Learning to Drive

I recently spent several days teaching handling and safety to a new boater. I’ve been teaching for somewhere around 25 years now, and truly enjoy it. I love to see the confidence and abilities grow in new boat owners as they start to get a feel for how the boat reacts to their control and heading changes, whether out on the water or while maneuvering in tight spaces.

Many new owners make the mistake of thinking that since they can drive a car, they are qualified to operate a boat. After all, it has an engine, a steering wheel, and goes forwards and backwards depending on what you do with the controls. How hard can it be, right?

We are in cars from the day we’re born until the day we die. We are driven home from the hospital shortly after we come in to existence on the planet, and also make our trip to our final resting place on four wheels. By the time we are ready to learn to drive we already know what the steering wheel, pedals, and most of the buttons do. We’ve seen the whole operation in action over and over for 16 or 17 years.

The problem with boats is not necessarily the actual driving of the vessel. What many new boaters don’t understand and fail to take in to account is the environment and it’s affect on the boat. The wind and current all work to change the intended direction of travel, or disrupt the state of rest which the vessel is placed in. A car goes where you point it, a boat goes where you point it eventually. If you’re lucky. And the weather cooperates. An no one else is trying to help you by pushing off pilings and things.

Boats don’t react to course corrections immediately, and even if they do they may continue to react until they have passed the result you were aiming for. Boats are also uncooperative when asked to stop moving in any direction they may already be heading. To top it off, the available paths available for travel tend to be very poorly marked. There are no lines or curbs, no signs, and no stoplights.

Boating is a fun and exciting sport, but also a sport that can go wrong very quickly. From minor damage caused while docking to major problems miles from shore, the results of bad judgement and inexperience can be expensive or even deadly. As an experienced teacher I can not stress enough the importance of any kind of instruction for a new boater. If you’re buying a boat for the first time, moving to a larger boat, or throwing a second engine and set of control in to the mix I would highly recommend spending time with a licensed Captain who teaches handling and safety.

Before you throw a full cooler and your family on board that new boat, make sure you are truly ready to hit the open water. Learn the concepts of docking and maneuvering before you get caught in high winds or low visibility. Get recommendations on safety gear or equipment that is not required by the Coast Guard, but will get you out of a bad situation. Books and videos can help, but there is no substitute for hands on experience in your own boat. Get some lessons, insight, and instruction from a professional and keep your time on the water safe and enjoyable.