12 Most Common Boating Mistakes & How to Avoid Them

boating fails

We all make mistakes, and even if you’ve carefully read through our Boat Ownership guide, there’s a fair chance that sooner or later something will slip your mind and you’ll be uttering “oops.” That’s okay, even the oldest salts on the water slip up now and again.

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That said, we all certainly want to minimize the mistakes we make, and some snafus are so common we should be on the lookout for them at all times. Here are a dozen blooper-induced, boating fails and dilemmas you can avoid with just a little bit of knowledge and forethought.

12 Common Boating Fails to Avoid

  1. Failing to check the marine weather forecast
  2. Running aground
  3. Forgetting to keep up with regular maintenance
  4. Hitting the dock
  5. Running out of gas
  6. Forgetting to put in the drain plug
  7. Overloading the boat
  8. Getting lost
  9. Putting out insufficient anchor line
  10. Running the engine while dry
  11. Improperly mooring the boat
  12. Trailering with the engine down and/or the top up

Now, let's talk about how to avoid each of these mistakes...

First-Time Boat Owners: How to Get Started


1. Failing to Check the Marine Weather Forecast

Tuning in to marine weather prior to each and every trip is a must, unless you want to be surprised by gusty winds, rough seas, and sudden storms. And remember, this means marine weather, not those regular land-based forecasts which regularly post lower wind speeds and no sea conditions.

One of the best ways to make sure you never encounter this error is to check out the Best Marine Weather Apps for Boaters and put one to use right before you leave the dock. For more information, be sure to also read Weather Safety Tips for Boaters.


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2. Running Aground

Running aground is a lot more common than you might think, and can have varying degrees of severity depending on where you do your boating. On a soft mud or sand bottom it’s usually no big deal, but in a rocky harbor, hitting bottom can do some serious damage.

The solution? Always be aware of where you are and what the local underwater hazards may be. And when in doubt, slowing down is a good idea. For additional tips, read 7 Tips for Boating in Shallow Water.

What is the Best Way to Avoid Running Aground?


3. Forgetting to Keep Up with Regular Maintenance

Making this mistake can have very serious consequences, especially when it comes to your boat’s propulsion systems. Be sure to peruse our Boat Maintenance pages, create a schedule, and stick to it.

The Ultimate Boat Maintenance Guide


4. Hitting the Dock

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There’s an old saying among boaters, and it has a lot of value when it comes to making this mistake: never approach a dock faster than you’re willing to hit it. Even when you’re doing everything right, a sudden power loss or mechanical problem can strike. The net result? Boat, meet dock. Dock, meet boat. Crunch!

In addition to keeping this saying foremost in mind every time you approach a dock, check out our Step-by-Step Guide to Docking a Boat to hone your skills.


5. Running Out of Gas

As you might guess, this is one of the most common mistakes people make. Remember that fuel consumption and your boat’s range can be changed by factors like sea conditions and load. Making matters worse, fuel gauge readings can change as fuel sloshes in the tank, and the fuel gauges on boats are often not as reliable as those found in automobiles in the first place.

As a result, smart boaters will stick with the following formula: use one third fuel capacity going out, use one third coming back, and save one third in reserve.

Running Out of Gas: What You Need to Know


6. Forgetting to Put in the Drain Plug

This is another mistake that’s all too familiar to many of us, especially trailer-boaters, who commonly remove the plug between uses. No wonder it earns a mention in our article How to Launch a Boat, which we hope all trailer-boaters read through, in any case. There are tips in there that will help you avoid several other mistakes than can be just as embarrassing, even if they are less common.

How to Launch a Boat


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7. Overloading the Boat

This miscalculation can be downright dangerous, so always keep track of the weight of both people and gear when you’re loading up the boat.

Check the boat’s capacity plate to make sure you’re in the safe zone, if you haven’t already memorized your boat’s maximum capacity.


8. Getting Lost

Although this happens less and less on the water these days thanks to modern marine electronics and navigation instruments it does still happen. And any electrical systems can have gremlins, so you need to always be aware of your location and how to get home regardless of what electronics you have aboard.

If your boat doesn’t have nav gear, consider adding a marine navigation app to your phone, which essentially turns it into a mini-chartplotter.


9. Putting Out Insufficient Anchor Line

Anchoring a boat seems like a simple task: just drop down the anchor, cleat off the line, and the boat will stay put… right? Not necessarily.

Even in calm seas if you don’t let out enough line to match three times the depth, the anchor may well pull free. And in a breeze, a “scope” (length of anchor line) of 5:1 or 7:1 as compared to water depth is considered minimal. When it’s rough out, 10:1 may be necessary.

How to Anchor a Boat


10. Running the Engine Dry

The vast majority of marine engines (excluding air-cooled and electric engines) require a supply of water for cooling purposes. But not only does the water cool the engine, it also lubricates the water pump impeller commonly found in most marine propulsion systems. Run a boat motor while it’s on dry land without a sufficient water supply, and it will overheat, the impeller will be damaged, or both.


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11. Improperly Mooring the Boat

The most common issue here is a failure to learn a proper cleat hitch. Then one might be left standing on the dock, watching the boat float away. Of course, tying up correctly in a slip is important, too, to make sure the boat doesn’t bang the dock or pilings.

Read our How to Tie Up a Boat guide, to make sure you have it down pat.


12. Trailering with the Engine Down and/or Top Up

Prepping a boat for trailering is an important task, and two things that people sometimes make mistakes with include the engine tilt and Bimini tops. In both cases, they shouldn’t be left in the up position.

Engines that are tilted all the way up can bounce and sway, putting a lot of pressure on the boat’s transom. If the trailer allows for the engine to be tilted down, great. If not, using a “transom saver” bracket that supports and secures the outboard is a must.

And when it comes to Bimini tops, remember that they aren’t designed to withstand 60 MPH winds. Rather than being left up, a convertible top should always be taken down and secured for highway-speeds.

Even if you commit everything you’ve just read to memory, will your boating days be completely mistake-free? Of course not. Mistakes are simply a part of life, in everything we do. But with a little bit of luck and some good remembering, hopefully, these 12 mistakes will be ancient history.

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