How to Drive a Boat: Step-by-Step Guide

driving a boat

So: you haven't owned a boat before, but after discovering that the boating lifestyle is awesome (we agree!), you've begun exploring our Boat Finder Tool—and luckily, you've found your ideal boat. 

how to drive a boat

Now, you're probably thinking that your next big challenge will be learning how to drive that boat—and you're right—but don't let the prospect feel daunting.

Remember the first time you sat behind the wheel of a car? You may have experienced a bit of trepidation then, too. But you probably got over it quickly, and driving became second nature before you knew it. In all likelihood, you'll have a similar experience as you learn how to drive your boat.

This post will review the basics of learning how to drive a boat.

How to Drive a Boat

1. If your boat is powered by gasoline and has an engine compartment, run the "blower" (an exhaust fan) as per the manufacturer's recommendations before starting the engine to ensure there isn't a build-up of fumes in the compartment. This is an excellent time to run through your Pre-Departure Checklist.
2. Put the key into the ignition (some modern boats have push-buttons instead), and turn it to start the engine.
3. If the boat has a "kill switch" (also known as an engine safety cut-off, which automatically turns the engine off if you leave the helm for any reason), clip the lanyard on a belt loop of the life jacket ring.
4. Ensure all your gear is aboard and all your passengers are ready to disembark. 
5. Remove all the lines securing the boat to the dock, pier, or slip.
6. Engage forward (or reverse if you need to back out of a slip) by gently pushing the throttle handle forward (or pulling it back) until you feel it shift into gear.
7. When the boat begins moving, spin the wheel just as you would turn the steering wheel in a car to determine the direction of travel.
8. Advance the throttle as appropriate to reach the desired speed.
9. Trim (adjust running attitude) the boat as appropriate for the conditions.
10. When you want to slow down, gently pull the throttle back towards the neutral position.

How to Get a Boating License

How to Start a Boat

Starting a boat is as simple as turning the key, but there are a few safety items you need to be aware of that aren't present in automobiles and which may prevent the engine from turning over.

Engine Safety Cut-Off or "Kill Switch"

The first safety item that's important to note is one we mentioned above: the kill switch or engine safety cut-off. This is a small red knob found next to the ignition on most small or open boats. 

In the closed position, the switch won't allow the engine to start. A small clip fitted to slide under the knob pulls it back into the open position. This clip is attached to a lanyard with a tether clip on the other end. 

Before operating your boat, you should always clip this onto a loop on your lifejacket or a belt loop. Then, if you move away from the helm, the lanyard yanks the clip out from under the knob, and the engine immediately stops.

Throttle

Another safety feature that can prevent a boat engine from starting is the throttle, which must be in the neutral position. If the boat battery is turned on and fully charged, you turn the key, and the engine doesn't start, it's often because the kill switch is engaged or the throttle isn't neutral.

boat throttle

How to Operate the Boat's Throttle

Think of a boat's throttle like a car's accelerator pedal. However, unlike a car, it stays there once you adjust it to a specific speed. Therefore, slowing down requires more than just taking your foot off a pedal; you must grasp the throttle and pull it back. This is important to remember because when you see a large wave or lots of incoming traffic, you must be prepared to move the throttle accordingly.

This brings up an important point we still need to cover: situational awareness. When driving any motorized vehicle, it's crucial to constantly monitor your surroundings for anything that might require a response—a traffic light, pedestrians, other vehicles, etc. The same is true when you're operating a boat. 

In boating terms, this is referred to as "maintaining a proper lookout." As the boat captain, you must always watch your surroundings and recognize when there's a risk of collision, running aground, hitting a big wave, or any other factor that could require a response at the helm.

How to Steer a Boat

As we pointed out, using a steering wheel on a boat is very similar to using a steering wheel in an automobile. You turn the wheel, and the boat follows—mostly.

You need to always remember that there are other factors influencing a boat’s direction of travel, like wind, waves, and current. As a result, boats may handle differently in different conditions and a turn of the wheel may not always change the boat’s direction exactly as planned. This can be particularly frustrating when docking, which many new boaters describe as one of the most challenging maneuvers to learn. So before you give it your first shot study up on the process, by reading our Docking a Boat: a Step-by-Step Guide.

Once you have steering and docking down pat, you may be tempted into making long cruises to distant ports, or fishing hotspots that are beyond eyesight of the marina. To get there and back safely, you’ll need to take another big step in your boating career and learn how to navigate a boat.

Understanding Boating Right of Way Rules

How to Slow a Boat

We already mentioned that you have to manipulate the throttle to get a boat to slow down, but since boats don't have brakes, there's a bit more you need to know.

  • First, become familiar with your boat and learn how much stopping distance is required to come to a complete stop safely when running at different speeds.
  • Remember, boats don't have seatbelts and are subject to much more motion than land vehicles. As a result, abrupt changes in speed or direction can throw people off balance or even cause them to fall overboard.
  • Always be conscious of how you adjust speed or turn. In quick maneuvers, you'll also want to warn your passengers so they know to hold on.
     
    slowing or stopping a boat

All of that said, you can slow a boat fastest by:

  • first pulling the throttle back to neutral;

  • pausing for a moment; 

  • then shifting into reverse and applying some power.

Remember to always pause in neutral and don't shift directly from forward into reverse because quickly shifting can cause mechanical damage in some boats.

It's also important to note that many other aspects of driving a boat relate to your and your passengers' safety. Most states require you to take an boating safety course before running your own boat. 

How to Trim a Boat

With the basics under your belt, you'll want to learn some of the finer points of driving a boat that will help it run smoother and more efficiently. One essential item to remember is how to trim a boat. Trimming consists of manipulating the outdrive's angle or deploying "trim tabs" (small plates on the stern of the boat).

  • How you trim it determines how high the bow rises in relation to the stern and how to level the boat does or doesn't run.
  • Trim is different on every boat, so trial and error is the best way to learn how your boat responds to changes in drive angle and/or using tabs.
  • Also, keep in mind that on smaller boats, shifts in weight distribution (such as a passenger moving from one area of the boat to another) can cause changes in trim.

Learn More: How to Trim a Boat

Conclusion: Practice Makes Perfect!

All boat models are more or less unique, but a few require some special attention. Pontoon boats, for example, have some unusual traits. 

One final word of advice: remember that all boats are different, and it takes some practice to learn how to drive any boat.


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Editor’s Note: This article was updated in February 2023.