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How to a Drive a Boat: Complete Beginner’s Guide

May 3, 2021

Boating is a fun, entertaining and stress-relieving experience that millions of Canadians appreciate throughout the year. It offers hours of enjoyment away from home, whether you are fishing, water skiing or simply cruising around the lake.

That said, boating, like any other aquatic pastime, has its own set of safeguards and standards. These rules and regulations are required to ensure the safety of all boaters and the people around them.

Whether you are fairly new to boating or studying to get your Canadian boating license, it’s always good to brush up on the basics. In this article, we provide a complete beginner’s guide on how to drive a boat.

How to drive a motor boat

When people are interested in learning how to drive a boat, they usually mean driving a boat with a motor. Boats can have two types of motors: inboard and outboard. Before delving into how to drive either of these, it’s good to know the difference.

Inboard vs. outboard motor boat

As the names suggest, outboard motor boats have their engines on the outside of the boat, normally at the back or stern, while inboard motor boats have engines located inside the boat, normally near the hull.

Beyond the location of the engine, opinions tend to differ on which is best.  Many people believe that boating at sea is preferable with an inboard motor because the centered weight reduces motion. When it comes to speed and control, outboard fans will argue that an engine mounted at the rear of the boat is the clear winner.

Preferences aside, modern boats with steering wheels can feature either of these motors. The one major difference between these two types of motors when learning how to drive is that outboard motors can also mean steering a boat with a tiller. We’ll start by covering this type of steering since many new boaters in Canada will end up practising with a tiller their first time.

How to drive a boat with a tiller steer outboard motor

Since we’re all used to driving cars with steering wheels, some people are hesitant to buy a boat with a tiller steer outboard motor. However, tiller steering still provides superb versatility and control and can even help you save money on a new boat.

Here are the basics for captaining a tiller steer outboard motor:

Priming the motor and adjusting the choke

Once you have made sure that all required boating safety equipment is on board you are safely seated in the correct position, it’s time to prime the motor.

To launch the flow of fuel into the motor, press the primer button a few times, but don’t overdo it since this could make the engine flood. The number of times you will have to press can differ depending on the engine. Be sure the boat is in neutral before proceeding.

Pull the starter cord three to four times to choke the engine. If the boat still won’t start, open the choke and try pulling the cord again. Repeat until the engine starts. The choke can then be adjusted until the outbound motor idles smoothly.

Changing the motor’s direction to forward or reverse

Some outboard motors have a lever that allows you to switch between forward and reverse, while others have the ability to reverse the twisting path of the tiller handle. Make sure the engine is adjusted to drive away from the dock in the right direction.

Accelerating the outboard motor

Accelerate or decelerate by twisting the handle at the end of the tiller.

Steering a boat with an outboard motor

To steer the boat, push the tiller away or pull the tiller towards you.

Those are the basics of driving a boat with a tiller steer outboard motor! While it may sound simple, it will probably take you at least a few tries before getting the hang of it.

In the next section, we explain how to drive a boat with steering wheel.

How to drive a boat with a steering wheel (inboard or outboard motor)

While driving a boat with a steering wheel may seem simpler than a tiller steer, the process can sometimes be more overwhelming, especially for beginners. Learn the basics below:

Running the blower

If you have a gas-powered boat with an engine compartment, make sure the blower is running according to the manufacturer’s instructions before starting the engine to avoid fume build-up.

Starting the engine

To start the engine, insert the key into the ignition and turn. For a newer boat with a push-start button, simply press the button to start the engine. If the boat has an engine safety cut-off (kill switch), attach the lanyard to a belt loop on your life jacket.

Steering the boat

Once you have made sure you have all your gear, all lines securing the boat have been untied and your passengers are ready to go, move the throttle handle forward (or back) softly until you feel it change into gear to move forward (or reverse if you need to back out).

Once the boat starts moving, turn the wheel to steer the direction of movement, just as you would steer in a road vehicle.

Accelerating and slowing the boat

To get to the desired speed, advance the throttle gently as much as required. Trim the boat according to the environment and conditions. Pull the throttle back to the neutral spot as you begin to slow down.

There you have it! Those are the basics of driving a boat for beginners. The following sections of the article will address some commonly asked questions from new boaters.

How old do you have to be to drive a boat in Canada?

Youth between the ages of 12 and 16 who are not closely supervised by anyone 16 or older can run a recreational vessel with a maximum horsepower of 40 (30 KW). A personal watercraft (PWC) can only be operated by people who are 16 years old or older, independent of supervision.

How big of a boat can I drive?

Once you have passed the Transport Canada-approved online boating course and obtained your Pleasure Craft Operator Card, you will be eligible to drive any boat deemed a Pleasure Craft. This usually refers to vessels that are uninspected (i.e., boats that hold up to 6 passengers, weigh up to 100 gross tons and travel up to 100 miles offshore).

What do I need to drive a boat in Canada?

First and foremost, you will need an official boat license (Pleasure Craft Operator Card) issued from Transport Canada. Along with your Pleasure Craft Operator Card, you are required by law to always have marine safety equipment on board. At minimum, you should carry:

  • For each passenger on board, a Canadian-approved flotation device or lifejacket of the right size is required
  • A buoyant heaving line with a length of at least 15 metres is needed
  • Type A, B, or C Canadian authorized flares OR a waterproof flashlight
  • A sound-signaling device
  • An anchor with at least 15 metres of rope, chain or cable OR a manual propelling mechanism (such as a paddle).
  • Class 5 BC fire extinguisher
  • A bailer or manual water pump

How to drive a boat in big waves

If you are out on the water and encounter rough seas, approach the waves at an angle that will reduce the effect on your boat. Large waves should be met at a 45-degree angle. Zigzag with the waves instead of heading in a straight line towards the dock.

Ready to drive a boat in Canada?

We hope this article has provided a good overview of the basics of driving a boat in Canada. Once you are ready to obtain your boating license, you can register directly to take the online boat exam.

Have any questions about obtaining your Pleasure Craft Operator Card? Feel free to contact us today and we’ll gladly answer you.