How to drive a boat

Adventure 3 min read

Driving a boat — also called piloting a boat — is different from driving a car. Whether you’re new to boat ownership, still in the shopping phase, or taking the wheel of a friend’s craft, learning to drive confidently and safely are important first steps. Like learning to drive a car, what you need to know depends on the vehicle you want to operate.

Steps to learning how to drive a boat

1. Pre-departure

Before you leave the dock, you need to make sure you have your emergency equipment on board and check the weather forecast.

If you’re wondering if you need a boat license or insurance, the answer is likely no. Many states require you to meet specific requirements, including passing a boater education course, but you probably aren’t required to have a boating license. Only a few states require boat insurance, but you might want to consider adding a policy to help protect yourself against accidents and any damages you might incur.

2. Take-off

After you’ve checked your emergency gear, prepared the kill switch, and cast off your lines, you’re ready to take off. Assuming you’re learning to drive a powerboat and not a sailboat, start the boat’s engine and either drive the boat forward or backward, depending on what direction you’re facing. Once you’re clear of the dock, you’re ready to go.

3. Piloting

This is the part most people have in mind when wondering how to drive a boat. Here’s how to turn a boat left or right. Once you’re out on the open water, steering the boat — regardless of whether you want to turn the boat left, right, or keep going straight — is simple. Turn the tiller (steering wheel) in the direction you want to go as you would with a car. The big difference in driving a boat is that there are no brakes, so you need to learn how long it takes your boat to come to a stop.

Pull the throttle back toward neutral and let it gradually slow down. When you’re out on the open water with no other boats around, you can try this out to see how your boat reacts and get a sense of how long it takes the boat to slow down or stop.

Sailing vs. motorboats

Learning to sail is fundamentally different from learning to drive a powerboat. In sailing, you adjust the sails to control the effect of wind on your boat.

Outboard vs. inboard motors

Power or motorboats have a motor mounted either in the center or hull of your boat (inboard) or on the boat’s transom sitting at the back of the vessel (outboard). Inboard motors offer good fuel economy and a more stable ride but are often less agile than outboard motors. Learn about powerboat insurance.

4. Docking

When you return to the marina, you need to have a good idea of your boat’s stopping distance. When it’s time to slow the boat down, pull the throttle to neutral, wait for a few seconds, then switch into reverse. Putting the motor in reverse runs the propeller backward, slowing the boat more quickly than moving into neutral and waiting for the boat to stop itself.

How to navigate large waves in a small boat

While it’s best to go out in good weather, you’re bound to have to pilot your boat in choppy seas sooner or later. If you’re facing big waves, steer toward the smallest part of the wave. According to, it’s tempting to steer away from the wave, but it’s easier to tip a boat sideways than front to back, so take the wave head-on.

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