Skills every boater should learn ASAP

Adventure 5 min read

Boating season is officially underway! Whether you’re a seasoned sailor or a total novice who doesn’t know starboard from port, it’d be wise to brush up on your boating skills. So if you’re planning to log some last-minute hours on the water this summer, here’s a quick refresher on the essentials to get you started.

Basic boating terminology

Boating has its own unique language, so you’ll want to be sure you know the basics. Otherwise, you’ll be left looking like a deer in headlights when the captain asks you to throw off the aft line before getting underway!

  • Forward, aft, starboard, and port
    • These are all directional terms used to indicate the front (forward), back (aft), left (port), and right (starboard) sides of a vessel.
  • Bow and stern
    • The bow refers to the front of the boat, which cuts through the water, while the stern refers to the rear, where you might find a swim deck.
  • Underway
    • This means the boat is moving. You’re considered underway anytime the boat isn’t anchored, tied off, or docked.
  • Helm
    • The helm is where you’ll find the steering wheel and navigation equipment. In other words, it’s where the captain sits.
  • Lines
    • The lines are simply the ropes onboard. They’re generally used to hold a boat in place, but may also be used to trim (adjust) sails (see sailing terminology below).

Tying basic knots

I’m always excited to have guests onboard who know how to tie knots. It makes getting underway and docking so much easier! Mastering a few basic knots will make you an invaluable asset to any crew. Here are some must-haves to get you started.

  • Bowline
    • These easy-to-learn knots are especially useful for tying off on a buoy, ring, or post, or for tying two lines together.
  • Figure-eight
    • Figure-eight knots are often used as stopper knots at the end of a line. They can be used to tie off on a mooring post and will hold a boat securely in place.
  • Clove hitch
    • These temporary knots are ideal for tying off on a dock post during a quick stop (say, to refuel or pick up additional guests).
  • Cleat hitch
    • Cleat hitches are much more secure than clove hitches and are often used to tie off at a dock for longer stays.

Handling lines and fenders

If you’re a novice, be sure to wait for instructions from the boat’s captain or crew before handling lines or managing fenders, as every vessel operates a little differently. But you’ll want to have a general sense of how to secure lines, throw a line from the boat to a waiting dockhand, and raise or lower fenders (inflatable bumpers used to protect the boat in the harbor) when you’re docking or getting underway.

Docking and anchoring procedures

These procedures will, of course, be unique to each boat, but having a general sense of the best practices for getting underway is always a good idea. When docking, you may need to give clear verbal cues to the captain to let them know how close they are to the slip. You could also be asked to carry a roving fender to put between the boat and any other structures that may be a little too close. Similarly, when anchoring, you might need to stand post on the bow to monitor the release of the anchor, how much chain has been dropped, and the direction of the current.

Safety equipment

Any time you’re on a boat, make sure you know where all the lifejackets, life rings, boat hooks, fire extinguishers, flares, and first-aid kits are. And be sure you know how to use them, too.

Operating a VHF radio

Confirm which channel the Coast Guard or local authorities use (usually channel 16), how to send a distress signal, and how to radio between vessels.

Reading navigation equipment

Even if you don’t plan to log any time at the helm, it won’t hurt to have a general understanding of the instruments onboard, especially in case of an emergency. Most GPS devices will show your exact location with longitude and latitude, as well as a compass heading. GPS maps can generally show you a the depth of water in your location, too.

If you’re going to be sailing …

Sailboats are, admittedly, more complicated than motorboats, so if you’re going to be leveraging the power of the wind this summer, you’ll want to brush up on a few additional skills.

Basic sailing terminology

  • Upwind
    • This refers to the direction from which the wind is blowing. Upwind means the wind is coming from the northwest. Your sails are usually pulled in very close to the boat when sailing upwind.
  • Downwind
    • Downwind means the wind is blowing from the southeast (in the opposite direction of upwind). When sailing downwind, your sails will usually be let out farther away from the boat to create a broader surface area.
  • Tack
    • Tacking means the boat is turning toward the wind.
  • Jibe
    • Jibing means the boat is turning away from the wind. Jibing is generally more dangerous than tacking due to the direction of wind hitting the sails after you’ve turned the boat.
  • Coming about
    • Coming about is used to describe the process of tacking, which is when the vessel turns toward the wind.
  • Heel
    • Heeling is when a sailboat leans over the water as it is pushed by the wind.
  • Windward
    • This is the side of the boat closest to the wind.
  • Leeward
    • This is the side of the boat farthest from the wind.
  • Point of sail
    • This refers to the direction that the boat is heading into the wind.

Components of a sailboat

It’s important to know where everything is (and what it all does) on a sailboat. Keep in mind that every vessel is different, but you’ll be in good shape if you can get a handle on these basics.

  • Mast
    • The mast is a vertical spar found at the center of a sailboat. Depending on the size and type of ship, there may be more than one.
  • Boom
    • The boom runs horizontally from the mast and allows the captain to control the angle of the sail.
  • Boom vang
    • A boom vang is a system of diagonal straps, lines, or hydraulic arms attached to the mast, boom, and It’s used to control the shape of the sail.
  • Sheets
    • Sheets are lines used to control the angle of the sails to the wind.
  • Halyards
    • Halyards are lines used to raise or lower a sail.
  • Winches
    • A winch is a rotating post used to raise, lower, or pull ropes and cables. They may be operated electronically or using an attached handle. Winches leverage their power to make adjusting or raising sails much easier than it would be if you did it by hand.
  • Main Sail
    • Just as the name suggests, the main sail is the primary (perhaps only) sail on a boat. It’s normally triangular in shape and is attached to the mast and the boom.
  • Jib
    • The jib is the triangular forwardmost sail on a boat. It sits in front of the mainsail and is attached to the bow.
  • Spinnaker
    • Similar to a jib, spinnakers are the forwardmost sails, most commonly used on racing yachts when sailing downwind to create a larger, more voluminous pocket for the wind.
  • Rudder
    • The rudder is the submerged vertical blade used to steer the boat.

Mastering these skills just scratches the surface, and there’s no substitute for hands-on boating experience. But getting a handle on basic terminology, equipment, and safety procedures is a great start. And, when in doubt, ask questions! Whether you look up instructional videos for tying knots online, solicit advice from a knowledgeable friend, or reach out to a seasoned captain for expert guidance, brushing up on the basics is always a great use of your time.

Happy boating season!

Was this article helpful?

3 min
3 min
4 min
1 min
3 min
6 min