How to safely change direction on a boat
10th November 2021 Elena Manighetti
Changing direction on a boat is fairly simple, especially on a motorboat in open water. However, the US Coastguard 2020 Recreational Boating Statistics report shows that it’s currently the third most common type of vessel operation at the time of an accident.
1,021 vessels involved in an accident in the US in 2020 were changing direction when it happened. This led to 58 deaths and 491 injuries. All of these tragedies were easily preventable.
In this article, we look at how to safely change direction on a boat. It’s not difficult, but you need to remember some key rules when doing it.
General rules for all watercraft
No matter what type of watercraft you’re on, some essential rules always apply. It doesn’t matter if you’re aboard a kayak, a PWC, or a sailboat.
Scan the area around you
Before you make a decision on when and where to turn, you need to fully scan the area around you, including the horizon. Check that there are no obstacles in the direction you want to head towards. Then look around you to check on incoming watercraft in your vicinity. This means looking behind you, too. If it all looks clear, you can start preparing to turn.
You will need to do this again once you are ready to turn, as some vessels can travel extremely fast and can suddenly appear near you out of nowhere. If you are in doubt about the speed and direction in which a boat is travelling, put off turning until you figure it out.
Know the COLREGs
The rules of the road are slightly different on boats and you need to know them, in order to change direction safely.
COLREGs are a set of regulations for navigation, valid throughout the world. Their purpose is to avoid collisions at sea, which can often be fatal. For example, when two motorboats cross paths, the one on starboard is called the stand-on vessel and needs to maintain course and speed. The other one will need to alter course to avoid it. However, if a sailboat under sail crosses paths with a speedboat, it becomes the stand-on vessel.
We wrote a whole article about COLREGs here. Knowing when to give way and what other boaters expect of you is crucial to preventing accidents when turning on a boat.
Don’t keep changing direction
If you can, avoid changing direction often, for no reason. The boats around you will get confused and won’t know what to expect from you. Plus, you will increase your chances of colliding with another vessel, because you may become less and less careful when scanning the area around you.
Know Aids To Navigation
Unless you’re going out in a small engineless craft, such as a kayak, in a non-marked area, you need to recognise the most important Aids To Navigation (ATONs). These are visible, audible, and electronic symbols that help a boater navigate dangerous waters and congested areas. By understanding the meaning of most ATONs, you will be able to avoid hitting submerged objects and know how to behave in a channel or in shipping lanes.
Need to refresh your ATONs knowledge? Check out this blog post.
Understand how wind and currents affect a boat
When changing direction close to shore, in busy areas, or in tight quarters, you’ll need to bear in mind how the wind and currents affect your boat. You may need to counteract a strong breeze coming from the direction you want to turn into or prevent the tide from pushing you towards the middle of a channel.
Let’s look at advice for specific watercraft.
Changing direction on motorboats with a wheel is very similar to driving a car. The main difference is that, when you do it at high speed, the boat will back in and lose speed.
Before starting a sharp turn, alert the crew and invite them to hold on to the boat. If you feel the boat skipping across the surface or feel like you’re losing control, back on on the throttle immediately. Remember to trim your outboard or stern drive down to avoid blowing out the prop when the boat backs in.
Turning on a PWC is easy - simply accelerate and turn the handlebars in the direction you want to head towards by pulling down on either side of them. Remember that a jet ski needs to accelerate in order to change direction and that it does not drift as much as larger vessels.
While turning on a PWC is very easy, you need to make sure you follow all the general rules we discussed above when you’re out on a jet ski. Don’t rely on other boaters to avoid you - they may not have time to do it if they are travelling fast.
Changing direction on a sailboat is a little more complicated. If you need to turn into the wind, you’ll have to tack by turning the bow into the wind. If instead, you’re turning downwind, you’ll need to gybe by bringing the stern through the wind. Both methods involve moving the sails onto the opposite side of the boat they are on.
Given the fairly long process it takes to tack and gybe, you will need to scan the area around you and the horizon multiple times before committing to the manoeuvre. A speedboat could suddenly appear behind you and try to overtake you just as you’re about to gybe. One last scan before grabbing the wheel or tiller is crucial.
Each type of engineless craft uses a different method to change direction, which usually entails using a paddle or an oar to turn the boat. While you have right of way over any other vessels, it’s useful to know the COLREGs and ATONs. You may need to go through a marked channel and other boats may not see you in the open sea.