Smarter by Summer

There are many ways to become a better boater this winter. We have a dozen for you to try.

How does one get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. How does one get to be a better boater? Pretty much the same way. And what better time to practice than winter, when the distractions — soaking up the sun, vacations and long weekends — are limited?

West Coast boat owners have the luxury of a mild climate and keeping their boat in the water year-round, so they can use the next few months to hone their skills, broaden their horizons and dig deeper into details to enhance their on-the-water expertise.

What follows are a dozen easy ways for boaters to become better by summer. Folks who tackle one per weekend will be a rock star by Memorial Day.

Practice Boat Handling & Docking

1. Ask anyone (who’s willing to tell the truth) about the most difficult aspect of boating, and the answer will likely be docking. Sure, it’s all easy out on open water, but once you approach the hard bits and have to prove your close-quarters maneuvering abilities, it’s a whole new world. Most people are intimidated by docking. Their attitude is “let’s get this over and done with and do it as infrequently as possible.” I look at it as a fun challenge, so I spent one entire afternoon docking my boat from various angles. Across the fairway, I gained an audience of folks who served cocktails while they watched. In a few hours, I got down the various nuances of wind, current, speed, etc., and my audience applauded. During that time, I got better and they got tipsy.

Even with whiz-bang technology such as pod drives, practice is a good idea. Try approaching bow on, backing in, side-tying, spinning the boat in its own length, and keeping station in a breeze. As you become one with the boat, you’ll have little need for the bow thruster, which only seems to elicit snickers from dock neighbors anyway.

Karen Prioleau, instructor in the Professional Mariner Program at Orange Coast College School of Sailing and Seamanship, takes it one step further. “On a twin-screw boat, practice using one engine,” she said. “Try it first with the port engine and then starboard, to get the feel for how the boat will handle, in case you happen to lose one in an emergency.”

Become an Electronics Whiz

2. Electronic charts have transformed navigation and, sadly, many mariners today barely recognize paper charts. I carry them whenever possible, because if I lost power, I’d be left with a dead ship. Prepare for events like this by taking an onboard inventory of paper charts over the winter. Practice doing dead reckoning on them during a three-hour slow run up the coast, and see how closely you can estimate your position.

Most people — I’m one of them — quickly learn the basics of a new chartplotter or radar system, and that’s as far as they go. But today’s systems are uber-powerful and include more information and tools than users can imagine. Dust off the manual and spend a day learning the in-depth workings of the boat’s electronics. Get to know the various alarms that can be set (e.g., anchor, MARPA), learn the symbols and figure out the fine points of the sonar, which could lead to more fish. Be sure to get the most up-to-date e-charts via software downloads, and add waypoints you may need in the future.

Don’t stop at the plotter. Study your engine information screens for diagnostics and failure messages, and if you have a digital switching system such as Scheiber or CZone, learn all it can do, from turning on lights to checking the bilge.

Get Anchoring Down Pat

3. Anchoring is almost as important as docking. Sticking the boat to the ground saves the day in case of an emergency, and boat owners worry less and sleep better when they’re anchored well for the weekend. Good anchoring skills mean quiet coves and remote places can be added to the itinerary.

If your anchor has never seen the water, check the anchor locker to make sure the chain or line will pay out smoothly. While checking the locker, make time to mark or re-mark the anchor chain so it’s easy to determine how much is out, and make sure the bitter end is actually secured to the boat.

Practice anchoring in small coves, in big wind and in variable bottom conditions, such as grass or gravel. Figure out how your boat likes to anchor, so you can do it quickly and with Zen. Try anchoring fore and aft with two anchors or try a Bahamian moor with two bow anchors. Anchor and take a line to shore to see how to cinch in the boat when there’s a cross breeze, or try Med mooring: put a bow anchor down and back the transom toward a dock. Comes in handy on European charters. Try anchoring alone with just the remote windlass control, to test your single-handing skills. Finally, develop and practice hand signals with your first mate, so anchoring is a peaceful and quiet experience that will be the envy of the anchorage.’

Study the Rules of the Road

4. If your knowledge of the rules of the road begins and ends with “red, right, returning” or “sail over power,” you may want to spend a few evenings by the fireside, studying. Not just right-of-way guidance, these rules require a thorough understanding of lights and day shapes that identify another vessel’s predicament or condition from afar. For example, if a boat is displaying two red lights, one over the other, what’s going on aboard? Red over red — the captain is dead — the vessel is not under command. Red over white is most likely a commercial fishing vessel: red over white — fishing at night. For a helpful list of nautical mnemonics, check out

A great tool that will keep you entertained on cold winter evenings is the Weems & Plath LIGHTrule. Like a large slide rule, this tool identifies all COLREGS (international rules addressing collision avoidance); 60 light combinations from bow, stern, port and starboard angles; and 15 day shapes (e.g., a black ball in the rigging means the vessel is anchored in daytime). It’s more fun than it sounds, and a couple can always make a game out of quizzing each other. Keep it aboard for quick reference throughout the boating season.

Create Safety Checklists

5. My discussions with Lt. Cmdr. Andrea Sachetti, an H-65 helicopter pilot in U.S. Coast Guard District 11 in San Francisco, focused on the importance of having a plan for various scenarios prior to them happening. Spend an afternoon writing down steps in case of fire, flood, abandon ship, engine failure or crew overboard.

“It will be easier to take the right steps when panic sets in if you’ve thought it through beforehand,” Sachetti said.

Write out thorough and separate checklists and laminate the procedures to keep by the helm for future reference. It’s smart to walk around the boat and find the equipment (e.g., through-hull plugs, fire extinguishers, life raft) that will aid in each scenario. Post the proper procedure for an emergency VHF call, in case the captain is the one who’s incapacitated and the crew doesn’t know how to use the radio.

Discuss these procedures with your usual crew and brainstorm better ways of doing things. Then, conduct a few practice drills that ensure everyone’s prepared in case of an emergency.

Create Departure & Arrival Checklists

6. Checklists are magical in that they keep everything organized without having to reinvent the wheel (in your head) during every departure or arrival back at the dock. Once you develop a routine, write it down; that way, next season you won’t need to dust off the brain cells and remember what to do.

For example, when departing, you may need to open the through-hulls, check the engine oil and transmission fluid, monitor the batteries, disconnect the shore-power cord, spool up the gyro stabilizer, and turn on electronics at the main and flybridge helms. When you return, the process may include shutting down and checking the engines, making sure the bilge is empty, switching lights off and security systems on, flushing the outboard, putting on canvas and rinsing the decks. Whatever the process, just get it down. That way, guests who come along as occasional crew can help without needing too much guidance.

Do Equipment Checks/Updates

7. Wintertime is great downtime for mainten­ance and upgrades. Change the engine and genset oil, service running gear if needed, repair those odd lights that seem to work sporadically, and load up flashlights and handheld radios with fresh batteries. Also check the fire extinguishers and dig through the first-aid kit for expired medication, bandage conditions and inventory of seasickness pills. This is the stuff that gets no attention during the season’s fun times but must be ready and working when needed.

Learn Some Knots

8. Can’t tie a knot? Tie a lot. Knots are not just for sailors and all their strings. Knowing knots makes one a true mariner who can assume attitude when coming upon a dock cleat with a mound of tangled line wrapped around it. Knots can also get you out of a predicament, such as when you need a tow or an anchor snubber.

The must-know knots include the cleat hitch (see previous paragraph about cleat snootiness), the clove hitch and round-turn-two half hitches (two ways to tie on fenders), a sheet bend (tying together lines of different diameters), and a bowline (a loop knot used for just about everything). A rolling hitch applied to anchor chain is a great way to create an on-the-go snubber that will take the strain off the windlass and put it on a cleat.

Learning knots is easy thanks to various websites and apps. Try or Nothing will make a boater saltier (and handier) than a little knot knowledge.

Learn Dinghy Basics

9. Don’t forget to spend some time this winter with the little boat — the tender. This is your car, your transport to the shore-side bar and your exploration vehicle. Many people give no thought to learning to drive a dinghy, which is why there are so many bad dinghy drivers.

Learn to load a dinghy safely, especially if you venture out with a lot of newbies. Don’t assume everyone knows how to step into or out of a dinghy — specifically if they’re young or old. Teach them to tie up a dinghy: a bowline on a long painter is great. Don’t tie up a dinghy so tightly that nobody else can get to the dock. Keep hands, feet, pets, etc., away from the engine and prop. Never drive on plane through an anchorage or a diving/snorkeling site, and always drive with awareness. Take the time to teach kids to drive — they’ll love the practice.

Consider better ways to launch and retrieve the tender, in order to make these operations safer and faster. If you’re particularly daring, and the water’s not too cold, practice a beach landing or two. The water always looks shallower just before you jump in, and pulling a loaded dinghy up onto the beach is never as easy as you think.

Take a Basic Diesel Management course

10. I’ll never be a diesel mechanic, but knowing the basics will save my bacon and make me look like a hero. OCC Sailing in Southern California offers “Diesel in a Day” courses that cover bleeding the injectors, changing oil and impellers, clearing water strainers, replacing belts, and managing fuel and oil filters. If there’s not a convenient course near you, offer to pay your mechanic for a day of his time and get hands-on training with your specific engine(s). Don’t forget about the genset.

Become a Student Again

11. Smart people spend their lives learning, so don’t be afraid (or embarrassed) to become a student again. Take some classes in weather or coastal navigation, especially if you feel a bit rusty. The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and Power Squadron offer courses that will reinforce one’s boating mindset. offers online captain’s courses, and even if you don’t need a Coast Guard license, it’s a great way to get smarter on all things nautical. YouTube and are good sources for how-to videos about everything from docking to fishing, so spend some time in front of a screen.

Remember, however, that screen time is no substitute for actual hands-on experience. Sailors know this well. Chris Jester, owner of SailTime Orange County, said, “We take couples who have only been crew with very little skippering experience and in five days of private instruction, have them confidently in command.”

Chris Rundlett, who runs a school in the Caribbean, puts his instructors through periodic training and racing courses. “No matter how much I think I know, I always learn from other people,” Rundlett said, “and that makes me a better teacher.”

You see, experts learn and practice all the time. That’s how they became experts. So set some learning goals after the holidays to accomplish by summer — a smarter boater is a safer boater.

Become a Better First Mate

12. Better boating isn’t just the captain’s responsibility. A competent first mate can make all the difference and cover up a few mistakes too. Besides, what if the captain falls ill or overboard and the mate’s the one in charge?

Learning to anticipate what a boat will do or what the captain needs makes a good first mate. Communication is key, so learn hand signals, stop yelling, be able to stand a watch so the captain can rest, and manage docklines with grace.

Yes, there are pink and blue jobs, and a couple can fall into a rut, but never switching duties is boring, not to mention unsafe. Ideally, each member of a permanent crew should be able to single-hand the boat to safety, and that means stepping out of your comfort zone and practicing skills you may rarely use, such as docking and anchoring. Take an afternoon trip with your partner but ask that person not to do anything unless absolutely necessary, to see how the journey goes when you’re in charge and “alone.”