Boating Basics: 101 Guide For Beginner Boaters

Great, you bought a boat! Congratulations, a whole new world will open up to you, from quiet sandbars and remote marshland settings to waterfront restaurants and days full of wake surfing and lounging with friends and family. But wait, do you know how to drive a boat? Never fear, Boat Trader is here to provide you with the basics of properly handling, owning, maintaining and storing a boat. Of course there is no substitute for on-the-water experience and some skills must be taught in person, but this guide should at least help you understand the most important aspects of boating safety and how to navigate on the water.

Boat Safety Equipment
Boat Terminology
Boat Trailering
Boat Float Plan
Boat Launching
Boat Docking And Undocking
Boat Handling
Rules Of The Road
Navigating On The Water
Radio Communications
Boat Electronics
Chartplotters
Anchoring And Mooring
Boat Maintenance
Boat Storage
Boat Insurance

Boat Safety Equipment

Let’s start at ground zero, with boat safety equipment and what to bring aboard your boat before you invite everyone down for a day on the water with you at the helm. Remember, when you are the captain of a boat, everyone’s safety becomes your responsibility. Not having the proper safety equipment onboard your boat is not only dangerous, it may be illegal and put passengers at risk of harm. Required boating safety equipment includes life jackets (or PFDs) for everyone onboard, a fire extinguisher, sound producing device (an airhorn), visual distress signals (flares), and a throwable flotation device. You should also have a first aid kit, a VHF radio, an anchor with sufficient rode line for the water depths, oars, sun protection and a bailing bucket at minimum. Visit the USCG boating safety website for the most up-to-date safety equipment requirements for different size vessels.

kid in a life jacket

Above: Make sure all your safety gear is ready to roll for spring. Naturally, that includes the life jackets! Photo by Lenny Rudow.

Boat Trader also has a comprehensive Boating Safety Guide that you should review before you embark on your first boat trip. Additionally, we have a convenient Boating Safety Equipment Checklist (or a “Captain’s Bag Checklist) that you can print out and follow, checking off each item to make sure your boat is equipped and you have all the required inventory and gear onboard that you’ll need to create a safe experience for your passengers.

Boat Terminology

Knowing and understanding basic boating terminology is another key aspect of basic boating skills. If you can’t quickly convey to a passenger onboard the difference between the bow and the stern, or understand how deep the draft of your boat is, you could get into trouble out on the water very quickly. Boat Trader’s Boat Terminology Guide is a great place to start when learning how to drive a boat.

Boat Anatomy Part Names And Terms

Above: The anatomy of a boat – from bow to stern, Boat Trader can help boaters understand the proper terminology for the different parts of a vessel. 

Boat Trailering

Once your boat is loaded up with all the goodies, you need to get her “off the hard” and onto the water. Boat trailering and boat launching are two vital skills that every boater must understand and be comfortable with. Most trailerable boats (i.e. boats under 35-40 feet) come with a trailer. If your boat did not come with a trailer, you’ll need to consider how you will get the boat to and from the water and factor that expense in to your annual budget.

Boat Trailering Guide

Above: A Robalo cuddy cabin style boat sits on a trailer in a driveway. Photo by Ryan McVinney for Boat Trader.

Assuming you have a trailer, let’s talk about how to trailer your boat safely and prudently. You’ll want to make sure your trailer is safe and has working lights and that the boat is tied down securely using heavy duty tie downs and a secure bow line. Make sure the trailer is connected securely to your vehicle’s trailer hitch with back up safety chains and that the leaf springs, wheels, tires, hubs and axle(s) are all in good working order before you hit the road. Boat Trader has a complete Boat Trailering Guide that covers all of these things in details and it is a good idea to read through it and make sure you’ve checked every box on the list before you begin your drive to your boating destination.

Boat Float Plan

A float plan is a basic overview of what you plan to do with your boat, where you are going, who is onboard and what time you expect to return. In the event of an emergency, this plan can be provided to the Coast Guard so that they know where to attempt search and rescue operations. You don’t have to make a fancy print out every time you go on the water (although for boats of a certain size and range, you may) but at least make sure you tell a friend or family your plan on the water. Time is an important factor should something go wrong out there, and a matter of minutes can make a big difference in life-saving rescue missions.

documents-needed-to-sell-a-boat

Above: A float plan is always a wise idea so that people on land know what you’re planning and when to expect you back. Photo via Pond5.

Boat Launching

Once you’ve gotten your boat to the water, you’re home free, right? Not so fast. Now you need to get the vessel off the trailer and into the water, which is sometimes harder than it sounds, especially given the boat ramp and the water currents and conditions. Some boat ramps are shallow, and some are steep, and each will present its own unique challenges.

Ryan McVinney launching a boat during Stomping Grounds Episode One.

Above: Ryan McVinney launching a small aluminum fishing boat by Tracker at a shallow boat ramp during the filming of Stomping Grounds Episode One. Photo by Paul Fujita for Boat Trader.

Boat Trader has some an in-depth guide to launching a boat at a boat ramp and some additional tips for boat launching that you should review in detail before you attempt your first launch. Even if you’re a seasoned pro, we’ve provided some evergreen helpful tips that can serve as a reminder and checklist for best practices when launching a boat at a private boat ramp or community launch.

How To Dock A Boat

Once your boat is in the water, you’ll inevitably want to bring it to a dock so that you can load and unload passengers and supplies. Approaching a dock, and departing a dock are similar but every situation is unique. Great care should be taken when docking and undocking to avoid damaging your vessel or injuring any passengers. Remember the golden rule of docking – never go faster than you want to hit the dock. Slow is the name of the game. Boat Trader’s Guide To Docking A Boat is a great resource for new boaters and those look for a bit of a review on the best practices when tying up a boat on a slip at the dock.

2008 Ranger 2400 Ranger Bay Boat

Above: A used 2008 Ranger 2400 Bay Ranger at the dock in Naples, FL. Photo by Gulf Shores Marina in Naples, FL.

Boating Skills: Maneuvering And Handling

Ok, you’ve done it! Your boat is in the water, it’s loaded with all the proper safety gear, you know the name of all the basic parts of your boat and you’re ready to go. Now, let’s cover basic maneuvering and handling. First and most importantly, remember the unlike cars, boats do not have brakes. That means they take longer to stop than you may think. It is important to obey all speed limits and no wake signs in order to maintain safe operating speeds around other vessels and people in the waterways.

Boats can also take longer to turn than you may think as well. In fact, at slower speeds, boats will turn even slower. Practicing maneuvering your boat at various speeds is important so you understand how it handles, and what it’s capabilities are. Read up on Boat Trader’s Basic Boat Handling Guide for more information on how to drive and handle a motorized vessel.

aluminum boat with a modified v hull

Above: Modified V-hull boats like this Tracker Pro 170 offer excellent stability, good handling, and shallow draft on calm inland waterways, but are not designed for open oceans. Photo by Tracker Boats.

It is also important do understand the general seaworthiness of your boat, and what types of sea states it is designed to be able to handle (not all boats are design for the open ocean, and some are only safe to operate in calm, inland waterways). Driving a boat in rough seas is a skill that you don’t want to have to put to the test.

In addition to understanding the basic handling and maneuverability of your vessel, you’ll need to know how to operate all the controls and electrical systems onboard your boat, such as joystick controls, throttle controls, trim tabs, engine tilt, bilge pumps and lights. Consult your owners manual and familiarize yourself will every system thoroughly before you hit the water. You’ll also want to be able to identify hazards (either on digital charts or physical charts) ahead of time in order to safely operate your vessel. You’ll want to be sure you know how to monitor the depth using a depth finder and understand all of your gauges and engine monitoring systems.

Rules Of The Road

Just like driving on the roads, there are certain rules of the road when boating on the water as well. Boat Trader has a complete Guide To Nautical Rules Of The Road that you should review thoroughly in order to be confident driving on the waterways around other boats and hazards. Familiarize yourself with the “ColRegs” (the common name for The International Regulations for Prevention of Collision at Sea that serve as the basic rules of the road in boating).

Colregs Rules of The Road

Above: The International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea 1972 are published by the International Maritime Organization and set out, among other things, the “rules of the road” or navigation rules to be followed by ships and other vessels at sea to prevent collisions between two or more vessels.

Boat navigation systems work differently depending on the technique they employ. However, they all work to make navigation easier. Navigation consists of determining where you are, deciding where you are going, monitoring your path, and then starting at the beginning again. Boat Trader’s Guide To Navigation Systems is a good place to start to help familiarize yourself with the different types of navigation systems on a boat and how to use them.

Garmin GPS With Dual 24 Inch Displays

Above: A Garmin Navigation System with two flush-mounted, in-dash, 24″ Garmin displays onboard a 2020 Yellowfin 42 Offshore for sale on Boat Trader. Photo by USA Coastal Marine. 

Radio Communications

Monitoring and talking on the Very High Frequency (VHF) radio channels is something every boater should know how to do. Unfortunately, many pleasure boaters don’t learn the basic protocols for using a VHF radio on a boat before they get behind the wheel. Here we have compiled some of the most important aspects of marine radio communication that can serve as a basic primer for new boaters and a review for seasoned boaters. Boat Trader has a complete VHF Radio Communications Guide that you should read through from start to finish, along with a helpful tutorial video on how to use a VHF radio on a boat.

Above: Ryan McVinney with Boat Trader and Captain Jeff Lagrew with America’s Boating club explain how to use a VHF radio on a boat. 

Boat Electronics

From depth finders and multi-function displays (MFDs) to chartplotters, battery backups and generators, you’ll want to understand all the different electrical systems onboard your boat and how to use them. Start by checking out Alan Jones’s Dashboard Monitoring article for Boat Trader and then read up about all the different components that go into driving and operating a modern boat.

Helm Station Controls On Azimut A45

Above: The main helm station controls onboard an Azimut A45. Photo by Azimut.

Chartplotters

Chartplotters are important onboard electronic navigation systems on modern boats that combine a GPS receiver with the ability to display various marine charts. This electronic device enables the boat captain to monitor their position and the vessel’s movement as it relates to the physical environment around it, both above and underwater. Read our Guide To Chartplotters to learn more.

Raymarine Axiom 7 Fish Finder Chartplotter

Above: A Raymarine Axiom 7 Fish Finder Chartplotter. Photo by Raymarine.

Anchoring And Mooring

Anchoring and mooring are key boating skills you’ll want to make sure you have mastered before you take a group out for a day at the sandbar, or attempt to set a mooring in a harbor. Remember that the two are not the same. Anchoring is a bit more straightforward and Boat Trader has a great step-by-step guide on How To Anchor A Boat that is simple to follow and should make the process easy to understand. Mooring is a bit more involved, so our Guide To Boat Mooring should get you on your way to setting up a more permanent home for your boat out on the water that you know will hold securely in place.

Above: Ryan McVinney with Boat Trader and Captain Jeff Lagrew with America’s Boating Club explain the basics behind how to anchor a boat properly. 

Boat Maintenance

Properly maintaining your boat is another key aspect of being a good, responsible captain. Not only is a clean, well maintained boat a nice experience for passengers, it is also functional and safe. All the vital aspects of the boat’s propulsion system should be regularly inspected, and this includes inspecting the propeller(s), flushing the outboard engine(s), winterizing the engine(s), checking the boat’s hull for damage, punctures or leaks, checking and maintaining the life vests (personal flotation devices or PFDs), emergency devices (flares, VHF radio, sound generators) and more. Don’t forget to budget for this cost of ownership – maintenance costs money, and an annual boating budget should be carefully planned. Read our Boat Maintenance Guide to learn some of the basics behind owning and maintaining your own boat.

Outboard Repower - Checking Compression Of Engine

Above: Ryan McVinney testing the compression on an outboard engine with Shawn Joy during an episode of Boat Trader’s Backyard Boaters video series about DIY boat maintenance, repairs and upgrade projects. Photo by Paul Fujita for Boat Trader.

Boat Storage

There are a number of benefits to having your boat stored outside your back door. You can make snap decisions to head off on impromptu boating adventures at the drop of a hat, take advantage of those warm winter days to work on small projects, and you can even save money by keeping your boat on a trailer. But with larger boats, that simply isn’t an option. Whatever method of winter storage you plan to use, be the first on your dock to sign up. This doesn’t mean you have to be the first one out of the water, but prompt action gives you the opportunity to select the exact date you want your boat hauled. It also insures you get the storage location you want. Read Boat Trader’s Guide To Boat Storage to learn more.

Boat Storage Winter

Above: Boats covered with covers in Parking. Photo via Pond5.

Boat Insurance

Whether you have a yacht, a jet-ski or even just a canoe, you need peace of mind when venturing into the open seas. Choosing the right boat insurance provider is important and having the right coverage will grant you the peace of mind of knowing that you’re protected, no matter what happens. While it’s not usually a legal requirement in most waters, boat insurance can make the difference between navigating a crisis calmly, and having to pay thousands and thousands of dollars if things go wrong. Read our Beginner’s Guide To Boat Insurance to learn more or check out Boat Trader’s boat insurance page if you are ready to purchase a plan from one of our trusted partners.

Boat Insurance - What Buyers Need To Know

Above: Boat Insurance can be complex, our staff interviewed Geico for some tips and advice that boat buyers should know before they purchase a new yacht for the family. Photo via Pond5.

Further Reading

From soup to nuts, this guide has provided a good “30,000 foot overview” of basic boating skills, rules of the road and safety requirements that should help you feel more confident on the water. Of course, there is far more to learn and there are always new, unique situations and hazards on the water that may pose different challenges. Any good boat captain is constantly learning and honing their skills and knowledge. We suggest clicking on all the links we’ve provided under each category here to take a deeper dive into those specific boating topics. And as we said before, there is really no substitute for on-the-water experience, and it would be prudent to take an in-person boating safety course (which may be a requirement for operating a vessel in your region).

Looking for a boat? View new and used boats for sale on Boat Trader today.

Written by: Ryan McVinney

C. Ryan McVinney is a film director, producer, writer, actor, boat captain, outdoor enthusiast and conservationist. He's currently the host and director of Boat Trader's Stomping Grounds TV show that explores boating culture across America. McVinney produces the Cult Classics video series for YachtWorld and the Factory Fridays show for boats.com and is a regular contributor to leading marine industry publications.

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