Getting Your Boat In Gear

By Chris Edmonston

A quick review of shifting gears and smoothly working the controls and throttle.

Throttle lever illustration

Shifting gears and throttle control are two skills that, in conjunction with steering-wheel control, will dictate how well you handle your boat. If you drive a car, you're used to working the gears and using a gas pedal, so it's tempting to ask, how different can it really be? Well, if you've ever been to a busy dock area, especially on a windy day, you already know the answer. There are a variety of shift and throttle controls on boats; some have separate controls, some combine them. Here we'll use a control that combines both functions into a single lever.

Shifting gears is all about smoothly and decisively working the controls to avoid lurching or picking up too much speed. Sudden or excessive throttle adjustments can lead to loss of control and cause your boat to strike the dock or another boat, so your goal is to shift into gear without exceeding idle rpm. Remember, "slow is pro," and everything you need to do to properly control your boat can be done at idle speed. Shifting from neutral should be done decisively, but without exceeding idle throttle. If you shift too slowly, you'll probably hear the gears grind. If you shift too far and begin to throttle up too quickly, you'll make the boat lunge and give your passengers an unwelcome surprise (or worse, an unexpected swim).

If you're moving from forward to reverse (or reverse to forward), always allow for a pause in neutral, long enough to say "one-one-thousand," before shifting to the next gear. Shifting too quickly can cause the engine to stall or damage the transmission.

Practice makes perfect and one simple first step you can rehearse is to find the wheel and throttle by hand, without looking. This will help build muscle memory for the ergonomics of your boat. You should also pay close attention to the sound of the transmission as you shift gears, and the change in sound of the engine as you raise or lower the throttle. Watch how your boat responds to your shift and throttle movements, and feel where the throttle changes from forward to neutral to reverse.

In close quarters, staying in gear too long or using too much throttle results in more boat speed than necessary, which forces the driver to take corrective action, and can easily turn into a series of over-corrections. By using short applications of throttle, you should be able to maintain better control of your boat's motion, and give yourself time to maneuver. Short shifts buy you the time to decide what you need to do next.

Practice Low Speed Control

  • Engage forward gear at idle speed for one second only, then return to neutral to assess your situation.
  • Engage reverse gear at idle speed for two to three seconds only, then return to neutral to assess your situation. (Boats aren't as efficient in reverse as they are in forward; that's why you can be in gear for a slightly longer time.)
  • When in neutral, pause several seconds so that you can assess your situation before shifting into gear.
  • When in gear, do not raise the throttle; stay at idle rpm. 

Chris Edmonston is president of the BoatUS Foundation for Boating Safety & Clean Water, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, independently funded by donations from BoatUS members and by grants.

— Published: December 2014


BoatUS Magazine Is A Benefit Of BoatUS Membership

Membership Also Provides:

  • Subscription to the print version of BoatUS Magazine
  • 4% back on purchases from West Marine stores or online at WestMarine.com
  • Discounts on fuel, transient slips, repairs and more at over 1,000 businesses
  • Deals on cruises, charters, car rentals, hotel stays and more ...
  • All For Only $24 A Year!

Join Today!