As a friend of mine once said, the only thing better than owning a nice boat is having a good friend who owns one. None of the headaches, none of the problems, none of the responsibility but all the fun when asked out to enjoy the water. But what happens when your friend, the owner and skipper, is suddenly injured, becomes ill, our worse yet, falls overboard? You were just along for the ride, you don’t know anything about the boat, about what to do or how to do it – but… suddenly YOU are in charge. Suddenly, YOU need to know how to run the boat, YOU need to know how to use the emergency equipment, YOU need to know what to do in each situation that requires action. Don’t wait until YOU are suddenly in charge, learn the basics before just “going along for the ride”.
Learn Boating Basics
Even if you don’t own a boat, if you ever go out in one as a passenger, you should know the basics of boating. Even if you’re just going for a ride, if the skipper doesn’t give the passengers an orientation, ask where the emergency equipment is located. Ask the location of the Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs), the fire extinguisher(s), emergency signaling devices and other safety gear. Practice throwing PFDs or a line to a pretend person overboard, practice anchoring the boat and getting aboard from the water. Ask about the operation of the boat, how do you start it, how do you stop it and how to use the radio (if equipped). Better yet, even if you don’t own a boat, take a Basic Boating Safety Course. The more time you take to educate yourself the more likely you will be a hero rather than a hindrance, should an emergency arise.
This article covers basic operations of small outboards. Future articles will cover larger powerboats and sailing vessels.
Learn How to Start Manual or Pull Start Outboards
- Make sure the shift lever is in the neutral position. This is usually straight up.
- If the engine is cold, pull out the choke before attempting to start. If the motor is warm, don’t use the choke unless the engine does not start after a few pulls.
- On the throttle control arm, turn the hand grip until the arrow aligns with the start position.
- Pull the starter rope slowly until you get resistance from the starter gear, then pull forcefully. Repeat if needed.
- When the engine starts, if you used the choke push it in slowly until the engine runs smoothly.
- Turn the throttle control arm until the arrow lines up with the run or shift mark.
- Warning: Do not stand in the boat to pull the starter rope. If the motor is in gear or the starter just spins, you could loose balance and fall overboard.
Learn How to Start an Electric Start Engine
- Squeeze the release lock on the shift/throttle control lever, and make sure it is in the neutral position, usually straight up.
- If the engine is cold, move the warm-up lever to the start position.
- You may find a choke switch or the choke may operate by pushing the key in which activates an automatic choke.
- Hold the key in or use the choke switch and turn to the start position. Release the key or turn off choke switch as soon as the engine starts.
- Gradually move the warm-up lever to the run position.
- If the engine is warm, use the same procedure with the exception of using the choke, unless the motor fails to start after a few tries.
Learn How to Shift and Steer
Manual or Pull-Start
- The throttle arm also acts as a tiller to turn the engine which gives you direction.
- Look out for traffic and find out the direction you want to go. Move the throttle arm/tiller in the opposite direction. This pushes the stern of the boat in the direction of the tiller which in turn makes the bow go in the opposite direction.
- Turn the throttle arm until the arrow lines up with the run/shift position.
- Move the shift lever to forward (or reverse) and turn the throttle handle slowly until a comfortable speed is reached.
- Squeeze the release lock on the shift/throttle control lever. Push the lever slowly forward to go forward and pull slowly back to go in reverse. The further forward or back you push the lever the faster the boat will move.
- Steering with a wheel is much like a car in that you turn the wheel (helm) in the direction you want to go. Be careful however, because unlike a car, a boat steers from the stern (back) rather than the front as a car does.
Warning: Go slowly in reverse to prevent water from spilling in over the transom.
Learn How to Stop
Boats don’t have brakes. They do, however, settle quickly and slow down when power is lowered and the engine put in neutral.
Don’t aim the boat at a person in the water or at a dock. If you misjudge the speed of the boat you could cause more damage.
As the boat slows you will loose steering control. Aim the boat where you want to stop before you shift to neutral or shut of the engine. Shift to neutral before you think you should, most novices overshoot their mark. You can always shift back to forward briefly if you fall short of your mark.
Killing manual or pull-start engines
Shift to neutral, turn the throttle handle grip to the stop position and push the button (usually red) labeled stop which kills the engine.
Killing electric start engines
Shift to neutral, turn the key to the left until the engine dies – just like in your car.
Learn Crew Overboard Procedures
Be Calm – You may be the only source of rescue for the person in the water.
Immediately shut down the engine unless you can see that the person in the water is well clear of the boat and will not be hit by the props. Locate the person in the water and keep an eye on them. If they are close enough, throw a PFD or anything that floats in their direction.
If you must, restart the engine and move slowly toward the person from downwind (the wind in your face). You don’t want to drift into the person when you stop the engine. When close enough, throw a PFD or anything that floats and stop the engine.
Once the person in the water has something to help them float, tie one end of a line to the boat and throw the other end of the line to the person in the water. Once the person grabs the line, pull them slowly to the boat.
Try to get a PFD on the person or tie the line under their arms and tie up short to the boat so they can rest. If you can not easily lift the person into the boat it is best not to struggle; call and wait for help. Continuing to try to pull the person into the boat could result in you going overboard.
Lower the anchor to keep from drifting and wait for help.
Learn How To Signal For Help
Certain signals are recognized internationally as distress signals. A few easy to use are:
- Raising and lowering your outstretched arms.
- Use a mirror to reflect the sun’s rays. On a sunny day the reflection can be seen for miles.
- Signal SOS (··· — ···) with a flashlight, whistle or horn.
- Light or fire off a distress flare. Be sure to read the directions on the flare and light or fire downwind and over the side of the boat. It is best to do this when in sight of land or another boat. A flare is not all that obvious on a bright, sunny day.
- Yell. Your voice will carry a long distance over water.
- If equipped, use the VHF radio to place a call on channel 16.