22 Safe Boating Skills That Every Boater Should Know

Tom Wiesen

Nov 26, 2021

Learn a solid foundation for how to operate your boat safely, and master basic safe boating skills. This will increase everyone’s enjoyment on your boat. In this easy-to-follow boating guide, you’ll learn essential boat safety and must-know basic boating skills. 

You’ll learn what to bring on your boat, how to do a pre-launch inspection of your boat, how to safely start your boat, how to safely drive your boat, how to properly anchor your boat, and how to put your boat away after a great day on the water.

close-up photo of boat steering wheel

Safe boating skills are learned. With practice, they’ll be something you’ll apply to every outing.

Pre-boating Guide

First, know the weather forecast and the wind conditions. If there’s a chance of a serious storm, don’t get too far away from safety. Being out in the middle of a body of water in a lightening storm is not safe. So in this case, get yourself back to shore, find a harbor, and take a break on land until the storm passes. 

Before leaving on your outing, consider who are your emergency contacts, and if you have a mechanical breakdown, whom can you call? This is especially important on larger bodies of water. If you have the number for a tow service from a marina, it can make life a lot easier in case of an unexpected problem.

Let’s consider some things you’ll need to have on board. First, make sure there are US Coast Guard Approved life jackets on board. One for each person, and if you have kids, make sure you have child sizes, and if you have a baby, the baby should have its own special life jacket. In cooler climates, make sure everyone has dry clothes and a jacket or fleece.

Next, make sure you have an anchor, anchor line, and bow and stern lines. If you are going to do activities behind your boat like wake boarding or tubing, make sure you have a tow rope.

Other items to consider are a first aid kit, a fire extinguisher, a simple tool kit, and some rags for keeping things dry and clean. 

8 Pre-boating Checklist

  • Know the weather forecast
  • Have an emergency contact before leaving
  • Life jackets for all adults and children
  • Anchor and anchor line
  • Bow rope, stern rope, tow rope
  • First Aid kit
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Basic tool kit

Pre-launch Boat Inspection

A quick pre-launch boat inspection can alleviate problems while out on the water.  The first thing to check is your fuel level. A full fuel tank is best so you don’t have to think about it while out enjoying your day on the water.

Next, if you have an inboard engine, or I/O engine, open up the engine cover and take a look and a smell. Is there water in the bilge? If so you’ll want to turn on your bilge pump once your engine is started. Does it smell like gas fumes? If yes, you need to find out why. Gas fumes are extremely dangerous and a boat fire is serious. 

Smells ok? Great. At this time turn on your blower. This removes any dangerous fumes from the engine compartment, and along with your open cover, you’ll give plenty of ventilation to make the start-up safe. 

Visually inspect the engine for any problems. No loose wires, no loose belts, or no leaking fluids. If everything looks good, close your engine cover and latch it. 

5 Pre-launch Boat Inspection Checklist

  • Full fuel
  • Open engine cover
  • Inspect engine and water in bilge
  • Smell for dangerous fumes
  • Turn on engine blower

Starting Your Boat Motor

If you have an inboard outboard, or outboard motor, use your power trim and lower your drive into the water so the propeller is submerged. With your blower still on, put your shifter in neutral and give a little throttle and turn the key to start your engine. 

starting your boat motor

Before starting, be sure to lower your motor into the water until the propeller is submerged, so you’ll draw water for your cooling system.

Once the engine starts rev your engine just enough to keep it running smoothly, but don’t over-rev a cold engine. When it smooths out, put it in neutral and let it idle until warm. Now is the time to turn on your bilge pump. Turn it off once the water is removed it should only take 30 seconds or so. At this time, you can also turn off your blower.

With your engine started and warming up, go ahead and untie your bow and stern lines, and bring any bumpers inside the boat. Be certain there are no ropes hanging in the water that could get dragged into the propeller. Secure all lines in storage compartments or on the floor where they’ll stay put. Keep ropes out of walking areas. Ropes on hard surfaces create a slip hazard if you step on them. 

Starting Your Motor Checklist

  • Lower the propeller below water level
  • Shifter in neutral, give small amount throttle
  • Rev engine just enough to make smooth
  • Idle the engine to warm it up
  • Turn on your bilge pump
  • Untie and secure all lines inside the boat
  • Turn off the bilge pump
  • Turn off engine blower

Safe Boat Driving

At this time you are clear to push away from the dock, drop your mooring line, or walk your boat to deeper water to begin. Once everyone is safely on board and sitting, or at least hanging on, with your engine at idle, ease your boat into gear. Remember your power trim is still up so keep your engine speed low. As you get into deeper water, go ahead and lower your trim fully. 

Once you have a destination in mind, and you are a safe distance from other boaters and swimmers, push smoothly on the throttle and get up to your desired speed. Keep in mind, 150 feet is the minimum distance you want to be from other boats when you are running at any speed other than idle. 

Be considerate of others, and give wide berth. Also, if you seem to be on a course that is the same as another boat, be courteous and adjust your direction so you turn in to go behind it.

Next begs the question, how fast do I drive my boat? This depends on what your objective is. If everyone is relaxing and talking, just choose a low cruising speed where everyone can continue talking. You’ll reach your destination, and you won’t disrupt the relaxed vibe. 

If you’re in wavy conditions, you’ll want to choose a moderate speed so your bow cuts through the waves and gives a smooth ride without pounding. If you’re in really wavy conditions, “quartering” the waves at a 45-degree angle versus head-on will likely make your ride safer and smoother as well.

Once you are up on a plane and up to speed, raise your power trim to raise your bow slightly for efficient cruising. Learn more about using power trim and trim tabs to easily plane your boat and level your boat.

boat cruising speed

Once up to cruising speed, raise the trim of the motor to elevate the bow of the boat for efficient cruising.

What about higher speeds? Think about it like being a passenger in a car. Speed is ok, but no one likes to get thrown around or have to grab onto a handle. Keep it smooth. Like in your car, slow down for sharp turns, and accelerate out of the turns to make it feel comfortable. 

Lots of times, families and friends like to go wakeboarding, water skiing, or tubing behind the boat. This is a specialized skill set for driving, and you’ll want to learn the know-how by reading how to drive a boat for wakeboarding, water skiing, and tubing.

Be on the lookout for shallow water. This may be a sandbar, a rock shoal, or a reef. If you’re not sure, go slow. Hitting a shallow area at speed is hazardous, and can cause very costly damage to your outdrive and propeller.

What about no-wake zones? These are areas that tend to be narrow like a channel, going under a bridge, or pulling into a marina. Respect no-wake zones and stay at idle or slightly above. It makes it more enjoyable for everyone, and you’ll be obeying the law. 

Drive Your Boat Safely Checklist

  • Everyone clear before engaging propeller
  • Everyone sitting or hanging on before moving
  • Lower your trim fully before accelerating
  • Be considerate and courteous to other boaters
  • Stay 150 feet away from other boats
  • Choose a safe and comfortable speed
  • Use your power trim and trim tabs for efficiency
  • Learn skills to drive for wake boarding, water skiing, and tubing
  • Watch out for shallow water
  • Respect no-wake zones
boat decelerate before the turn

Like driving your car, decelerate before the turn, and accelerate coming out of the turn to give a smooth high-performance feel that’s comfortable for passengers.

How To Anchor Your Boat

With most boats, you’ll want to anchor from the bow. Head into the wind and position yourself upwind of your desired placement. This makes it so lines don’t go under the boat and get tangled on your propeller or outdrive. 

Use a long anchor line so your anchor doesn’t simply drag. To determine how long your anchor rope should be, for every foot of depth, you’ll want 5 to 7 feet of length. For instance if the water is 10 feet deep, you’ll want your anchor line to be 50 to 70 feet long. If you are anchoring in 20 feet of water, your anchor line should be 100 to 140 feet long. 

When you are ready to depart after swimming or relaxing, make sure everybody is on board as you are pulling up anchor. To pull up your anchor with ease, keep pulling in the rope toward the anchor giving the boat momentum. Then as the rope gets near vertical, relax the line. Then as you pass over the anchor, pull tension again. This makes the anchor come easily unhooked from any rocks. 

Get your anchor properly stowed and get all of the lines put away so they don’t drag in the water and suddenly get tangled in the propeller. Also make sure all life jackets, tubes, floaty toys, towels, etc. are properly secured so they don’t blow out.

Anchor Your Boat Checklist

  • Point the boat into the wind
  • Anchor off of the bow
  • Use a long anchor line for deeper water
  • Check everyone is on board before pulling anchor
  • Pull up the anchor with momentum to unhook from rocks
  • Secure anchor and lines inside boat
  • Secure all life jackets, towels, toys before accelerating
  • Always run your engine blower before restarting the boat

ENDING THE DAY OF BOATING

So let’s assume you had a very enjoyable, safe, and courteous day out on your boat. You are coming back to shore to your mooring, your slip, the dock, or your trailer. Slow your boat down early and come to an idle. Remember, moderate-low speeds sink your drive and propeller to its maximum depth, so by slowing down to idle early, you will avoid shallow water issues. This also gives time for your engine cool down. 

boat

If you are cruising at speed and come into shallower water, decelerate quickly to idle to keep your propeller near the surface. Slow deceleration puts your prop at max depth.

As you get into shallower water, use your trim to raise your drive and propeller so you don’t hit bottom. If you had wet people getting in and out of the boat all day, turn on your bilge pump. In very shallow water, raise your drive so you still have some bite with your propeller, and slide it in and out of gear to keep you moving forward slowly and safely.

After unloading everyone and all of the gear, take a towel and wipe the water off of the entire boat and upholstery. It will keep it nice for the next time you go out. Hang life jackets and lines in such a way that they dry and don’t get moldy. If you put life jackets or tubes, etc. in the back of a pick up truck, or they are in a towed boat, be sure they are secured so they don’t blow out on your ride home.

CONCLUSION

So let’s review a great care-free day of boating. First, know your weather. Have life jackets for everyone. Have an emergency contact, and start with plenty of fuel. When starting, use your blower, and keep people clear of the propeller. Remember to start with your power trim up, and lower it as it gets deeper. 

bird's eye view shot of safe boat cruising

Everyone enjoys riding with a safe and courteous boat driver.

Always be courteous to other boaters and give way. Go slow in no wake zones, and give wide distance at speed. Choose a speed that makes sense for your conditions, and for your passengers. When anchoring, use plenty of rope. Always make sure all lines are inside the boat to avoid tangling in the propeller. 

When you finish your day, bring your boat to an idle well outside the shallow zone. Use your power trim, as it gets shallow. Lastly, unload everything from the boat, and a couple of people with towels can wipe down an entire boat inside and out in a few minutes. Store life jackets and ropes so they can dry out and breathe.

If you learn these basic boating skills, they will apply to every outing, and it will make you a safe and courteous boater that everyone will enjoy riding with.

QUICK GUIDE TO SAFE BOATING

  • Know the weather
  • Life jackets for all passengers
  • Have an emergency contact
  • Start with plenty of fuel
  • Use engine blower before every start
  • Lower your propeller into water before starting
  • Secure lines inside to avoid tangling in the propeller
  • Keep people clear of propeller
  • Lower your trim before accelerating
  • Choose a safe and comfortable speed
  • Be courteous to other boaters
  • Go slow in no-wake zones
  • Keep distance from other boats 
  • Use plenty of rope when anchoring
  • Idle early when entering shallow water
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