Five Tips to Becoming a Better Boater

Using Winter Downtime To Learn

How do you get to be a better boater? Read a lot, get hands-on experience and practice. What better time to dig into the details of boating than the next few cold months when you’re home, dreaming of sunny days to come? Here are five easy ways to become a better boater by Spring. Tackle one every other weekend, and you’ll be a rock star by April.

1. Get Familiar With Your Electronics Suite

Most people quickly learn the basics of a new Chartplotter or Radar, but that’s as far as they go. However, today’s systems are uber-powerful with more information and tools than you can imagine. Dust off the manual and spend a few days learning the in-depth workings of your electronics. Get to know the various alarms you can set (anchor, MARPA, etc.), learn the symbols and icons, and figure out the fine points of your sonar so you’ll catch more fish next summer. Be sure to get the most up-to-date e-charts via software downloads and create waypoints which you may need in the future.

2. Create Checklists

Checklists are magical in that they keep everything organized without you having to reinvent the wheel (in your head) each time you depart or arrive back at the dock. Once you develop a routine, write it down so that you won’t need to dust off the brain cells about what to do next season.

Spend an afternoon writing down steps to take in case of fire, flooding, abandon ship, engine failure or crew overboard. It will be easier to take the right steps when panic sets in if you’ve already thought it through beforehand. Write out thorough separate checklists, find the equipment you’ll need (thru-hull plugs, fire extinguishers, liferaft, etc.) and laminate the procedures. Also, keep the lists by the helm for future reference. Post the proper way to call in an emergency on the VHF if you’re incapacitated, and your crew doesn’t know how to use the radio.

Think through all that goes on during a typical boat outing. For example, when departing, you may need to open thru-hulls, check engine oil and transmission fluid, monitor batteries, disconnect the shore power cord, and turn on electronics at the main and flybridge helms. When you return, the process may include shutting down and checking the engines, making sure the bilge is dry, switching lights off and security systems on, flushing the outboard, putting on canvas, and rinsing the decks. Whatever the process – just get it down. That way, guests who come along as occasional crew can help without needing too much guidance and everything is smoother, faster and safer.

3. Get To Know Your Systems

Winter is an excellent time to spend your downtime working on boat maintenance and upgrades. Change the engine and Genset oil, service the running gear if needed, repair those odd lights that seem to work sporadically, and load up your flashlights and handheld radios with fresh batteries. Also, check your fire extinguishers and dig through your first aid kit for expired medication, bandage condition and inventory of seasickness pills. This is the stuff that gets no attention when you’re out having fun, but it must be ready and working when needed. Getting hands-on with your systems and inventories will also make you a more capable skipper overall.

Image credit: SOTS 

4. Study The Rules

If your rules-of-the-road knowledge stops at “red, right, returning” or “sail overpower”, you may want to spend a few evenings by the fireside, studying. Not just right-of-way guidance, these rules require a thorough understanding of lights and day shapes that identify another vessel’s predicament or condition from afar. For example, if a boat is displaying two red lights, one over the other, what’s going on aboard? There are great mnemonics that help you remember. Red over red – the captain is dead – the vessel is not under command. Red over white is most likely a commercial fishing vessel: red over white – fishing at night.

Another great tool that will keep you entertained on cold winter evenings is the Weems and Plath LIGHTRule. Like a large slide rule, this tool identifies all COLREGS (international rules addressing collision avoidance), 60 light combinations from bow, stern, port and starboard angles, and 15-day shapes (e.g. a black ball in the rigging means the vessel is anchored in the daytime). It’s more fun than it sounds and you can always make a game of quizzing your first mate. Keep it aboard for quick reference throughout the boating season.

Can’t tie a knot? Tie a lot. Study your knots to become an authentic mariner who can assume attitude when coming upon a dock cleat with a mound of tangled line wrapped around it. Knots can get you out of a predicament when you need a tow or an anchor snubber. The must-know knots include the cleat hitch, the clove hitch, the round-turn-two half hitches, a sheet bend and the all-purpose bowline. A rolling hitch applied to anchor chain is a great way to create an on-the-go snubber that will take the strain off your windlass and back to a cleat when anchored in bouncy conditions.

Take some classes in weather or coastal navigation, especially if you feel a bit rusty. The USCG Auxiliary and Power Squadron offer courses that will keep you in the boating mindset during the long months when you’re not aboard. YouTube and are good sources for how-to videos on everything from docking to fishing, so spend some time in front of a screen.

5. Become A Better First Mate

Better boating isn’t just the captain’s responsibility. A competent first mate can make all the difference and cover for a few mistakes too. Besides, what if the captain falls ill or overboard and the mate’s the one in charge?

Learning to anticipate what a boat will do or what the captain needs makes an excellent first mate. Communication is critical so learn hand signals, stop yelling, stand a watch so the captain can rest, and manage dock lines with grace.

Boating experts learn and practice all the time – that’s how they became experts. So set some learning goals to accomplish by Spring – because a smarter boater, is a safer boater.

Written by: Zuzana Prochazka

Zuzana Prochazka is a writer and photographer who freelances for a dozen boating magazines and websites. A USCG 100 Ton Master, Zuzana has cruised, chartered and skippered flotillas in many parts of the world and serves as a presenter on charter destinations and topics. She is the Chair of the New Product Awards committee, judging innovative boats and gear at NMMA and NMEA shows, and currently serves as immediate past president of Boating Writers International. She contributes to and, and also blogs regularly on her boat review site,


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