If you can drive a car, you can drive a boat. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this over the years, but unless your car has no brakes, is blown around by wind and currents and is being driven on a slippery skidpan with bald tyres, then the comparison is simply laughable. There are some similarities, but I’m getting ahead of myself. More on that later.
People learn skills in different ways. Some like to learn by doing, others by understanding the theory and putting it into practice, while another approach is watching what is required and then trying to emulate the task or exercise. For most, it’s a combination of all of the above.
Included in the learning experience is failure – learning from mistakes, both your own and others – and the satisfaction of ‘nailing it’. Nothing gives an instructor more satisfaction than seeing a student not only complete a task, like safely putting a boat in a pen, but understanding why it happened. Smiles all round.
Over the years, I estimate that I have been involved in training well over 2000 people to operate all types of boats. The national training program I currently deliver includes 12 hours of practical powerboat handling, from driving and manoeuvring in confined spaces, right through to high-speed boat work.
I have trained complete novices through to experienced boaties and have identified common errors that occur when it comes to learning to drive a boat or improve boating skills.
Whether you’re starting out or have plenty of experience, an understanding of these common errors and traits can be of real assistance. In this article, I will focus on low-speed manoeuvring as it’s the foundation of good boat work and an area that makes many people nervous.
WATCH YOUR WINDAGE
Time and time again, when I ask a boat owner how their boat likes to ‘lie in the water’, I get a puzzled look. Understanding how your boat reacts when left to drift in a breeze is important. Most boats will sit side-on to the wind. Some, in particular smaller half cabins, may sit with their stern to the wind, with the cabin acting as a sail. Knowing this shows how the boat will swing, or want to swing, at low speed in weather. This is really important knowledge to have when manoeuvring in confined spaces in windy conditions.
Boats will nearly always drift downwind and, when underway at slow speed, will continue to have some sideways drift. A common issue I see in marina rows is skippers not taking this into account and crabbing sideways down the row and, worse still, doing it on the downwind side, leaving no margin for error. Stay on the upwind side if you can and always make safety for you and those around you paramount.
The pivot point is an area in which boats are entirely different to cars – and it’s a big problem area that many boaties struggle to grasp. Boats steer from the stern (rear), which means the hull will pivot from somewhere between halfway and two-thirds of the way down the length of the hull. The implication of this is that the stern swings out when turning.
The pivot point varies slightly depending on whether you are moving forward or astern. What this means is, in most conditions, you cannot simply drive a boat forward off a jetty. In most cases, this will result in the stern colliding with the jetty – or other boats – as it swings away from the direction of the turn.
I suggest my students practise in calm water by dropping a life ring or other soft floating object overboard next to the stern. Then turn the boat hard in either direction and move away. You’ll see that the stern is either driven into your marker or away from it, depending on which way you turn.
Basically, you’ll see the stern does all the turning. Using this knowledge and, with some practice, mastering tight spaces and lining up a boat trailer in tight spaces becomes easier.
It’s also a vital skill to have when recovering someone from the water.
If you find yourself in trouble and drifting toward other boats or structures in a marina, back up. The stern is where the steering is, so use the throttle to pull the boat backwards and out of harm’s way.
Skippers also need to become familiar with how their boat reacts to the throttle and gears. Common problem areas are not being in or out of gear at the right time, or using too much power when it’s not needed.
In outboard or sterndrive boats, it’s common to see people coasting in neutral and still expecting the boat to steer. In these boats, it’s the position of the leg and thrust that steers the boat. Slipping in and out of gear is a good technique to practise – employ it when you need to maintain control in tight situations.
Wind has a significant effect on boats and is a common area that people have problems with, particularly in confined areas such as marinas. Winds change constantly, strengthening one minute, then easing off the next, as well as producing the occasional eddie or swirl, all of which can turn a textbook manoeuvre into a mess very quickly.
Just to complicate things, in marinas, wind can compress between penned boats and other structures and increase in strength. Alternatively, it may ‘rotor’ or swirl after hitting a marina wall or large boat and can die completely if blocked.
It’s all about observing visual cues, such as watching the water – wind ripples on the water and any variance can be easily seen. Flags or pennants on boats are another good indication of wind movement and strength. Always plan to counteract the wind – or use it to your advantage. For example, pushing into the wind at slow speed can provide a braking effect and give you more time to manoeuvre.
Psychomotor skills, including coordination of tasks, manipulation of controls and manual dexterity, are all crucial to boat handling. Turning the wheel and constant adjustment of speed through gear engagement and disengagement play an important part in controlling the boat. Getting it wrong can result in a nasty crunch.
Depth perception and judging closing distances is closely related, and is an area I see many people struggling with. Most people are good at very close distances but, for distances typically involved in boat manoeuvring, the brain relies on contextual clues, such as relative speeds of objects in motion. These can be learned by practice and there is plenty of helpful literature available on the web.
In my experience, forklift drivers, pilots, motorcycle riders and manual car drivers seem to have elevated psychomotor skills. And, when you think about what is needed in those activities, it makes sense.
Another problem is a lack of planning when manoeuvring. Visualising what you want to do and how it will pan out progressively is a good strategy, but lots of people still don’t think ahead.
For example, despite briefings and demonstrations, after numerous failed attempts at berthing, some people cannot tell you what they planned to do other than put the boat alongside. It’s really important that each manoeuvre is planned and broken down into separate stages.
A turn-around in a marina row typically has three separate components – the entry, the turn and the exit. Planning each phase and breaking them down into throttle positions, power settings, steering wheel movements and so on allows the driver to monitor progress at each point and determine if the manoeuvre is going to plan, or needs to be modified.
SLIDE OR COLLIDE
Boats will slide when turning. How much will depend on the hull shape, boat weight and speed. This can cause problems in confined areas and must be taken into account. Depth perception and judgment of closing distances are important factors to consider here, too.
Sliding sideways can actually be helpful, though, particularly when berthing alongside a jetty. The slide, when executed properly, can put a boat alongside nicely without much effort from the skipper, except to monitor progress.
One of the most common things I see when teaching confined-water boat handling is the use of too much speed. Things can go wrong much quicker at higher speeds – it reduces the time you have to plan and to put those plans into action, and reduces your time to assess what is happening and to modify your actions if needed. The message here is to slow down and only use sufficient power to counteract wind or tidal flows.
While I’m talking about speed, there are two other areas that should be considered. Firstly, be very careful of the ‘power spiral’. This occurs when too much speed is used when manoeuvring around marinas and other confined spaces. Often the thinking is that speed allows a boat to be ‘muscled’ into a target area. This invariably ends up in the stern digging in, sharp, uncontrolled movements and, ultimately, a crash.
Associated with this is ‘stern squat’. When planing and deep-vee boats slow down after travelling at speed, the stern digs in or squats, dragging large wakes behind the boat. In marinas, these wakes cause damage by stretching and breaking mooring lines and banging other boats against jetties. While the GPS or speedo might show a legal speed, it’s the wake that is causing havoc.
When slowing after travelling at speed, reduce power smoothly all the way back to idle before selecting neutral. You will see the bow drop and the hull settle. You can now re-engage gear and move without dragging huge amounts of water behind you.
Watching boats come alongside, I often see crew jump onto the jetty with a rope in their hand to secure the boat while it’s still moving. The danger of this ‘leap of faith’ is obvious and should be avoided. The answer is to train your crew to simply throw a line or loop over a cleat or bollard when you get the boat alongside.
And, particularly on smaller boats, I often see great approaches to jetties being ruined by crew moving at the last moment to grab a line or rope. This upsets trim and alters the boat’s path through the water and, again, often results in a hard arrival. Skippers should have people in place ready to act and set up their approach early.
With many people with entry-level skills getting into larger boats, learning only by your mistakes can be costly. In contrast, much can be learned by watching others or having friends show you the basics – but first you must know your boat, develop the right skills and be confident in boat handling.
The best advice is to start in an area where there is plenty of space. Use a buoy anchored in the water as a reference point and start your boat-handling practice there, while observing all of the effects I have mentioned. You can gradually practise in tighter spaces as you gain more confidence.
Returning to the misconception about the similarity – or lack thereof – of driving boats and cars, it’s worth pondering how you learned to drive a car. You probably started off with a professional instructor and had L-plates warning others of your novice status. Most likely, you used quiet roads initially and built up to busier roads and more complex tasks. For some years now, a minimum number of training hours on the road and a logbook showing exposure to various driving environments is required before you are licensed.
So why should boating be any different? It’s a point worth pondering and one that is coming increasingly under scrutiny as authorities seek to reduce on-water incidents and increase on-water safety.