There is a line from the film Captain Ron which is very true: “whatever is going to happen… it’s going to happen out there!” New boat owners and experienced ones all have a time trying to “feel out” their new vessel and how she maneuvers. As we all know, every boat is different and they all handle differently. The best way to learn how your boat will handle is to take it out and play with it; but there are a few helpful things that will make this test go smoother.
1 – Take it Slow
Most captains have found that taking all maneuvers at a slow speed allows mistakes with little or no damage to your vessel or others. We tend to want to show our skill by making maneuvers at quick speed or short cuts. But taking it slow and easy until you feel comfortable is the better choice.
2 – Wind and Currents
Every captain who has had time on the water knows the wind and current can make things much more difficult. Funny thing… there is usually wind and current. I myself have been enjoying a casual sail near the mouth of Pensacola Bay, not really paying attention to currents, only to find myself with a Northeast heading but being pulled South by the falling tide. You need to be aware of the tidal currents and wind direction when under way, docking, or leaving a berth. By taking it slow you can feel how these physical factors influence your maneuverability and make corrections. You will be learning your boat AND the local waterways. Pay attention to these factors while at the helm.
3 – Rudder Position and Steerage
When first taking your boat on the water you will need to feel how the steerage is going to respond. One thing to remember is that the position of your rudder will also be the point of direction of your bow; a starboard rudder will move the bow left. More importantly when you turn your vessel the stern will respond first – YOU NEED TO MAKE SURE YOUR STERN IS CLEAR before making a turning maneuver.
4 – Docking and Lines
Docking and leaving a berth can sometimes be tricky… and others are watching so the pressure is on. First rule here is to consider the wind and current and use to your advantage. Moving into the wind and current at slow speed makes many of these maneuvers easier. If the wind is forcing you into the berth you will need to think through your lines and, especially if single handed, consider which lines to remove first; remove lines that are holding you off the dock last. When approaching a berth into the wind give enough power to make headway and tie off the bow first. In some cases a spring line may be needed to keep off. If the wind is forcing you onto the dock fenders are always a good idea. Again, the bow line first.
There is so much that could go into this article on boat handling. Chapman’s Piloting dedicates 38 pages to this topic. Items like single screws and twin screws, inboards and outboards, using lines to leave and enter berths, are all mentioned in these pages. I would recommend reading resources such as Chapman’s Piloting or enrolling in a boat course with the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary or the U.S. Power Squadron to lean more. Again, slow moving practice on the water will do wonders to improve the handling of your boat. If you have specific questions on boat handling you can contact Sea Grant Agent Rick O’Connor at the Escambia County Extension Office: (850) 475-5230 or firstname.lastname@example.org.