I f you own a boat you’re a bona fide captain—but not necessarily a good one. Although there’s truly no substitute for years of experience at the helm, a little bit of knowledge never hurts.
Combine the two?
That’s how a good captain becomes a great one. So if you’re not already familiar with these five boat-handling tricks and tactics, study up and then hit the water for the hands-on experience.
SPRINGING A LINE: Line-handling may be boring, but knowing how to spring out of a slip can really save your keister when a strong wind is holding your boat beam-to against the dock and you don’t have room fore and aft to maneuver.
The tactic is simple: run a line from a spring cleat (amidships or thereabouts, though in a pinch a bow or stern cleat can be used with a somewhat lessened effect) to a cleat that’s well aft, preferably all the way behind the boat, on the dock. With the line secured that cleat becomes a pivot-point.
Put the boat into forward gear with the wheel turned away from the dock, and the bow will turn out and away from the dock while the line prevents your boat from moving forward.
How much power you need to apply is a matter of overcoming the wind, but in any case, after applying enough juice to get the bow swung sufficiently far away from the dock you can slip the line free, and power forward.
In extremely tight quarters, or when you may not have dock cleats in the ideal positions, remember that as the bow swings out the stern will want to swing in. Whenever you spring a line it’s a good idea to post a deck or dock-hand nearby with a fender, ready to slide it between the pier and the boat.
Small boats that don’t always carry fenders can accomplish the same thing with an extra life jacket. Springing a line can also be done in reverse (just run the line forward instead of aft), when this may be necessary to get your boat off the dock.
POPPING A PLANE Anglers who ply the shallows will sooner or later find themselves in a situation where there’s enough water under the keel to float and enough to run, but not enough to get the boat onto plane.
You’ve probably noticed that when power is applied to a boat, the stern digs in as the propeller digs a hole and the boat’s bow rises up over the water. In many boats, this increases draft by a good six or eight inches—and as soon as the prop digs into the bottom all thrust gets lost. Assuming you didn’t damage anything, you’re back to square one.
Cut the wheel hard-over in one direction or the other, before applying power. When you do nail the throttle, the boat will immediately begin to bank into a turn, bringing the lower unit significantly higher than it would otherwise be.
As soon as the boat starts to plane, crank the wheel back to straight, and you’re home free. CAUTION: before attempting this maneuver warn everyone aboard and secure all of your gear. Otherwise, people and things will go flying, when you nail the throttle and go into an instant turn.
SURFING A WAVE: When you’re trying to get a small boat in through an inlet with large waves, surfing is often the safest bet. Instead of overtaking the waves, which will cause you to then fall into a trough, you can ride a wave for quite a distance if you can match its speed.
This is just a matter of jockeying the throttle to maintain the proper speed, and is something you can only do by feel.
The real trick, however, is to transition from surfing one wave to surfing another. Quite often, waves merge, dissipate, and otherwise disappear from beneath your boat no matter how well you may be matching their speed.
When one does disappear, and you feel your boat sinking into a trough, accelerate.
It’s always better to overtake a wave than it is to be overtaken by a wave. The bow is much better at handling rising water than the stern.
Maintaining speed could allow a wave to catch up to you from astern. So as soon as you’re no longer up on a wave, accelerate to catch up to and begin surfing on the next one.
OPPOSING THE POWERPLANTS: Naturally this one only applies to twin-engine boats. If you do have twins, however, getting a feel for opposing the engines is incredibly important for slow-speed maneuvering.
You can control a boat far, far more easily with opposed engines than you can with the steering wheel. In fact, the biggest mistake most captains make when maneuvering a twin-screw boat is grabbing the wheel and turning the engines off-center.
Instead, force yourself not to touch the wheel. Use the throttles only. You’ll find that after a little practice you can control your boat better than ever.
One caveat: the closer the engines are to each other the less effective opposing becomes, and the more power that will be necessary to turn the boat.
BOAT-TO-BOAT PASSENGER TRANSFERS: At times, it may be necessary to transfer passengers from one boat to another while in open waters—and few captains understand how to best perform this task.
Usually, one boat pulls up next to another and everyone tries to hold the boats close, as people step across. But try this in seas of any size, and you’ll learn that two things happen:
First, the wind and waves turn the boats on their beam. Second, once the waves start hitting the boats on the beam, one rocks while the other rolls. One gunwale goes up, the other goes down, and you’d better pray that no hands or feet get in between them as people cross from one boat to the other.
A much better way to transfer passengers is to keep both boats moving forward at minimal speed, directly with or into the seas. Whether to head into them or go with them is a judgment call.
If the waves approach from the stern, going with the seas is better—so long as the waves aren’t large enough to be threatening.
Keeping both boats moving at the same speed in the same direction means that the waves hit them both at the same time, and have the same basic effect on both boats. Instead of the gunwales grinding in different directions they’ll stay more or less parallel, and your passengers can make a safe crossing.
Email Lenny Rudow at [email protected]