How To Drive A Boat (Understanding The Mechanics)

Of every new skill I have learned, few are as notably amazing and potentially terrifying as the first time I drove a boat.  I was instantly hooked and eager to learn.  In fact, I am still learning and am now completing my captain’s ticket.  Most of what I know now, I really wish I knew earlier.

Every beginner needs to know these five primary aspects of driving a boat:

  1. Understanding the mechanics that move a boat
  2. Get Your Boat Moving
  3. Driving Out To Deep Water
  4. Steering A Course
  5. Driving Home
  6. Close Quarter Maneuvering

Introduction: The Basic Mechanics Of Driving A Boat

To not overcomplicate things, this article will focus on the skills and mechanics of driving a boat with dual motors.  Sailing is an entirely different ball game altogether, and vessels with single engines have slightly fewer mechanics to keep track of.  

The average boat has four driving mechanics that the skipper uses to control the vessel:

  • The rudder or direction of the motors in the case of outboard motors
  • The gears (either forward or reverse)
  • The throttle (in many cases, the throttle and gears are combined)
  • The trim tabs

To understand how to drive a boat effectively, you need to understand what these mechanisms do and how to use them.

The Rudder

The rudder is the primary steering mechanism of a boat.  Larger vessels with inboard motors (motors inside the boat) will use a rudder, while smaller boats and powerboats with outboard motors use the direction of the propellers as a rudder. 

When you turn the wheel on the boat, you turn the rudder, which creates drag at the stern of the boat, and, as a result, turns the bow. 

In the case of outboard motors, turning the wheel turns the motors in the same direction.  So, while the drag on the motors acts as a rudder, the significant change comes from changing the direction of the propeller’s force.  The engines push or pull the vessel’s stern at an angle, making the vessel turn.

The Gears And Throttle

The gears and throttle can be separate on larger vessels, but it is common to see them combined on smaller, outboard-driven boats. 

The two throttle and gear levers can either be pushed forward or pulled back, together or one at a time.  Moving these levers forward from the center, or neutral, position puts the motors into a forward propelling gear (ahead).  On the other hand, pulling them back puts them into reverse gear (astern). 

On vessels with a separate throttle, you would have an extra set of levers to control how fast the boat moves in the selected gear.  However, you simply need to push or pull the levers further to increase the speed of a combined system. 

The Trim Tabs

Up to this point, you may be thinking that the controls are about the same as a car with an automatic gearbox, but here are where things start to get a little bit more complex.

The trim tabs control plates at the vessel’s stern (inboard motors) or the height of the engines in the case of outboards. 

The drag and force will lower the boat’s bow by pushing the trim plates or motors further down.  Inversely, pulling them up will lift the bow. 

This is important in the open seas and lakes because, unlike a road, water is constantly moving, and you need to position the boat’s bow at a height that best approaches the moving surface.

Section 1 – Get Your Boat Moving

Now that you have a picture of the mechanics of a boat, it’s time to take her out!  Firstly, you need to get her moving.  I would suggest that if it is your first time driving a boat, you do so in the open water and later tackle leaving the harbor yourself as you gain experience.

Step 1:  Conduct Safety Checks

Before you set off, you need to ensure that you, your crew, and your vessel are ready and up to the task at hand.  Every owner/skipper typically has their own procedure for safety checks which usually includes checking:

  • All life jackets are dawned properly
  • The fuel tanks are full
  • There is water and food onboard for the journey
  • All emergency equipment such as flares and fire extinguishers are in working condition
  • Everybody on board is briefed on the voyage and what to do in the case of an emergency.

Step 2:  Start Your Engines

With the safety checks done and dusted, you can go ahead and attach your kill switch lanyard and start the motor.  Before turning the keys, make sure that the gears are in neutral and that there are no people or objects close to the engines and propellers.

Step 3:  Leave The Harbor

With your motors running, check that you are clear of obstacles around you and gently push your throttles forward.  The vessel may take a second or so to respond, be patient, and do not over accelerate – no one is going to be happy if you go racing into another boat. 

Driving a boat, especially in and out of the harbor, is tricky and involves understanding several rules, known as collision regulations (or “colregs” for short). 

Section 2 – Driving Out To Deep Water

After you leave the harbor, you will likely be faced with a situation of proceeding to deep waters.   For open seas and large lakes, this means going in the opposite direction of the waves, which can be intimidating in rougher conditions. 

Step 1:  Trim Your Bow Down

Here is where your trim starts coming into play.  Typically, if you are proceeding into the waves, with the swells approaching your bow, you need to trim your bow all the way down. 

The reason for lowering the bow is so that if a big wave suddenly pops up, you can punch the nose through the water instead of having the wave pick up the vessel’s bow and capsize you in a magnificent backflip.

You will be driving the boat up the face of the waves, and lowering the bow will help keep the boat’s weight balanced instead of shifting it to the stern, possibly tipping you over.

Step 2:  Approach The Swells At Right Angles

Always try and drive over a wave or swell as close as possible to right angles or head-on.  Doing so is the surest way of getting over the wave safely.  If you hit a wave at an angle, you run the risk of the wave picking up your boat and capsizing you over your beam (rolling you).

Step 3:  Carefully Control Your Speed

A way to think about speed when heading out is to approach the swells with confidence but not recklessness. 

If you use too little throttle, your vessel may be overpowered by the incoming swells.  In this case, the wave can pick up your boat, and then all manner of horrible things can happen. 

However, if you hit the wave too hard, you could find yourself literally flying off the other end of it, possibly damaging you, your boat, and your crew.  So instead, approach the wave with a decent speed and back off the throttle as soon you make contact.

Section 3:  Steering A Course

Usually, when you steer a course for the first time, you start to realize the effect of the water, current, and wind on your vessel.  Steering a course simply means driving from point A to point B, but elements can drastically affect your course.

Step 1:  Set A Course To Steer

To reach your destination, you need to be sure that you are driving your boat in the right direction.  Let’s assume that you have your destination fixed at straight East (compass) from your current location. 

You would turn your wheel until your compass line is 090 degrees, which would steer you on the right course. 

Step 2:  Adjust Your Speed And Trim

While driving your set course, you might find that your bow seems to be “sticking” or “digging” into the bottom of each wave and bump as you are driving.  If this happens, trim your bow up slightly until this digging stops.  Having your bow too low can also lead to increased splashing on board, making for a wet and uncomfortable ride. 

You then need to adjust your speed to find that comfortable sweet spot that isn’t so fast that you are losing control, but also not so slow that you’re making everyone seasick.

Step 3:  Check That You Remain On Course

You’re having the time of your life.  There is a Northerly breeze, but otherwise, it’s a lovely day out.  Assuming calm waters, you diligently keep the vessel at 090 degrees, and after 30 minutes, you check your track on the GPS and realize to your horror that you have driven the boat at 095 degrees from your starting point. 

You’re not sure where you went wrong because you help the compass bearing at 090 faithfully the whole time.  You may have held a course of 090, but that Northerly breeze has blown you off.

So, what can you do to right your course?  Well, you can adjust your steered course and or speed.  For example, if the wind has pushed you off course 5 degrees, you can simply change your course to compensate.  So, instead of steering 090, steer 085. 

Section 4:  Driving Home

When returning home or changing course on the water, you may be driving in the same direction as the swells.  This is known as the following sea, and it is, at least for me, more intimating. 

Step 1: Trim Your Bow Up

Coming down the face of a large wave is basically like driving a car downhill, only this car doesn’t have breaks, and the hills are moving.  At the bottom of the swell, there is depreciation, or a hole, before the backside of the next wave. 

At this point, you need to get your bow onto the back of the next wave.  To do this, you have to trim your bow up, which is like increasing the angle of approach on a 4×4 vehicle. 

Having your bow trimmed too low means that you run the risk of driving nose-first into that hole, potentially flooding the vessel.

Step 2: Never Drive Full Throttle

These are not the conditions where you will want to open all the taps and show off what the boat can do.  You need to keep some power in reserve. 

One of the most significant risks is known as broaching.  This takes place when a wave picks up the boat, and you start to surf down the face of it.  And, just so you know, surfing is NOT something you want to do with a boat. 

Broaching can quickly end in the wave turning the boat and capsizing it for the inexperienced.  If you find your boat being broached, you want to alter your steering and then open your throttles to drive straight down the face of the wave. 

Step 4:  Try And Stay On The Back Of The Wave

One of the safest ways to drive home is to get your vessel on the back of a wave and then adjust your speed to match the wave.  Ride the back of that wave until it starts to dissipate, and then move to the next wave in front of it.  Rinse and repeat until you’re home safe. 

Here is a good video on driving out into the sea or lake and driving home:

Section 5:  Close Quarter Maneuvering

At this stage of my boating journey, if you asked me which part of driving a boat scares me the most, I would have to say close-quarter maneuvering. 

The job of steering a big boat into tight spaces with a high risk of damage to your vessel and/or the vessels around you is a perfect stress inducer.  And as fate would have it, the more you stress during such maneuvers, the higher the chance of messing up is.

Here are some crucial things to remember during close-quarter maneuvers and docking.

Step 1:  Check The Wind And Current

The effect of the wind and current will become immediately evident during close quarters where the smallest of movements can have big impacts. 

When you are approaching a dock or mooring, you need to consider what the wind and current are doing before you begin your maneuver.  For example, if a strong wind blows past your dock, you will need to start making your turn upwind and allow the wind to carry you toward your goal. 

Being ignorant of the wind and current can quickly steer into objects or other boats.  Unfortunately, I speak from experience. 

Step 2:  Use Your Motors More Than Your Wheel

A vessel with dual motors has a fabulous hidden talent of sorts.  Without touching the wheel, you can steer the boat using just the engines. 

If you go ahead with only your port motor, the force is placed on your port stern quarter, which effectively will push the boat’s port side faster than the starboard side, turning the boat to starboard.

If you put that same motor astern, you pull the port quarter backward, effectively turning the boat to port.

In the same way, you can use both motors in opposing directions (one ahead and one astern) to “spin” the boat in one spot. 

There is a good deal of finesse and practice required to use the motors to steer the boat, but it is an essential skill.

Step 3:  Take It Slow

There is an old saying that you should only go as fast as you want to hit the dock. 

If you are parking a car and find yourself rolling toward calamity, you simply need to apply the brake and reset.  With a boat, there’s no break. 

So, if you apply too much thrust forward, pulling the throttles back to neutral is not going to stop you, and you will keep drifting.  You have to apply throttle in the opposite direction to your drift to stop.

The lack of a brake means that speed is not your friend while operating in tight spaces.  Remember too that if you apply constant throttle, your boat’s speed will gradually increase as momentum increases, so you need to control your speed by using small bursts of throttle and letting her drift.

Be patient and go slowly. 

This is one of the best videos that I have seen on driving a boat in close-quarters:


Driving a boat can be an intimidating and steep learning curve, but it is also one of the most rewarding skills that you can learn.  The primary steering mechanism is the rudders and motors, which you can turn with the wheel.  The gears will make the engines go ahead or astern, while the throttle will make the boat faster or slower.

When driving out to deep water, remember to keep your bow down and up during the ‘following seas.’  Also, practice close-quarter maneuvering, which can be challenging but will give you lots of confidence for handling your boat in the open sees as well.  It may be a cliché but remember to relax and have fun. 

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