Powerboats: A Beginners Guide To Basic Boat Handling And Maneuvering

It’s never too late to learn to drive a powerboat. Start by learning on a small RIB until you gradually gain enough confidence to work your way up in size and power. If you’re interested in powerboats but are unsure where to begin, an excellent place to start is taking a level two powerboat course alongside a VHF radio course. If you learn to drive in a channel by the sea, you will get more from the course because you are more exposed to the natural elements. Powerboat courses are primarily for those using small powered craft such as RIB’s, dories, and sports boats that don’t generally undertake long or offshore passages. Critical skills that the powerboat course will cover should include:

  • Launching and recovery
  • Boat handling
  • Securing to a buoy
  • Anchoring
  • Leaving and coming alongside
  • Man overboard

There are some essential points to cover before throwing yourself in the deep end for anybody considering boating. 

Don’t Dress To Impress: Dress For The Weather! 

Before you prepare your outfit for the day, you should research the expected weather conditions. Being caught out on a boat for six hours in a t-shirt when it’s blowing a hooley isn’t much fun and can affect your enjoyment. Here are a few considerations to bear in mind:

  • A South Easterly wind is warmer but choppier;
  • Northeasterly winds are generally cooler;
  • Use waterproof jackets with wind protection;
  • If the sun is shining, ensure that you apply SPF 50 generously, taking it on board. Being on the water increases sunburn potential since exposure from direct exposure and reflection of radiation of the water increases.

Preparing The Boat To Leave The Marina

  • Turn the battery switch on (typically located inside the hatch);
  • Put the key into the ignition (some modern boats have push-buttons instead), and turn it to start the engine;
  • Check the tell-tale (a hole under the motor itself) to see whether water is flowing as it should. Sometimes the tell-tale can become clogged by salt crystals, or the water freezes. If the flow stops or is weak, the end of a paper clip poked into the hole may clear the obstruction;
  • Kill switch (emergency stop) is in place and attached to the driver. Clip the lanyard on a belt loop on your life jacket ring or wrap it around your leg. The kill switch stops the engine in the event of the helmsperson being thrown out of their seat;
  • Before you dock, start with the trim down;
  • Ensure the bow and stern lines are tied onto the boat and are not a trip hazard 
  • Steer before gear! Turn the boat in the direction you want to go before using the throttle;
  • Engage forward (or reverse if you need to back out of a slip) by pushing the throttle handle forward gently until you feel it shift into gear;
  • Peel away from the marina like a banana;

Before Going Anywhere On The Boat

Look sideways at the boat and notice if the vessel is moving your boat in a particular direction. Feel the wind on your face. If the boat is moving and there isn’t a lot of wind, this means that it must be the tide pulling it! Work out what the elements are doing before you move the boat. 

Top tip! Always keep one hand on the helm and one hand on the throttle.

Docking A Boat 

The aim of the game here is to aim to dock your vessel parallel to the pontoon. A parking maneuver uses a combination of neutral and forwards gear.

  1. Prepare dock lines on your bow and stern and attach fenders the side of the boat that will be brought against the pier
  2. When entering the marina, slowly approach the dock using a combination of forward gear and neutral. Aim to approach at a 30 to 45 degree angle. 
  3. When you are one boat away (10 meters), shift the engine back into neutral.
  4. Using the helm make one full turn away from the marina
  5. Add a small amount of gear
  6. Shift the engine back into neutral. The boat should become parallel from the pontoon. 
  7. If the rear of the boat sticks out then you can put it into reverse to bring it in.
  8. Tie your boat’s mooring ropes at the bow and stern to the cleats using an XOX knot.

Top tip! The more space you give yourself, the more time you have to judge the elements.

Top tip! If you are in neutral, and find the boat is drifting away from the marina, sometimes adding a little bit of gear will get you closer to the pontoon. 

Man Overboard Procedures

While we all hope that a man overboard situation never happens, being well-versed in dealing with it will help keep you calm in an emergency.

  1. Shout ‘Man overboard!’ to alert the crew and point towards the man overboard;
  2. Call the coastguard using your local channel and make a DSC distress alert and Mayday call. Inform them where you are located (use site or object as a reference and how many degrees you are from the object). 
  3. Drive downwind until you have reached twelve boats away from the man overboard, then turn to drive upwind towards the man overboard. Then, as you approach them (with the portside on the left) using a combination of neutral and some forward gear. 
  4. As you move closer to the man overboard, switch the engine off, and allow the boat to drift towards him.
  5. Pull the man overboard back onboard, shoulders first. 

Top tip: To avoid a man going overboard, brief the crew before speeding up and ensure that they hold on.

Written by: Emma Coady

Emma Coady is a freelance writer and marine journalist who creates content for many household names in the boating industry, including YachtWorld, Boat Trader and boats.com. She also writes for several boat builders as well as charter and rental companies and regularly contributes to Greenline Hybrid yachts, TJB Super Yachts and Superyachts Monaco. Emma is the founder of Cloud Copy and enjoys traveling around Europe, spending as much of her spare time as possible in or on the water.