Taking the stress out of boat handling

Boating is all about enjoyment: exploring waterways, lunch on board with friends and family, beautiful anchorages.

But manoeuvring the boat out of, and back into, its marina berth is almost guaranteed to cause increased heart rate and blood pressure. Relationships are tested. Voices raised.

There is no doubt that manoeuvring your boat in these situations requires concentration. Yet the professionals seem to be so relaxed about it all. They know what they are doing and know the systems they have at their disposal.

According to skipper Hamish Smith, the first rule is to take it easy. Don't rush anything. Make sure everyone on board knows what needs to be done well in advance and that everyone is clear about their job − whether it is casting off lines or retrieving fenders when leaving port or, more even important, preparing the boat for arrival back at the marina.

Next, be aware that a boat can only be controlled when it is moving − when there is water flow over the rudders and some power in the propellers.

Next, remember that a boat is not like a car and water is not like a road.

When you turn the steering wheel of your car, the front wheels turn, moving the front of the car. The rear follows. When you turn the wheel on your boat, the stern starts to swing in an arc. You need to ensure you have enough room for your boat's stern to swing before you turn the wheel.

Before attempting any manoeuvre, stop for a minute to see if there is any current affecting the movement of your boat.

Professional skippers, driving twin-propeller power boats such as Rivieras, never use the wheel during slow manoeuvres.

"Centre the helm," says Hamish. "Then leave the wheel alone and control the movement and direction of the boat entirely through the throttles and, if you have it, the bow thruster."

Hamish says the most important advice to any skipper is to practise. Practise. Practise.

"Take your boat into open water, away from other boats, and practise the manoeuvres," says Hamish. "Learn how your boat behaves in reverse. Watch what happens with starboard, or port engines only, in gear. Spin it around with one in reverse and one in forward gear. Increase and reduce revs.

"Most important, don't be afraid of what others may think. Better to try a manoeuvre 20 times than pay a $20,000 repair bill."

The more difficult manoeuvres are usually when returning to your marina berth, mainly because you generally have to reverse the boat into its berth. And boats are not designed to go backwards.

"Make sure you have fenders out, positioned correctly, and your mooring lines secured, bow and stern, before you enter the marina.

"Bring the boat close to your marina in the usual way," says Hamish. "Slow throttle ahead, reversing occasionally to slow your momentum if required but always keeping some forward movement.

"As you enter the marina, centre the wheel and don't touch it again. Now you control the boat entirely with your starboard and port engine controls.

"Once you have positioned your boat next to your berth, give yourself as much room to manoeuvre as possible. Take the boat as far out from your berth as is reasonable, then turn it, watching the swing of the bow, using the engine controls.

"You will often find the boat being pushed sideways by wind or current… or both. Compensate as much as possible before you start your reversing manoeuvre. Then put both engines into reverse, slowly, carefully. Face aft, your backside against the wheel if necessary, watching your boat position relative the berth and other boats."

If the boat is being pushed too much out of line, says Hamish, simply stop, go out and start again. Do not try to recover when the boat is too far out of line.

"The simple rule is," says Hamish, "if you are beginning to feel uneasy about the manoeuvre, go out and start again. There is nothing wrong with a decision to take a breather and start again."

Once the boat is moving back cleanly into its berth, maintain slow − slow − reverse momentum. Don't rush. Once you are into the berth, a little forward thrust will stop the boat, allowing your crew to disembark and begin securing the boat.

Click to enlarge image: Facing aft while reversing

Facing aft while reversing

Entering the berth

Entering the berth

Securing the lines

Securing the lines