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7 Essential Things Every New Boat Owner Should Do

Bought a new — or new-to-you — boat? Make sure you add these critical items to your checklist before taking to the water.

Aerial view of a boat launching area with 9 boat ramps and various boats and vehicles parked around the ramp areas

Learning how to tow, launch, and load your new boat are just a few important steps when familiarizing yourself with a new vessel. (Photo: Getty Images/Felix Mizoznikov)

While the term "new boat owner" can obviously mean someone new to boating, it can also be applied to an experienced boater who purchases a new boat. In addition to properly outfitting your new (or new-to-you) boat, here are additional things all new boat owners should do.

1. Register Or Document Your Boat

When purchasing your boat, verify with the appropriate state and federal agencies what paperwork is required and that you have the correct documents onboard. For example, U.S. Coast Guard-documented vessels are required to carry the original certificate of documentation onboard (no photocopies) at all times during vessel operation. Many states require federally documented vessels to also be registered with the state if they remain in their waters for a certain time period.

Close up photo of boat registration number painted in blue on the inside of boat hull with a basket containg a hose next to it

Photo: Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore

You'll also want to ensure that all required decals and state registration numbers are properly displayed on your boat. In addition to properly displaying your boat's name and home port on the hull exterior, documented vessels are also required to display the number assigned to them on some clearly visible interior structural part of the hull. The number (preceded by the abbreviation "NO.") must be marked in block-type Arabic numerals at least three inches high and must be permanently affixed so that alteration, removal, or replacement would be obvious and cause some scarring or damage to the surrounding hull area.

2. Get Insurance

Just like your automobile, you'll want to have the proper type and amount of insurance on your new boat. And you should make arrangements for this before you take title to and possession of the boat. While some boat insurance needs and terms will sound familiar, such as liability and coverage to your boat if it is damaged, you'll also encounter new types of coverage that are boating-specific. These include environmental protection, which provides fuel and other spill liability should your boat sink or if you accidentally spill fuel or discharge oil overboard.

The type of boat you have as well as your boating plans will determine what insurance is needed. A small, trailerable powerboat will obviously have different insurance requirements than a large cruising sailboat or yacht.

Start your insurance search by speaking with companies or brokers that specialize in marine insurance, both of which should be able to advise you on the type of coverage you need. When purchasing a smaller boat, check with your homeowner's policy to see if there is any coverage available for your boat, and consider an umbrella policy for increased liability limits.

Some boat insurance coverage items may also mesh with your automobile policy. For example, your marine insurance may cover repairs to your boat's trailer in the event of a towing accident, while your auto insurance may cover the liability side of damage or injuries caused by your trailer while being towed by your vehicle. The key takeaway here is to know what both policies will (and won't) cover and make sure your insurance needs are met.

Two additional tips when shopping for marine insurance: First, the cheapest quote is not necessarily the best option. When comparing quotes (particularly between a marine underwriter and one that primarily provides automobile or home insurance), be sure you are comparing apples to apples. Verify that both are offering the same types of coverage and amounts before simply selecting the less expensive option. The inclusion of fuel spill liability in a typical marine policy is a good example of this, as many nonmarine policies won't have it.

A very important aspect of insurance is not what is included but what is excluded. You may find a policy that seems to cover many things you want, except that the exclusion language takes it away ... at least in part.

Also, understand the difference between an agreed value policy and an actual cash value policy. You may want to choose a policy that provides an "agreed hull value" — one that specifically states the amount you will be paid in the event of a total loss in lieu of one that pays market value at the time of the loss.

3. Assemble A Vessel Information Folder

This is a centralized place for all of the boat stuff you need to organize, such as registration paperwork, documentation, equipment manuals, insurance information, purchase receipts, work receipts and the like. Zippered index notebooks or accordion-style folders work great for this. For smaller or more open boats, a small waterproof pouch to keep title or registration documents handy but safe and dry is also a good idea.

4. Start A Maintenance Log

While helping with the purchase of my first boat, my dad commented, "You take care of the oil, and the gas will take care of itself."

It was a humorous way to stress that while the boat will let you know in no uncertain terms when it needs fuel, you have to take the initiative when it comes to maintaining your engine.

Every boat with an engine will, at a minimum, require routine annual maintenance, such as oil changes, fuel filter replacement, lower unit or gear case oil changes, and possibly winterization.

The first order of business for a new boat owner (or owner of a new boat) is to learn what maintenance is required and make sure it gets done. A maintenance log makes that job easier by providing a centralized location to note and track all of the upkeep and maintenance required by your new boat and when it should be done. Use it to plan future maintenance, from engine oil changes to hull waxing, as well as document completed tasks — and if you have a trailer, don't forget it requires maintenance, too!

Begin maintaining a parts list that shows the name and purpose of the part, the part number, the price, and your source for the part. This can save innumerable hours later on. Many will do this in Excel or a similar spreadsheet. (You can also keep track of these things using an app on your phone or tablet so you have it with you.)

Unless you'll be doing it yourself, this is also the time to think about where you'll take your new boat for routine maintenance or repairs. Finding a good service center or marine mechanic is best done before it's needed. It also allows you to avoid the rush by planning and scheduling things such as annual maintenance, fall decommissioning, and spring commission well in advance.

5. Learn How To Properly Fuel Your Boat

It seems like a no-brainer, but don't take this for granted. The "open" fuel system of a boat is different than the closed fuel system of an automobile, particularly with regard to vent spills resulting from overfilling the tank. Learning how to prevent these spills during fill-ups is crucial for avoiding environmental spills and the hefty fines they can generate.

Gas pump at the corner of a dock with a sailboat in the background

Photo: Getty Images/Ezpics Studio

The other side of the fueling coin is making sure you use the correct fuel for your boat. Check your owner's manual to verify recommended fuel octane requirements as well as restrictions regarding the use of ethanol fuels — specifically those greater than 10% ethanol (E10), as they can damage some marine engines.

Be especially careful when fueling at roadside gas stations and fuel plazas. Unlike most marinas, they often carry higher ethanol blends, and the pump labeling for them is often easy to miss.

6. Learn Your Boat And How To Operate It Correctly

The training and expertise to operate your new boat is an important step for any new boat purchase. While you definitely have to learn the basics (starting the engine, steering the boat), there are lots of other skills that go along with operating your boat, from docking or launching a trailer boat, to anchoring, navigation, and learning the rules of the road.

Stern view of two men in a white powerboat, one man holding his right arm out to the side as they cruise toward a marina in the distance

Photo: Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore 

This is true even for experienced buyers, particularly if making the transition to a new type of boat, such as from power to sail. Although the basics may be similar, a single-engine sailboat operates differently that a twin-engine powerboat. Owners who are new to sailing may treat their new purchase like a powerboat with a big stick in the middle of it to begin with, and that's not a problem. Everyone crawls before they walk (or in this case, throttle jockey before they sail), and it's a perfectly acceptable attitude as you learn your new boat and new skills.


The BoatUS Foundation offers affordable on-water powerboat handling courses. Visit BoatUS Foundation On-Water Training for a list of dates and locations.

Crewing for other boat owners is a great way to learn about your own, as is taking boating education and safety courses, such as those offered by the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons, and BoatUS Foundation, as well as other state and local agencies and organizations.

7. Learn How To Tow And Launch Your Trailer Boat

The beauty of a trailer boat is that you can easily explore new waters, but for new owners it means learning three new skill sets to do it safely: towing, launching, and retrieving.

If the plan is to use your existing vehicle to tow your new boat, make sure it's sufficient to tow the boat you're buying. Check the vehicle owners manual to determine if the boat falls within the vehicle's maximum tow capacity or GCVR (Gross Combined Vehicle Rating). Don't forget that this number includes not only the boat and trailer, but also the weight of everything inside (such as fuel, water, coolers, and gear).

Learn how to back your rig, not just straight, but also negotiating turns. If you don't already know how, this will probably take some time. But you can do it if you are patient with yourself and have someone helping. Assure that you have ideal circumstances at first, such as a wide-open space and nobody to bump into. Traffic cones may help.

Boat ramps can be a zoo at times, but there is a procedural etiquette involved when it comes to launching and retrieving to keep things civil and flowing smoothly. Avoid being the recipient of muttered curses and the stink eye by taking the time to learn the protocols for the ramp you are using, and practice both evolutions to improve your proficiency. Weekends are the busiest time at the boat ramp, so a visit during the week will allow you to practice launching and retrieving your boat without rushing or judgment by the peanut gallery.

Boat Storage

Large blue and white powerboat sitting on a boat lift with water and trees in the background

Photo: Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore

After answering the question, "What type of boat do I want?" the second most important question a buyer asks is, "Where will I keep it?" Unless you live on the water and own your own lift or dock, the answer will likely be at a marina, on a trailer, or possibly both (as many marinas offer trailer boat storage options).

For smaller boats with trailers, the answer can be as simple as parking in your garage or driveway. If the former, will it fit inside that garage? If the latter, are there neighborhood or home owners' association restrictions for long term residential parking of your new boat? Whatever your answer, make sure it's in a safe place — not only from bad people but from bad weather.

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Frank Lanier

Contributing Editor, BoatUS Magazine

Capt. Frank Lanier is a SAMS Accredited Marine Surveyor with more than 40 years of experience in the marine and diving industries. He’s also an author, public speaker, and multiple award-winning journalist whose articles on boat maintenance, repair, and seamanship appear regularly in numerous marine publications worldwide. He can be reached via his YouTube channel “Everything Boats with Capt. Frank Lanier” and website