Driving a Boat Is Not as Hard as You Might Think [Guide]

Boats are not hard to drive, and most learn the basics of boating very quickly for their first time out.

To be honest, the hardest parts of owning a boat are listed below.

  1. Trailering and backing up the boat trailer.
  2. Docking.
  3. Knowing what the signs and buoys mean.
  4. Boat maintenance.
  5. Cleaning the boat – yes, it’s harder than most people think.

Before you get a boat, I suggest you get your boating license or take the safety course, as it’s very helpful and most states require it to operate a boat.

The Basics

Let’s go over the basics of driving a boat, so you can have a better idea of how hard it is to drive a boat.

1. Backing Up the trailer

The first thing you need to do before driving a boat is learning how to back up the boat trailer. You may get lucky and not need a trailer or keep it at the marina, but for everyone else, this is a huge skill to learn.

If possible, leave the boat off the trailer, or borrow/rent an empty boat trailer that is about the same size as your boat. On a slow weekday at the ramps, practice backing up. If the ramps are too much, go to an empty parking lot and practice backing up.

Below is a great video showing you how to back up a boat trailer down a ramp.

2. Docking

If you mastered backing up a boat trailer, then everything else will be a breeze!

Docking a boat can be tricky, especially if it’s a new boat, and you don’t want to ding it up. While you may try, the dock rash will happen, so go slow and have the fenders out.

If you know someone experienced in boating, it would be beneficial to have them accompany you to guide you through the basics. Additionally, if you have recently purchased the boat, the dealership should arrange a brief driving session to help you become accustomed to your new vessel.

The best advice I got when I was first learning to dock a boat was to practice getting close to the no-wake buoys without touching them. I also would go into a no-wake zone and drop my own floating buoy (ad) and try it that way.

Please keep in mind the wind when docking a boat, you can use it to your advantage.

3. Signs and Buoys

Just like cars have road signs, boats have signs, markers and buoys letting them know what’s going on.

All boat signs are the same, there may be a few odd ones for every state, but for the most part, they’re all easy to understand once you know the majority of them.

These signs are very important, not following them can cause you to wreck your boat or put others in harms way. The video below does a fantastic job explaining these boat signs, and their meanings.

And here is one about no-wake zones.

Jet boats and jet skis tend to idle at higher RPMs, so you may get some angry boaters telling you to slow down. Many jet skis these days come with a no-wake or slow-mode in the settings. Basically, go at idle speed in no-wake zones.

Some Boats Are Harder To Drive

Every type of boat will have its own quirks when driving it, but the most significant differences are with jet boats and wakeboard boats.

Jet boats work a bit different from other boats, they don’t have a true neutral and are always processing water when the engine is on. The perk is that it gives you far greater control over the boat, like being able to steer in neutral.

Another boat that has its quirks are ski-boats or wakeboard boats, as they only back up in one direction.

The propulsion system of a ski-boat consists of an engine connected to a propeller, which is positioned ahead of the rudder. When the boat is in forward motion, the propeller directs water flow over and around the rudder, which gives it steering. The greater the amount of water passing over the rudder, the more effective the boat’s turning ability becomes.

However, when the boat is in reverse, the propeller pulls water instead of pushing it. Due to the relatively large gap between the rudder and the propeller, a significant portion of the water fails to pass through the rudder. As a result, the rudder becomes less effective in reversing maneuvers. Additionally, since the propeller spins sideways in relation to the boat, it tends to pull water more from one side than from any other and that is why it steers in only one direction while in reverse.

You can get wakeboard boats with side thrusters that make this problem less of an issue, but they’re often electric thrusters that require an extra battery. The picture below shows what the side thruster looks like and how it gives you better control over the boat in reverse.

Most boat owners agree that a boat with an outboard is the easiest to drive. I say a jet drive gives you greater control, but an outboard is more forgiving, especially when hooked to something large like a pontoon.

Some Boats Are Easier Than Others

It’s crazy how far boats have come and what manufacturers are doing to make them easier to drive.

Besides backing up the boat trailer, docking your boat is the hardest part of driving a boat. Boat and boat engine manufacturers know this and are making things a lot easier. You now have many options that use a joystick to put the boat where you want, using side thrusters or angling the engines just right.

It’s getting to a point where some boats are easier to drive than cars when a joystick is involved.


One thing I want to point out about driving a boat that some may find hard is how the steering wheel responds.

The steering wheel in most boats requires a lot more rotations of the wheel compared to your car. With a boat, you’re often rotating the whole engine / lower unit, which is heavy, and it’s in water, which makes it even harder. Hydraulics are used, but multiple rotations of the steering wheel are needed.

A jet boat steering wheel is more similar to a car, it’s tight as you’re only moving a small nozzle in the rear.