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Back to Basics: Boat Handling 101

Stay calm, cool and in control when docking, and go with confidence.

Back to Basics: Boat Handling 101

While a joystick can alleviate docking anxiety, understanding how outboard steering and throttle affect your boat’s movement remains irreplaceable.

As a guide who spends a lot of time helping others learn to fish and operate their own boats, I’m amazed at how intimidated most novice boaters are by close quarters operation of their vessel. I get for the first time at the helm how someone might be apprehensive, but if you’re still having panic attacks after a year, it’s a problem. Let’s fix it!

Modern outboard boats often come equipped with joystick technology, which is the industry’s way of taking advantage of this fear and offering a “solution” to your lack of helmsmanship. Sadly, the new technology hasn’t made it easier to overcome this problem—in fact maybe just the opposite.

Don’t get me wrong, the joystick can certainly be helpful. The problem is when an inexperienced boater relies on the stick as their sole means of control in every situation at the dock. Before you lean on the joystick, practice how to dock without one. Learn how the engines move your boat using the shifter and throttle alone.

The first rule is that a boat doesn’t have brakes. You must apply an opposite force to a moving vessel to stop momentum. If you’re heading forward in a straight line and shift into reverse without changing your steering, you’ll slow the boat’s forward progress. By adding throttle slowly, you’ll come to a stop and if you continue to accelerate in reverse, the boat will back up. Remember, this is with the engine(s) pointing straight.

The second rule you must understand about a moving boat can be explained by Newton’s third law of motion: “For every action, there will be an equal and opposite reaction.”

Whenever you are moving forward or backwards, the direction of thrust and travel applied to one end of the boat will be met with equal force in the opposite direction on the other side (see photo).

For example, if you were in forward and turned the wheel to port, the force would be applied from the rear on the port side pushing your stern away from the dock in the direction of the red arrow in the port/aft corner. As this is happening, your bow on the port side will go in the opposite direction, toward the dock, in the direction of the green arrow on the port/bow.

Completing the same action with the engine(s) in reverse does the opposite. Wheel turned to port in reverse pulls the port/aft corner toward the dock and draws the port/bow away from the dock. It works the same way from all four corners in any direction moving port to starboard in forward or reverse.

Always remember to have lines out and ready to deploy before you approach the dock. Look at how the water sweeps around a piling to determine the direction and speed of the current and check a flag for the wind direction. Consider how these factors will apply force to your boat while docking and compensate accordingly. Once you become comfortable at the wheel, if you find the conditions a little extra challenging, the trusty joystick might now come in handy.


  • This article was featured in the April 2024 issue of Florida Sportsman magazine. Click to subscribe.



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