Saturday, September 23, 2017

Piloting a Boat: It’s Different than Driving a Car

January 1, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

When you get in your car and pull out of the driveway, you give a quick look in each direction and then stay on the right side of the road.  You expect other drivers will know the speed limits and rules of the road, and will behave in a civilized manner at stop signs and intersections. Though defensive driving is important, you don’t continuously worry about multiple cars crossing in front of your hood at different angles and varying speeds. And when it comes to passengers in the car, they need to do nothing more than put on their seatbelts and enjoy the ride.

Captains (and first mates) understand and appreciate that when venturing out on the water, actions and precautions are different in a boat.  When I take guests out, we first review boating basics and safety, as  many of my friends and family are totally oblivious to all the things needed to be done at the helm of our 46’ Viking Cruiser to ensure a fun and safe outing.

Spending a day on the boat requires a checklist, starting with checking the weather to make sure the day will be both pleasant and safe.  The list includes making sure there is enough ice, food, and drinks for the day,  pumping out the head, and ensuring there is water and fuel on board. While I rarely look under the hood of my own car, nor inspect its undersides, I do go into the engine room of the boat after every cruise longer than four hours to make sure things look secure.  I also check the oil, antifreeze, and fuel filters every two or three weekends, depending on usage.

You need to click up your brain a notch when piloting a craft, as it is a multi-task event. With both cars and boats, you must look both ways and nudge the pedal or throttle to pull out, but that’s where the similarity ends. With a boat, you have to judge whether there is a current or wind that can knock you into the adjoining slip (or the boat), and be ready to compensate.   Once underway, you need to kick up your vigilance some more.   Unlike driving a car, where nearly all the action takes place on a limited-size road in front of you, skippers needs to view a much larger surface area on the water. Pay attention to boats crossing your bow from different directions and plan where you will pass or cross someone else.  Keep an eye out for wakes, debris, the current, and buoys, while watching the sky and turning on the radio if you suspect a change of weather. Doesn’t that make driving on the Long island Expressway in traffic seem simpler (although more frustrating)?

As captains are human, we have to answer a “call to nature” now and then while underway.  If you are going to disappear for a few minutes from the helm, think twice about who is going to take the wheel.  My first choice is my first mate, who has experience with full speed in open water, so going below is not a problem.  However, I know of a captain on the south shore who asked a friend to momentarily take the wheel and keep a straight course, only to come back and see that the boat was less than 200 yards from hitting a sand bar! If you have to hand over the wheel to someone without experience, do so in open water after slowing down to five or 10 knots.

Being on the water is really fun and relaxing, but this privilege comes with a responsibility that the person at the wheel must never take for granted.   You may not spot my car on Northern State Parkway, but do look for the “Miracle” in Manhasset Bay this summer—and be careful when you pass us!

Story & photos by Tab Hauser

has loved boating through chartering.  In 2004, Tab and his wife, Maureen, purchased a used 35′ Carver 35 MY on eBay; they’ve now upgraded to a 46’ Viking Sport Cruiser.  Tab has written on travel and business in various publications and keeps an active travel site at

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