Are you closing the deal on a new boat? Boating is a thrilling experience for the family. Getting out onto the water at the local lake for a cruise or going deep sea fishing offshore is a great way to enjoy nature and the benefits of spending time in the great outdoors.
If you’re a newbie boat owner, you’re probably wondering how to drive a boat and how the experience differs from driving a car. The reality is that learning to drive a boat is a simple transition from driving a vehicle, and most people adapt easily.
However, while you might get the hang of driving a boat in a matter of minutes or hours, it takes time on the water to build experience. The more experience you have, the better your confidence in handling the vessel. The more confident you are behind the captain’s console, the safer the experience on the water for your passengers.
This brief guide to how to drive a boat unpacks everything you need to know about operating a boat on inland water bodies and offshore.
- Is There a Minimum Age for Driving a Boat?
- Safety Tips for Driving Your Boat
- Safety Gear for Boating
- USCG Sailing and Steering Rules
- Avoid Overloading Your Boat
- Pre-Departure Safety Checks
- Driving a Boat Out Of its Berth
- Considerations for Driving in Open Water
- Driving Your Boat in Rough Waters
- How to Avoid Collisions with other Boats
Is There a Minimum Age for Driving a Boat?
Before we start, let’s get the legal stuff out of the way. You’ll find that minimum age limits for driving boats vary from state to state.
For instance, New York requires uncertified individuals piloting boats to be at least 18-years old. However, the minimum age is 12 in Arizona and 16 in Texas. 12 US states, including Florida, North and South Carolina, don’t have any minimum age limit for boat drivers.
There is no minimum age restriction for operating non-powered boats or vessels in any state other than New Mexico, California, Utah, and Oklahoma. 22 US states, including Hawaii, District of Columbia, and Nevada, require you to show valid documentation proof for completion of a boater education course.
However, some states don’t require any documentation for operating the vessel, including states like American Samoa, District of Columbia, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Puerto Rico.
Safety Tips for Driving Your Boat
After you get over the licensing issues, safety is the next thing you need to think of before getting out on the water.
While driving a boat and a car are very similar experiences, there is much more going on when you’re out on the river or the sea. Sure, there’s no traffic to contend with, but other hazards and components of the dynamic make it very different from driving on the road.
For instance, when you’re driving a car, you don’t have to contend with the road moving up and down like you do when navigating the swells on the open ocean. Despite the challenges to the driving experience, most people will adapt to driving their boat sooner if they have experience driving a car than those with no driver experience at all.
Besides the driver issues, the boat owner should complete a comprehensive safety and equipment check of the boat and its gear before launching into the lake or the ocean. The last thing you need is for disastrous circumstances to occur due to negligence when you’re far from shore.
Create and follow a pre-launch checklist and a landing checklist for assessing the boat before and after the boating trip. Make sure you understand the water and weather conditions and comply with all US navigation laws.
Before ever deciding to put your boat in the water, do yourself a favor and book a boat inspection with the US Coast Guard. The USCG offers this free service to anyone with a boat. They’ll go through it with a fine-tooth comb to see if it’s up to code.
While new boat owners might not get any benefit from this USCG service, it’s a must-have certification for any pre-owned boat buyer.
Next, ensure you have the required number of life jackets available for all passengers and that they meet USCG specifications for use in your aquatic environment, whether it be a lake or the ocean. While not entirely necessary, we recommend filing a float plan with the harbormaster of the USCG before setting out on your trip.
The float plan includes information like the number of crew on the vessel, your duration at sea, the communication channels, safety equipment, your planned route, the team leader, and your name and address. You’ll leave this information with the harbormaster before setting out, along with contact information for your next of kin.
Safety Gear for Boating
As we continue with the safety narrative, it’s important to have everything you need for a potential emergency onboard. Make sure you follow this checklist of essential emergency items before departing on your trip.
A first-aid kit could end up saving someone’s life on your trip. When you’re far out to sea on a marlin fishing trip, the nearest hospital is hours away. If something goes wrong, you need tools to help you manage the situation and preserve the person’s life until you have the chance to get them to the nearest hospital.
If the motor gives out on your while doing some deep-sea fishing, a tool kit can be the difference between going home and calling for a rescue. Get a tool kit with everything you need for general motor maintenance.
You never know when you’re going to encounter setbacks to your float plan and have to spend time out on the water at night. If you’re on the ocean, then you’re going to find it so dark that you can’t see your hand in front of your face at night. A flashlight is an essential piece of kit for lighting up the night out on the water.
Some boats must have a throwable PFD on board the vessel for emergencies. If someone goes overboard, you throw them the PFD. The PFD attaches to a length of rope, allowing the crew to recover the victim by hauling them back into the vessel.
A signal flare could make the difference between a fast rescue or being lost at sea for weeks. Flares, SOS beacons, mirrors, radar reflectors, and water whistles help you optimize the chances of rescue when people, aircraft, or boats are within eyesight.
While you’re out on a body of water, you can’t rely on it to douse flames if a fire breaks out onboard your boat. A fire extinguisher offers you the fast extinguishing of the fire before it has the chance to spread and cause catastrophic damage to your boat.
Ropes are an essential piece of equipment for all boats, and they have hundreds of uses onboard any vessel. Ropes are a must-have for any boat, from docking in a slip at the marina to rescuing someone from the sea.
A sharp utility blade is a must-have item for cutting away old fishing nets, gutting fish, and many other functions on the boat.
VHF Marine Radio (VMR)
The VHF marine radio will save your life if things go wrong out at sea. You reach out to the Coast Guard on the emergency channel 16.
USCG Sailing and Steering Rules
The rules set by the US Coast Guard regarding the navigation and steering of a boat states that the conduct of all vessels must be consistent in normal conditions and during periods of restricted visibility.
Look up the USGCs list of boat conduct rules to get a better understanding of what you need to comply with when you’re out on the water or in the harbor. These USCG rules apply to all boats traveling through US waterways.
Vessels must maintain a watch for other vessels in the vicinity at all times and avoid speeding. The captain must maintain their speed based on factors like the visibility, traffic density, draft, maneuverability of the watercraft, and the weather conditions. It is the captain’s responsibility to avoid any potential collisions.
Overtaking is prohibited in most high-traffic areas, like moving in and out of the harbor or marina. If you are overtaking another vessel, make sure you maintain a safe passing distance at all times.
If you come across a vessel sailing in low-visibility conditions, make sure you take the necessary precautions to avoid involving your boats in a collision.
If you’re driving a powerboat, make sure you have your navigational lights on in low-visibility conditions and check the status of the lights on the sides of the boat, the stern, and the masthead.
Avoid Overloading Your Boat
Overloading is one of the leading causes of the boat capsizing, especially at sea. Your boat can only accommodate the weight it’s designed for.
Think of it like your car. If you overload your vehicle, the suspension can’t take the additional weight and starts to sag. As a result, the bottom of the vehicle and the exhaust silencer scrape on the road when you drive over small bumps.
While overloading a car on the road is dangerous, leading to reduced handling and braking of the vehicle, it’s potentially catastrophic for boats. If your overloaded boat encounters rough water, it could end up with the ocean swamping the deck and the berth, resulting in a sinking or capsizing event.
Pre-Departure Safety Checks
Your pre-launch safety checklist is another critical piece of the puzzle to a safe boating experience. Before launching the vessel, follow this quick checklist to ensure everything is ship-shape and ready for your aquatic adventure.
- Check the fuel and fluids, and top everything off.
- Check the battery charge.
- Check the passenger manifesto and account for all heads.
- Give the passengers a safety briefing of the weather and ocean conditions you face for the day.
- Check the motor for leaks and the status of the propeller and prop blades.
- Keep all your boat certificates onboard the vessel.
- Open all the hatches to check for the presence of fuel fumes.
- Check the hull for signs of cracks and other damage.
- Turn on the electrical system and ensure there is a charge to the ignition.
After you’re happy with the checklist, launch the boat. Get everyone on board the vessel before starting the motor. After you get the engine running, leave it idling for a minute or two. This practice lets you check if excessive fumes come from the exhaust.
Driving a Boat Out Of its Berth
If you’re an experienced driver, you know that the biggest hassle with learning to drive a car is parking. Parking always trips people up, and getting the skill down is challenging for many people. It’s the same with moving your boat in and out of the berth or the slip at the marina or harbor.
Unlike cars, many other factors are involved in navigating the vessel out of the berth. You’ll need to consider the wind speed, ocean conditions, and weather.
New boat owners can mitigate the risk of damage to their boat by installing bumpers to the boat’s sides. While they don’t look attractive, they prevent the dock or marina from punching big holes in the boat’s sides.
If you’re launching in conditions where the wind is blowing right off the dock, then all you need to do is let go of the mooring lines, and the wind will drift you right out of the berth.
If there is a wind blowing as you launch, you’ll find it easier to back out of the berth in reverse than in the forward gear. The effect of the wind on the bow is greater than the stern. If you don’t recognize the situation, the bow starts to turn as you expose the stern to the edge of the platform.
You can engage the reverse gear and steer away slowly from the berth, slip, or marina where there is no wind. Where the wind direction is against the dock, release all docking lines except the stern line, allowing it to pull the slack as you reverse.
The line pushes the stern into the dock as you reverse the boat, moving the bow away. After rotating the boat through 45-degrees, release your stern line and sail away.
Considerations for Driving in Open Water
After getting the vessel out of the berth, it’s time to turn your attention to getting the boat out of the harbor. Make sure you adhere to the no-wake zone and leave at a gentle speed.
Once you are out on the open water, get the boat on its plane and start navigating your way to your destination or fishing spot. To get the right plane, open the throttle halfway and wait for the bow to settle before adding more speed.
When you’re turning, reduce your speed by around 25% before making the turn. Never turn the boat at top speed or risk a flipping accident. Do not run the engine at full speed in shallow waters and maintain a minimum distance of 100-feet from shore at all times.
Driving Your Boat in Rough Waters
Sooner or later, every boat captain faces rough weather conditions. Driving through rough water, big swells, and waves can be a harrowing experience, especially for new captains. Therefore, it’s important to know how to handle the situation when it occurs.
First, prevent yourself from landing up in dangerous situations by checking the NOAA weather report for your region before leaving. The NOAA weather report is accurate and makes it easy for you to get updates while you are out on the water. Most VHF marine radios have NOAA channels included in their features and functions.
If the weather turns sour when you are out on the water, pay attention to the wind direction and where the clouds are moving. Notice the wind speed and any signs of lighting or rain to give you an idea of where the storm is coming from and its likelihood of crossing your path.
When the storm hits, make sure everyone is wearing their life jackets. Call the USGC using channel 16 on your VHF marine radio if there is an emergency or risk to property or life. In rough weather, the best thing you can do is calm your nerves and avoid panicking—panicking causes you to make bad decisions that could put people’s lives at risk.
How to Avoid Collisions with other Boats
While collisions between boats are rare, they happen from time to time. Follow these guidelines to avoid becoming a victim of a collision with another vessel.
- Follow all harbor rules and pay attention to your surroundings when leaving the harbor and reaching open water.
- Keep a lookout for all surrounding vessels and where they are heading.
- Ensure you have plenty of room available when overtaking or passing other boats.
- Reduce speed in low-visibility or rough conditions.
- Avoid using alcohol; you could receive a $1,000 fine or jail time if convicted.
- Give way to sailboats, commercial ships, and vessels with restricted maneuverability.
Overtake other vessels using the proper sound signal. Use a single short burst to signal your overtaking from the boat’s port side and two shots for overtaking on the starboard side.