Approach with caution

Doug King | VOLUME 32, ISSUE 1

One of the most common areas for claims involves collisions between boats and other objects.

Having looked over Club Marine claims histories, we can say with some confidence that a considerable number of Club Marine members are all-too familiar with how easy it is to suffer injury on a boat – especially when boats and objects, such as wharves, jetties and other vessels, are in close proximity.

Banging into things hurts. Hulls get damaged, fittings are broken, gelcoat is scratched and, more importantly, people can be injured.

Collisions and contact with jetties, launch ramp pontoons, wharves, channel markers, buoys and other vessels occur far too frequently – and easily. And, as Club Marine’s data shows, they are an extremely common cause of personal injury and damage to boats. The injuries can be pretty serious, too, including missing fingers and toes, back injuries, lacerations, crush injuries, broken bones, severe head injuries and worse.

The damage to boats can be pretty severe – and expensive – as well. But whether it’s a broken finger or a holed hull, most collisions can be avoided if some forethought is applied, skills are honed and appropriate care taken.

A thorough analysis of our insurance data tells us that approaching jetties, wharves and other boats accounts for a substantial proportion of our overall claims. Most commonly, they are due to inexperience, inattention, inappropriate speeds, poor communication and lack of awareness of what’s actually going on around the boat.

Collision avoidance can be looked at from a number of perspectives: Craft handling – is the skipper fully conversant with the handling characteristics of their boat and do they have a high degree of skill at close-quarters manoeuvring?

Craft characteristics – the particular handling characteristics of the vessel’s hull and engine configuration and its susceptibility to factors such as wind and tidal influence.

Environmental factors – wind, current, tidal state and the physical characteristics of the area, combined with the number of other boats and people nearby.

The people factor – are your boat’s occupants experienced boaties and are they sufficiently well briefed in berthing drills and your manoeuvring intentions?

Boating is the one remaining area where, with very little (if any) training and by simply passing a short multiple-choice test, a person can legally take charge of a powerful vessel capable of considerable speed and manoeuvrability. A boat licence in the wrong hands can be a dangerous thing.

Just because someone has passed their licence test, it does not necessarily mean that they are qualified to skipper a boat – it just means that they are legally entitled to. It’s an important distinction and one that can have a definite impact on what happens out on the water.

While it’s beyond the scope of this article to present a comprehensive discussion on boat handling, we’ll look closely at why and where common errors are made.


Interestingly, many collisions are the result of the similarities between boats and cars – which we all drive without much thought once we are experienced. Most motorboats, like cars, have a steering wheel, a throttle, an instrument panel and a method of engaging forward or reverse gear. This is why it is very easy for even a rookie skipper to quickly feel at home behind the wheel of a big, shiny new boat and thus potentially develop overconfidence in their ability to maintain control – until the moment of truth arrives and they find their skills lacking.

But boats – unlike cars – do not have brakes to help them stop quickly. Without brakes to help avoid collisions, the only good way to stop in a hurry is to reverse the thrust direction of the propeller. This is done by firstly throttling the engine down to idle speed and then shifting into reverse. If you try to shift at any engine speed other than idle, you run the risk of serious damage to the gearbox.

Going astern or into reverse can quickly cause loss of control of the boat, particularly if there is any wind or tide influence. Because it is a dynamic environment, boats easily slip and slide on the water’s surface and it takes longer to stop a boat than a car. Approach jetties and other immovable objects slowly – very slowly – and with just enough throttle to provide forward momentum and control in the direction in which you wish to go. By maintaining power to the prop, you at least have some control over the direction of the boat. Slipping the craft in and out of gear as you approach gives you continued momentum while allowing you to incrementally control forward speed.

Equally, if you’re in any doubt or feel that you are not comfortable with your approach to a ramp, berth or jetty, stop. You can always get underway again but, if you come in too fast, you put pressure on yourself by leaving less time to assess the approach and make adjustments. Also, fast approaches make others nervous and will likely cause unnecessary risk and aggravation to those around you.

When coming alongside or approaching other boats or structures, you need to keep your wits about you. In particular, you need to keep an eye on those around you, especially if you’re relying on them to fend off or tie up. As our claims statistics show, it takes just a moment’s lack of attention to cause injury or damage. Remember: a hand or foot is way too tender to be a fender …


Most skippers give their guests some instruction, varying from where to stand or sit, how and where to hold on and how to perform certain tasks. But few give their guests specific instructions in what not to do – and therein lies a big potential problem.

It is vitally important that those aboard are instructed by the skipper that they should never try to physically fend off an imminent collision with a jetty or other immovable object with their hands, arms or legs, however tempting it may seem. Children are particularly susceptible here as they are naturally curious and tend to be eager to please and help out. But they need to be made aware that the forces behind a moving craft are significant and can be well above the crush tolerance of human tissue and bone.

Berthing is a common cause of personal-injury claims. Many times, inexperienced guests think they are doing the right thing by offering to put themselves between the boat and another object. And too many times their names end up on our claims forms.

Boat occupants should also be aware of the old nautical adage ‘one hand for you and one for the boat’, which is to say that everyone onboard should be holding on to an appropriate part of the vessel when underway or at rest … preferably one which is designed for that purpose, such as a grabrail.

As skipper, you should also give advice as to footwear that is suitable for a day on a boat – thongs and sandals, popular though they are, do not cut it and have been the cause of many a trip and fall. Proper boating shoes should be the footwear of choice for regular crew, with sneakers being a reasonable option, especially those with non-marking soles.


Becoming adept at approaching a dock takes practice. A great method to hone the skill is by attempting to ‘keep station’ – holding a position in the water where your vessel is not moving relative to the land, despite wind or tidal influence.

A simple way to practise this is to find a quiet corner of your local waters and drop a buoy overboard. This can simply be a balloon attached to some fishing line, with a large sinker for an anchor. The point of the exercise is to attempt to maintain position in relation to the buoy. Many reading this will have already practised holding station and will know how useful this skill can be as far as boat manoeuvring goes. But for those who haven’t, you might be surprised at how much work can be involved – especially if you’re working with strong wind or tide conditions.

Keeping station requires very active and positive control of your vessel. It also requires that you maintain a good watch around you. Someone once described it as being a little like balancing a pencil on its tip, or hovering a helicopter. Regardless, there is no better exercise for familiarising yourself with your boat’s slow-speed handling characteristics. Have your back-up skipper practise this drill also. (Err … you do have a back-up person onboard who can competently handle your boat in case you’re incapacitated or otherwise occupied, don’t you?)

Practise holding station, initially by holding your craft directly into the wind and then, as your skill improves, at various angles to the wind so as to get the feel of how your craft reacts to the differing wind directions against the hull. You will not be able to hold station completely with a beam wind of any strength, but the point is to gain better control of the craft and to learn how it behaves in varying conditions.

It might surprise you just how much more adept you become after just a couple of hours practice. Some might regard time spent practising as time wasted not fishing, cruising or skiing but, if it results in a higher skill level and, just as importantly, more confidence in your ability to handle your boat, you and your guests will get more enjoyment out of your time on the water.


The second common area of misunderstanding which results in collisions with stationary objects lies in the difference between how a car turns compared with a boat. When you turn the steering wheel on a car, the front wheels turn, while the rear follows suit. On a boat, though, it’s the other way around.

When you turn the wheel on your boat, whether it’s an outboard, sterndrive or inboard, the stern initiates the turn as it reacts to the thrust of the propeller(s). Thus, when you turn your boat, you must have enough room for your boat’s stern to swing. If you try to turn too sharply when leaving the dock, for instance, the stern can swing into the dock with some force. And if there’s a hand or foot in between, your day on the bay might come to a premature – and painful – end. This movement can be magnified by the effects of wind and tide, so you should always factor both into your calculations when turning near objects or other boats.

The handling characteristics of craft are determined by many factors, but a major one is the ratio between the underwater section of the craft and the above-water section. A craft with a shallow underwater profile, but with large topsides, will be more affected by the wind than one with the opposite characteristics. And never forget the influence of clears and canopies in respect to catching the wind and acting like a sail … a situation which can catch the unwary skipper totally off guard. You can reduce the effect of the wind on your vessel’s behaviour by dropping the canopies and clears. The less surface area presented to the wind, the less effect on the boat. A simple rule of thumb: when wind is blowing you on or off the wharf, steepen the angle of approach.


The craft’s method of propulsion also influences its handling characteristics and a vessel with, say, twin sterndrives or outboards is generally much easier and more precise to control than one with a single drive unit. A single-screw inboard craft with high topsides is undoubtedly the most difficult set-up, but all inboards suffer to varying degrees in comparison to sterndrives or outboards. The reason for this is simple: the propeller of an outboard or sterndrive provides directional thrust, making rudder effectiveness not dependent upon the speed of water flow past the leg, as it’s controlled by propeller revolutions and angle of thrust. On the downside, if the gears are not engaged, there is very little steering. Inboard configurations, on the other hand, are dependent on the flow of water over the rudder’s surface for directional control, and manoeuvrability may be compromised as speed reduces.

However, it’s worth noting that while sterndrives and outboards can be more nimble, their manoeuvrability is reduced considerably in reverse. Keep this in mind when attempting to move your craft in tight confines, such as when berthing or when other vessels are around you.

Also – don’t rely too much on the bow thruster. They are a great aid to manoeuvring, but don’t always get a solid flow of water across the propeller, resulting in decreased performance … sometimes when you need it most.

When coming in to dock, make sure you have good visibility and know where everyone is. You also need to make sure your crew is prepared and that objects such as fishing rods, tackle, outriggers, aerials, chains and ropes are properly stowed and out of the way. Docking is all about preparation and forward planning. Equally, the skipper needs to ensure that fenders and ropes are rigged early so that people aren’t tempted to use their bodies to soften the impact.

It’s also important to understand that tying a boat to another vessel or structure is best left to the experienced. Again, children are particularly vulnerable here and there is potential for serious injury, for example, if a rope tightens at the wrong time while a limb or finger is in the way.

No matter how skilled and experienced you are, the unknown can always occur. Another boat’s wash could destabilise your boat and throw occupants off their feet. A gust of wind could blow you into the jetty, an errant rope might cause someone to trip or fall, or another boat could come at you when you least expect it. Ultimately, it’s all about being aware and keeping an eye on what’s going on around you.

It’s also a good idea to keep room and movement in reserve – always give yourself some leeway, just in case.

With the appropriate forethought, good understanding between skipper and crew, and familiarity with your craft’s handling strengths and weaknesses in different conditions, you will have a better chance of keeping both the pleasure and the leisure in your boating. And you will have less reason to dial Club Marnie’s claims line on 1300 00 CLUB (2582).

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