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Beginners Guide to Boat Driving


If you are not experienced in boating and controlling a vessel on the water, the thought of a boating holiday may be intimidating. Take some comfort in the knowledge that it doesn’t take long to pick up the basics. It can be helpful to give yourself a little knowledge of the fundamentals before you get started.

Here’s our beginner’s guide to boat driving…

Before setting off

You should pack appropriately before setting off on a boat holiday, so do your research to learn what you will need. Your choice of shoes will make a big difference – non-slip footwear is important for the deck, and you may want some wellies for when you come across river banks and muddy walks.

Your whole party should be equipped with life jackets when you are on or around the boat. Even as you are casting off from the jetty, you should wear that jacket as a precaution. The mooring is likely to be wet and there is always a risk of slipping.

Even your dog should wear a life jacket – you can usually find them online.

Key terms to learn for boating

You don’t necessarily need to learn all the boating jargon, but a few key terms and phrases will help.

The four nautical directions are a good place to start:

  • Bow: this is the front of the boat
  • Stern: this is the boat’s rear end
  • Port: the left side of the boat as you face the bow
  • Starboard: the right side of the boat when facing the bow

Other terms you might want to know:

  • Casting off: this is when you depart from your mooring, unsecuring the boat to head out to sea.
  • Mooring: this is the place where you secure your boat when you stop during the day or for the night.

Signalling to other boats

You will encounter other people on boats, and horn blasts are a common way to communicate. Their purpose is to alert other boaters to something, so pay attention to what you hear:

  • One short blast: left turn
  • Two short blasts: right turn
  • Three short blasts: reversing

You may want to use these signals yourself as well, so be sure to memorise what each one means.

Boat driving: the basics

Starting the engine

The engine should be running before you cast off. You should have the throttle lever in neutral. Disengage the gearbox by pulling out the choke then push the throttle lever up to half power.

With a cold engine, you can usually turn the ignition key to ‘pre-heat’. After 30-40 seconds it will indicate that it is ready and then you can start the engine. Otherwise, you can immediately turn the key to the start position. Once the engine fires up, release the key and it will move into the run position. Return the throttle level to neutral before you engage gear.

Cast off

When you release the mooring and come aboard, bring all the ropes and anchors with you. Never throw anchors as they may hit someone or damage something. Mooring ropes should be safely coiled on deck – don’t leave anything trailing in the water as it could disrupt the propeller. When you are ready to depart, check you have everyone on board and move off once you are clear.

Slowing and stopping

Please note that a boat cannot simply brake like a car. You must give yourself plenty of time to stop. You do it by easing off the throttle into neutral and allowing the boat to slow gradually. You can put it in reverse and slowly increase the throttle to stop a little quicker; once it stops you should quickly return to neutral. Keep in mind that the back end of the boat will swing out a little.


Boats do not steer as cars do. They respond far more slowly when you turn the wheel and the rear of the boat will swing outwards. It is important to always be mindful of what is happening with the stern. When wind and/or tides are affecting a boat, it can drift in unexpected directions. This means that even if you are only navigating in a straight line, you may need to adjust your steering to compensate for minor deviations.


The reversing process starts by taking the boat out of gear. Unlike your car, boats are steered from the back. When you are reversing, your steering will feel counterintuitive at first. If you want to turn to starboard while reversing, you will need to turn the helm hard to port before engaging the reverse gear. You must also be aware of the wind and compensate for any effect it is having on the boat.

Passing etiquette

The rule is to keep to the right when driving a boat along a river. When you approach an oncoming boat on the waterway, pass it on the right-hand side. If you encounter a yacht, the best course of action is to slow right down. Sailboats always have right of way over powered ones, and you should never pass in front of a sailboat. Alter your course to pass behind if necessary. They may direct you as to which side to pass so watch for the sailboat’s crew signalling to you. In any case, take great care when passing a sailboat.

Coming in to moor

Moorings are usually either ‘alongside’ or ‘stern-on’. It is down to you to assess the mooring and decide on the best approach. Once you have become skilled at reversing, both types of mooring should be fairly straightforward. Alongside moorings are often the most common, so you might want to watch some videos to familiarise yourself with the processes involved.

Final considerations

Cruisers are not always equipped with navigational lights for night cruising. If you don’t have the necessary equipment for the night, you should aim to moor no later than one hour before sunset. Cruising at night is a different prospect and you may not be insured for it. The reduced visibility is very dangerous, particularly without any navigation lights. Journeys should always be well planned out to avoid being out after sunset, and you should always give yourself plenty of wiggle room with the timings.

Be aware of speed limits for boats in certain areas. These are in place for a reason and you must stick to them where required. They keep everyone safe and also help to prevent bank erosion and protect wildlife, so they are very important.

Finally: have a great time! Boating can provide a slower, luxurious pace of life. There are likely to be other people around who you can ask for help or advice if you are uncertain about anything. The boating community is a good one!

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