Improve your boat handling with these tips

2nd May 2022 Elena Manighetti

Improve your boat handling with these tips

New and experienced boaters alike can benefit from improving their boat handling skills. Just because you’ve never hit the dock or ran aground, it doesn’t mean you know all there is to learn. With boating and the sea, there’s always something new and useful to understand.

Most boaters use their engine to overcome any problems. While this tactic often works on vessels with a powerful engine, there will be times when it won’t get you out of a sticky situation. You need to know how to use the wind and current in your favour and to steer efficiently. Your boat will thank you for it. 

Here are Deckee's top tips will help you better your steering control. 

Taking turns on a boat

Boats steer from the stern and pivot. This is the opposite of what happens on cars; that’s why your instincts are all wrong at first. When you turn the wheel or tiller, the rudder, outdrive, or outboard swivels at the stern and pushes it in the opposite direction. 

This is why when you take a turn, you need room on the outside of a turn, rather than the inside. You won’t notice this difference in open water, but in close quarters, it’s crucial.

boat handling

Low speed boat handling

At low speed, the wind pushes the bow off course, while the current drags the stern off course. You need to bear this in mind, especially when you’re near other boats or in a marina. 

Two forces steer a boat - the wash from the spinning prop and the rudder slicing through the water. These two forces work together when you’re in forward or reverse gear, giving you both speed and direction. 

When you put the engine in neutral, the prop stops spinning, but you retain some control over your direction thanks to the rudder. The slower you go, the less you retain control of the steering. 

The boat reacts better when the prop is turning. So when you’re operating your boat at low speed, you need to time your gear shift well. If you do it too soon (or too late) or turn the wheel or tiller too late (or too soon), you may lose control.

boat handling

Using prop walk to your advantage

Prop walk is that sideway force at the stern, caused by the spinning of the prop, which prevents the boat from going perfectly straight. Its direction depends on which way the prop spins. A right-hand prop spins clockwise in forward and a left-hand prop spins counterclockwise. So a right-hand prop in forward gear will lead the boat to starboard; in reverse it will lead it to port. The opposite happens for a left-hand prop.

Sometimes, you can use prop walk to your advantage while docking. If your prop walk pushes you to port, approach the dock port-side-to. If your walk pushes you to starboard, approach the dock starboard-side-to. Come gently alongside with your bow angled towards the dock. When you’re about half a metre (2ft) from the dock, put the boat in reverse at half throttle. The boat should stop and the stern should be pushed towards the dock. It’s so much easier to get onto the dock from here and you will look like a pro.

Steering a straight course

To steer straight, first you need to centre your wheel. This is very simple. Simply turn the wheel all the way to one side, then, counting each turn, turn it hard the other way. Divide the number of turns into two to know where the centre is. 

It’s common practice to oversteer a boat. If the vessel doesn’t go straight when the wheel or tiller is in the centre, you instinctively adjust it, so you can head in your desired direction. The key to staying on course is to make quick adjustments, rather than holding the turn for too long. 

To improve your steering:

  • Centre the wheel

  • Put the boat into forward at idle

  • Aim for a distant object while keeping an eye on the bow

  • When the bow turns to one side, make quick pulses in the opposite direction.

Oversteering may not sound like a big deal, but if you’re boating in a tidal channel and you hold your turns for too long, your course will likely be off. It will be hard to get to your destination once the tide changes.

boat handling

Turn more efficiently

To make your turns more efficient, make sure you place the wheel in the direction you need it to be before you shift gears. This will reduce your turning radius, which is crucial when manoeuvring in close quarters.

To know how efficiently you turn, bear in mind that, in theory, you should be able to perform a 180-degree turn in a little more than a boat length.


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