When I was a teen, driver’s education involved a significant amount of time driving on the range before we were allowed to drive on public streets. The range was a miniature artificial driving world replete with traffic lights, crosswalks and left-hand turn lanes. My classmates and I would spend hours driving around the range, practicing things like who had the right-of-way if we approached the four-way-stop intersection at the same time.
Even before the driving range, dads would frequently take their teens to the empty Sears store parking lot on a Sunday, when you had a large area with no other cars around you. In these settings, you couldn’t get into too much trouble. You could safely learn how much pressure to apply to the gas pedal, and possibly even how to coordinate the clutch and gas pedals together without lurching and stalling the car.
New boaters learning to handle a boat in close quarters would do well to follow the same format.
Unfortunately, I don’t know of any boating ranges with practice red and green buoys or make-believe entrances to no-wake zones. However, you can still find quiet settings similar to these in which to practice the initial lessons of boat control.
It is best to learn the basics of handling a boat with no other boats around you, and with no wind or current present. To attempt to learn basic handling in windy conditions or in a swift current is pointless. You will spend all your time reacting to outside influences, and you won’t be able to focus on the goal at hand. Learning to handle a boat in these conditions will ultimately be necessary, but first things first.
The art of boat control is critical to master if you expect to become confident at close-quarters handling—and it is just that, an art. It’s a sense, a feeling. It takes time to learn exactly how much the boat will move for a given amount of input to the throttle or thruster controls. This feel is best learned in a safe environment, not in the confines of a crowded marina full of expensive boats to damage.
In the beginning, find a navigational aid or marker in calm, protected water. Align the boat beside the marker and just practice moving the boat forward and into reverse, stopping when the bow or stern are even with the marker.
Next, bring the bow of the boat up to the marker and then back away. Approach the marker by applying short bursts of power, instead of steady power. Exercising throttle control in this manner teaches you to maneuver without building up a lot of momentum, which can quickly get out of control. Repeat this lesson in reverse by turning the boat around and backing up to the marker and pulling away again.
Then, align the boat beside the marker and pivot the boat, first in a clockwise direction and next counterclockwise, all the while trying to hold the boat on station adjacent to the marker. This technique teaches the use of splitting twin engines in forward and reverse, or helps you understand prop walk on a single-engine boat.
Spinning the boat in a circle will also allow you to learn the location of the boat’s pivot point. All boats pivot around a point of axis, which can change with the position of the boat. The smaller the boat, the more sensitive it will be to this happening. If you move forward in a small boat, the bow will go down and the stern will go up. This shift in position changes the point around which the boat will pivot when turning. Different shapes and styles of boats will have a different axis of rotation; the point will also be slightly different between forward and reverse.
When you’re aligning the boat in front of a slip and you’re ready to pivot and back in, knowing the point around which the boat will pivot is critical to centering the boat with the slip. This is an easier concept to grasp when practicing in open water, with a marker nearby serving as a point of reference.
Becoming comfortable with handling skills learned in the less-stressful environment of open water will improve your ability to perform the more challenging skills necessary to handle the boat within the marina.
Diagnosed early in life as an incurable “aquaphile,” Bob Arrington finds most of his happiness on, in, or under the water. A teacher and a storyteller at heart, Arrington shares his love of the water as a writer, a marine industry consultant, a boat training captain and a scuba instructor. He and his photographer wife cruise extensively aboard their trawler, looking for the next story to tell.