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Small-Boat Handling

8 tips for better small-boat handling When maneuvering your boat, some basic boating skills will help keep you safer on the water.

Driving a Powerboat

Photo: Thinkstock

A lot’s been said about small-boat handling. Unfortunately, because of the nature of the beast, whatever anyone says is sometimes likely to be at least a little bit inappropriate, depending on the boat and circumstances. Our editors have been handling small boats for many years and know that whatever we say about the subject must be tempered by the conditions.

But here are a few general comments addressing some of the issues we frequently see. There are many more.

1. Keep The Boat Well-Trimmed

Boating in Calm Conditions

Even in calm conditions seating your crew along the centerline helps keep the boat running level. (Photo: Jason Arnold)

When underway, the bow should not be down. More and more we see people running boats with the bow down. Not only does this promote waves flooding in over the bow, it makes the boat less stable as it runs and more difficult to steer. One thing that may be contributing to this is the popularity of bow rider-style boats, which may tend to influence some folks to put too much weight forward. Some bow riders can be like a big spoon, scooping water in when the waves come. The folks aboard, or at least the skipper, need to know best boat-handling techniques for this type of boat.

2. A Powerboat Should Normally Not Be Heeling (Unless Temporarily and Slightly When Making a Turn).

Sailing in Heavy Seas

Anticipating the waves and counter-steering will minimize the boat from being pushed around. (Photo: Mel Neale)


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Often we see boats moving along with the weight of people, coolers, tanks, or other items to one side, causing an artificial list. This increases the likelihood of capsize should something that further contributes to destabilization of the boat happen unexpectedly. It also makes the boat more difficult to steer.

Small boats react to heavy loading more dramatically than their larger peers. For greater stability, store coolers, anchors, and other heavy items as low as possible and with weight evenly disbursed for good balance.

3. It Isn’t Necessarily Best to Meet Waves Bow On.

Too Much Weight Forward Can Lead to a Wet Ride

Too much weight forward can lead to a wet ride, or worse. (Photo: Trish McGregor)

Driving your bow directly into the face of a wave often results in that wave suddenly coming aboard as a large volume of water. This will depend on your boat, the speed you’re running (which should normally be relatively slow if you’re encountering waves), and the boat’s buoyancy and other characteristics.

Generally, it’s best to take incoming seas to the port or starboard side just aft of the bow rather than dead on. This allows that broader, and hopefully more buoyant, hull section to meet the rising water. And it’s far forward of taking it on the beam, which could flip you. Also, if you take a wave dead on the bow, you’re more likely to have that narrow bow, which is designed to cut through the water, cut through the wave, and not rise as much as is needed, allowing the wave to board you.

Exactly how far aft of the prow you take a wave depends on all the variables and will even change with such conditions as wave height and boat type and loading. But as you grow accustomed to your boat, you should get a good feel for this.

How To Trim Your Boat (Basics Of Boat Trim)

4. Pay Attention to Seas Astern

A surprising number of small boats (and also quite a few larger ones) are swamped when a sea comes over the stern. Normally, the top of the transom is the lowest portion of the hull. This difference in height is even greater if there is a cutout in the transom for an outboard. It’s also often open to the cockpit or the interior of the boat, unlike the bow area, which may have at least a small deck or covering to help deflect waves from coming down inside the boat. One common cause of swamping, as you might expect, is overloading astern. It’s natural to move people and other weight back there because it’s wider and seemingly more stable. As always, consider all factors when loading.

Another common cause of getting swamped from the stern is slowing down too quickly, particularly with an outboard. The following wake catches up with your boat and floods over the transom cutout. Normally, the boat should be able to handle this, but if this is coupled with a naturally occurring following sea and with too much loading astern, the boat could suddenly take on so much water that it becomes unstable and possibly sinks.

5. Running With Following Seas

Boaters Encounter Large Waves in Heavy Seas

In large waves, slowing down can be your best option. (Photo: Karen L. Miller)

This requires a skill set very different from those required with other angles of attack. And depending on the circumstances, it may require an even greater degree of care. While keeping lookout all around as you would normally, also keep a watch astern for the oncoming following sea. You may need to throttle up or down to keep the boat in a safe position relative to the sea and to avoid potentially disastrous consequences as it reaches the trough and encounters the next wave.

If this happens, the stern may slide sideways, causing the boat to “broach” (roll over), or the boat may bury its bow in the trough or back of the next wave, resulting in catastrophic flooding. Burying the bow may also cause the vessel to “pitchpole” (capsize end over end). These things are more likely to occur when you’re running too fast for the conditions, but they can also occur at relatively slow speeds, given the right circumstances.


When heading into waves, a slight adjustment of speed or heading can prevent pounding. To improve the ride, try backing off the throttle a bit and taking the waves at a slight angle.

6. Avoid Running or Drifting with Seas on the Beam

Avoid running or even drifting with seas on the beam. Unfortunately, there are occasions when we need to do this, at least for a short while. If the seas are breaking or very big for the boat, figure some other way to handle the situation and not run with seas on the beam. But if it’s critically necessary to run for a while with a beam sea, watch the seas very carefully and be prepared to turn into a wave that looks like it’s going to break or be large enough to upset the boat’s stability.

On some boats, you can dampen the rolling and help with stabilization by the way you steer. Turning slightly into or out of the wave, at just the right time and just the right degree, can help keep the boat on a more even keel. Like so much of boat handling, this requires a lot of practice and familiarity with your boat and its characteristics. Learn, but not at the expense of capsizing.

7. Don't Travel in Limited Visibility Unless You Really Need To.

If you can’t see around you, it’s usually best to avoid heading out. But if you must, take every precaution – verify your navigation lights are working, give the proper sound signals for reduced visibility, have appropriate navigational tools for the conditions, know the area well, travel at reduced speeds, and maintain a careful watch for hazards and other vessels.

8. Never Run The Boat While Impaired

Have at least one other experienced person who is also not impaired to help and be ready to operate the boat. If anyone is too impaired, leave them ashore.

There are many very good general principles and concepts about small-boat handling, or handling any size boat, really. But there are so many variables, too, including different types of boats, conditions, power configurations, sea conditions, weather conditions, visibility, operator knowledge, skills, and more. So don’t take anything here as gospel, and don’t do anything that you feel may not be safe or that may be beyond your level of skill.

We’ve only scratched the surface, and there are many more issues of equal and greater importance. But it’s critical that you take the time to learn to handle your boat by safely practicing. It’s worth it!

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BoatUS Editors

Contributor, BoatUS Magazine

Award-winning BoatUS Magazine is the official publication of Boat Owners Association of The United States. The magazine provides boating skills, DIY maintenance, safety, news and more from top experts.