pick a quiet boat ramp where to carefully try everything out.

Docking and storing your boat

Docking a boat can be a stressful situation. Tight harbours or windy days can make things difficult. An inexperienced crew can lead to a chaotic situation on deck. The best way to prevent this is to practice docking in calm conditions and explain your plan to everyone on board before you get to the marina. 

If you’re not confident docking yet, watch some videos or get an instructor to guide you for a few hours. It’s important you know how to handle each situation safely, as you could injure people on the dock or damage other boats.

You’ll also want to read up on how to correctly store your boat - whether it’s for a week on a dock or for the winter in a yard. An unassisted boat that’s not well-secured could hit other boats in a storm. And you could find some nasty surprises aboard (such as a torn headsail) after the off-season, if you don’t know how to prep your boat for winter in a yard.

Boat maintenance

It’s wise to learn to take care of your boat, because something will eventually break while you’re at sea or in a remote anchorage. 

Below are some of the skills you may want to pick up, especially if you plan to go on a long cruise:

  • boat electrics

  • engine servicing and troubleshooting

  • outboard servicing and troubleshooting

  • antifouling

  • instruments troubleshooting

  • running rigging replacement (for sailboats)

  • standing rigging maintenance (for sailboats)

There’s also some optional gear you may install aboard, such as a watermaker and radar. Depending on how much you can rely on marine professionals to help, you might want to learn the basics of fixing these, too.

Navigating

Whether you’re getting a sailboat or a motorboat, you’ll need to master navigation. This involves recognising navigational aids, interpreting charts, knowing how to use a compass, and more. You won’t be able to boat safely, otherwise. 

For this reason, we recommend you take a course. Every country has its own recognised boating qualifications, such as the ASA (American Sailing Association) 101 and the ICC (International Certificate of Competency) in Europe.

Understanding marine weather forecasts

Being able to interpret marine weather forecasts is essential to boating safely. This is because the conditions at sea influence a boat’s journey a lot. Things can get dangerous out there. 

There’s a lot to learn on the topic if you’re completely new to it. Sometimes even an experienced skipper doesn’t consider a small factor (such as swell direction), which could make a boat trip rather gnarly. Before planning a day out on the water, sit down and take the time to inspect the forecast fully.

You’ll need to check:

  1. the wind

  2. currents

  3. tides 

  4. the waves and swell’s direction and height

  5. fog and visibility

  6. sun or rain.

Each of these items affects the conditions somehow. For a more detailed guide on how to read marine weather forecasts, head over to this article.

Using the VHF radio

In most countries, to take a boat with a VHF radio on it out to sea, you’ll need to have a license. Do take the time to sit the exam and memorise all the important jargon. The VHF is the most widely used and essential piece of communication on a boat in case of an emergency. You can alert all vessels in your area, as well as the Coastguard, through it. It’s a good idea to teach your crew the basics and hang up a sheet with key phrases near the radio. Panic can erase your memory temporarily.

Anchoring

Lots of casual boaters think that successful anchoring is mostly luck. You just throw the anchor and chain into the sea, reverse a little bit, and hope you’ll stay put. The truth is that there’s a very simple technique to anchoring and you can almost always tell if you did it properly. However, for some reason, many boaters don’t anchor correctly and all boaties seem to hate re-anchoring, even those with a windlass. 

Follow these simple steps: 

  1. Pick a good spot with enough swinging room

  2. head into the wind 

  3. stop the boat

  4. let the anchor down

  5. once it reaches the seabed, start reversing very slowly (or drift) 

  6. in the meantime, let the chain out slowly - don’t let it pile on itself

  7. once you have let out the right chain to depth scope (usually 5 to 1), stop

  8. let the boat sit to make sure you’re far enough from obstacles and other boats

  9. wait until you’re sitting against the wind again

  10. start reversing, slowly building the revs up to about 1,500-2,000 to dig the anchor in

  11. check that the anchor is holding while reversing by watching the shore. 

Don’t rush the process. Dragging anchor can lead to beaching, damaging other boats, being blown out to sea, and more. Trusting your anchor will allow you to sleep well at night.

If you want to understand anchoring, we wrote an article all about it.

Being flexible

Finally, you’ll need to learn to be patient and flexible. Plans change all the time on a boat, mainly due to the weather. You can easily master all the practical skills you need to be a good boater in a season or two. But flexibility is what will allow you to make the safest decision. 

Going out to sea when the forecast isn’t good because you made plans with friends is never a good idea. Learn to adjust plans to stay safe and have fun.

Boating skills FAQ

We collected the three most popular questions about the skills you need to go boating.

What does every boat owner need?

The local laws of the country you’re in dictate the mandatory equipment needed to boat. Almost anywhere in the world, you’ll need: life jackets, fire extinguishers, a flashlight, first aid kit, an air horn, flares, a VHF radio, and more.

What is the most important skill to know while sailing?

Understanding how to use the wind to your advantage and how it affects the yacht is the number one skill to develop. Get familiar with the points of sail and be mindful of where the wind comes from at all times.

How can I be a better sailor?

Stay humble, keep learning new things. There’s so much to learn about boating and the way the sea behaves. If you stay humble and cautious, you will avoid dangerous situations.

Please make sure you research the local regulations for mandatory equipment and maintenance of the watercraft you intend to buy. These vary in each state and country.