Let me just preface this rundown of powerboating mistakes with a quick disclaimer. I am by no means a stranger to cock-ups at sea. On the contrary, I was once in command of a small open boat that simply gave up in the face of a six-knot ebb tide and drifted hopelessly out to sea with a smoking engine. To compound the issue, a brief squall dropped so much rain that three of our number saw our lifejackets spontaneously inflate. It was in this sorry, helpless, semi-comedic state that we were rescued by my commanding officer, who (needless to say) gave me a pretty vocal dressing down for my seamanship ‘expertise’. While few of you will have had your failings so radically exposed as that, I’m willing to bet that every one of you will have been guilty of at least three of the following ten elementary powerboating mistakes.

helming blunders

Some faux pas are more conspicuous than others.


(1) The AWOL bung

In a world of increasing complication, this is as simple as it gets. The bung is a plug that enables you to drain your bilge on dry land and stop your boat sinking when you head out. Pop it in its hole or become one of the extraordinary number who find themselves in the midst of a slapstick comedy sketch.


(2) The runaway anchor

I once saw a prominent UK boat tester roll up his trousers and jump into the shallows with anchor in hand. Trouble is we were in 40 feet of water. Oh, how we laughed as he plummeted like a stone. But this is not about depth misjudgement. This is about failure to connect your anchor to the boat until it’s too late and your hook is on the seabed alongside all your expensive chain and warp.


(3) The jet boat reversal

Parking a jet boat like it’s the outboard-powered RIB you learned to drive 20 years ago can be great entertainment for spectators. Why? Because when you put it astern, it sends you in the opposite direction and when you come off the throttle, you pretty much lose steerage. Of course a twin-engined jet boat is a wonderfully manoeuverable thing – and driven well, a single-engined craft is very user-friendly too. But remember it’s a jet boat or prepare to become a very public idiot.


(4) The tidal miscalculation

Tides happen. That’s part of what makes the sea so much more entertaining than the inland network. But if you’re going to head up a creek, take a shortcut across the shallows or beach your boat for a picnic, you need to know whether the tide’s rising or falling – and if so at what rate and for how long. Get it wrong and be laughed at like a hapless tourist until the next tide lifts you off.


(5) The kill cord conundrum

You’ve stopped for a fish or a swim. You return to the helm, turn the key and nothing happens. You check all the wiring, prime the fuel and try again. Dead as a door nail.

reconnecting the killcord – helming blunders

If you don't reconnect it, the engine isn't going to start.

Before you lose your mind and start launching flares, putting out MAYDAY calls and waving your arms around in a state of panic, stop and think. Did you reinsert the kill cord? Hmmm. That’s embarrassing...


(6) The empty tank

According to the RNLI and the various marine rescue services, the greatest cause of powerboat breakdown is still an empty fuel tank. It’s usually either a novice who is yet to learn how much fuel a powerboat drinks or a hapless helmsman who trusts his fuel gauges (which are famous as the least reliable devices known to man).

Topping up with fuel – helming blunders

Fuel (or lack thereof) is still the biggest cause of breakdown in the UK.

Whatever it is, it continues to happen and there’s simply no need. Even if you use analogue dials, a basic knowledge of your boat’s cruising performance should give you a sound idea of how much range you have remaining at any given time. And if your maths is hopeless, then how about taking a spare can of fuel or an electric outboard as an auxiliary?


(7) The slipway hog

There are plenty of seamanship elements that can go wrong during launch and recovery, but there’s no need for anyone to overlook slipway etiquette. This dictates that you only occupy the slip once you’re ready to launch. Failure to observe this simple rule in peak season will see your popularity take a serious knock.

Slipway etiquette – helming blunders

Prep your boat for launch before you occupy the slipway.


(8) The public dangler

There’s not a tidal harbour in the land that hasn’t witnessed a dangling boat or two – and I always imagine what a painfully public spectacle it must be returning to your airborne vessel in front of a gallery of people who know exactly how stupid you’ve been. Don’t let yourself be that boater. Check the tidal range and if the cleats are fixed on the hard, leave enough slack to accommodate the drop.


(9) The road map navigator

This genuinely happens. Honestly, it does. Road maps for coastal navigation. Presumably, the thinking is that a road map shows you the shape of the land and therefore enables you to navigate according to coastal outcrops. This is the approach adopted by the kind of Skipper who also tends to head out unaware that the flat calm is about to become a raging, wind-over-tide maelstrom. There is no legal requirement to get yourself trained up, but you owe it to the rest of us to take your skillset seriously.


(10) The calamitous death trap

Helming blunders

If the boat isn't up to the job – do us all a favour and stay at home!

From skittish wind-blown children’s inflatables to cheap eBay powerboats for enthusiastic weekend hobbyists, there are droves of boats in the world that should never be allowed to leave the harbour. A great many of these also exhibit countless failings in the kit list, with lifejackets, radios and flare boxes that are either out of date or entirely absent. It’s not the fault of the boat. It’s the fault of the Skipper. Sort it out or leave it tied up.



Aside from the ten common blunders above, there is one boating scourge that is more about attitude than oversight. It involves sage old seadogs who would rather mock than help. Don’t let yourself be that kind of Skipper. The fact that you learned your seamanship alongside Admiral Nelson, that you can handle a boat in a Force Ten and that you have a nest of puffins in your beard doesn’t mean that all new boaters are objectionable or that all modern navigational aids are pointless. Avoid smugness and superiority. And if a younger man with a faster boat or less experience gets it wrong, try concealing your disdain and helping out.

Keep laughing (and learning): 12 common boat manoeuvring errors and 5 extraordinary boats: inspired or absurd?

Written by: Alex Smith
Alex Smith is a journalist, copywriter and magazine editor with a long history in boating and a happy addiction to the water. He’s worked on boats, lived on boats, bought boats, sold boats and – when he’s not actually on board a boat – he can generally be found in his Folkestone office, tapping away at the computer and gazing out to sea.