Tips for Small Boat Handling

By Tom Neale, 11/10/2011


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It seems that these days we hear of more and more small boat mishaps and disasters, often deadly. A lot’s been said about small boat handling. Unfortunately, because of the nature of the beast, whatever anyone says is likely to be at least a little bit inappropriate, at least sometimes, depending on the circumstances. I’ve been handling small boats for well over 50 years. I know that whatever I say about the subject will suffer the same infirmities, but here are a few general comments addressing some of the issue I frequently see. There are many more.

1. Keep the boat well trimmed. When under way the bow should not be down. More and more we’re seeing people running boats with the bow down. Not only does running bow down promote waves flooding in over the bow, it also makes the boat less stable as it runs and more difficult to steer. One thing that may be contributing to this is the proliferation of bow riders. These may have a tendency to influence some folks to put too much weight forward. To make matters worse, some bow riders can be like a big spoon, just scooping water in when the waves come. But we can’t just blame this on the type of boat. The folks aboard, or at least the skipper, should have better sense and can’t escape the responsibility.

Practice safe fast boat handling in non-
congested waters.

2. A power boat should normally not be heeling (unless temporarily and slightly when making a turn). Often we see them moving along with weight of people, coolers, tanks or other items to one side, causing an artificial list. This increases the likelihood of capsize should something happen unexpectedly which further contributes to destabilization of the boat and it also makes the boat more difficult to steer.

3. It isn’t necessarily best to meet waves bow on. Often this will result in the wave coming aboard suddenly as a large volume of water. This will depend on your boat, the speed you’re running (which should normally be relatively slow if you’re encountering waves) and the boat’s buoyancy and other characteristics. Generally it’s best to take incoming sea to the port or starboard side just aft of the bow rather than dead on. This allows that broader and hopefully more buoyant hull section to meet the rising water, but is far forward of taking it on the beam which could flip you. Also if you take it dead on the bow, you’re more likely to have that narrow bow, which is designed to cut through the water, cut through the wave and not rise as much as is needed, allowing the wave to board you. Exactly how far aft of the prow you take a wave will depend on all the variables and will even change with conditions such as wave height and type and loading. But as you grow accustomed to the boat you should get a good feel for this.

4. Pay attention to seas astern. A surprising number of small boats (and also quite a few larger ones) are swamped when a sea comes over the stern. Normally the top of the stern is lower that the top of the sides in other areas around the boat. This is made more so by a cutout for an outboard. Also, it’s often open to the cockpit or interior of the boat, unlike the bow area which may have at least a small deck or covering to help deflect waves from coming down inside the boat. One common cause of getting pooped is, as you might expect, overloading astern. It’s natural to move people and other weight back there because it’s wider and seemingly more stable.

Rough seas require careful boat handling.
Another common cause of getting swamped from the stern is slowing down too quickly, particularly with an outboard. The following wake catches up with your boat and floods over the stern cutout. Normally the boat should be able to handle this, but if this is coincidentally coupled with a naturally occurring following sea and with too much loading astern, the boat could suddenly take on so much water that it becomes very unstable and possibly sinks. This happens more often than you might expect. 5. Running with following sea requires a skill set very different from that required with other angles of attack and, some might say, even a greater degree of care. You must, while keeping lookout all around as you would normally, also keep a watch astern for the oncoming following sea. Often you’ll need to throttle up or down to keep the boat in a safe position relative to the sea and to avoid potentially disastrous consequences as it reaches the bottom and encounters the next wave. For example, in high seas you don’t want to fall over the crest, bow first into the trough. If this happens the bow may dig into the next wave or the boat may slide down, beginning to turn sideways and flipping. If the bow digs down into the sea as it meets the next wave this could cause catastrophic flooding or it could cause the boat to flip either to the side or flip stern over bow or somewhere in between. Usually these things are more likely to occur when you’re running too fast for the conditions but they can also occur, given the right circumstances, at relatively slow speeds.

6. It’s commonly understood that we should avoid running or even drifting with seas on the beam. But unfortunately, there are occasions when we need to do this, at least for a short while. If they’re breaking or very big for the boat, we probably should figure some other way to handle the situation and not run with seas on the beam. But if it’s critically necessary to run for awhile with a beam sea, watch the seas very carefully and be prepared to turn into a wave that looks like it’s going to break or be large enough to upset the boat’s stability. On some boats you can dampen the rolling and help with stabilization by the way you steer. Turning slightly into or out of the wave, at just the right time and just the right degree can help keep the boat on a more even keel. Like so much of boat handling, this requires a lot of practice and familiarity with your boat and its characteristics. Learn, but not at the expense of capsizing.

7. Don’t travel in limited visibility unless you really need to, really know what you’re doing, have appropriate navigational tools for limited visibility, have all of your nav and instrument lights working, know well the territory, travel slow, and keep careful watch for others travelling. This could include boats traveling unlit at high speed and possibly with impaired operators.

Tom’s Tips About Getting Hurricane Facts

1. It’s always good to begin with on-the-water instruction by knowledgeable experienced people. Learning boat handling takes much more than a quickie session of an hour or so.

2. Learn in uncrowded waters, even if you must do it on week days.

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8. Never run the boat while impaired and also have at least one other person to help who is also not impaired.


While there are many very good general principles and concepts about small boat handling (and handling of any boat), there are so many variables it’s difficult to cast anything into cement. Variables can include different types of boats, different types of boat conditions, different types of power configurations, different sea conditions, different weather conditions, different degrees of visibility, different sets of operator knowledge and skills and much more. So don’t take anything I’ve said here as gospel and know that I’ve hardly scratched the surface as to skills that you need to safely handle a small boat. There are many more issues of equal and greater importance. Go to courses and learn the rules, but that’s just the beginning. You need to learn to handle your boat on the water, practicing safely as you learn. Like learning any skills it takes time. But it’s worth it.


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