Boat handling is learned mostly by experience. It is not a skill you can learn from books or on-line, although you can learn much about boat handling that way. It is a skill best learned by doing it. However, there are some basics. It is best divided into motorboat handling and sailing. But some things are common to both. The best way to learn is from an experienced instructor. Take a Boating course! http://www.uscgboating.org/recreational-boaters/boating-safety-courses.php However if you don't have this option there are things you should know.
Sailboats and power boats work basically the same way when under power. However sailboats will not respond as quickly as power boats, so you must think ahead and take action sooner than with a power boat.
Stopping a boat:
An essential fact to remember; BOATS DO NOT HAVE BRAKES.! To stop a boat you must apply an engine in reverse, or some other force to slow the boat and bring it to a stop. Speed is a big factor. Going slow is the best means of insuring you can handle your boat safely. I once heard an instructor tell a person that was renting a houseboat, ( a very large houseboat!), that the faster you go the easier it handles. Wrong! Yes at higher speeds the rudder has greater effect, but higher speed gives you far less time to react and to maneuver the boat in tight quarters. So start out slow.
High speed also means it takes longer (in distance, not time) for the boat to turn, and to slow down and stop. It is harder to make sudden turns, and high speed turns can end up throwing people out of the boat, and cause injuries to both the people and the boat. Boats also tend to lean into the turn at high speed. In some boats this can cause the boat to slide sideways and even cause it to tip over. (It depends on the type of boat and shape of the bottom of the boat) So before you turn you should always slow to a safe speed. What is a safe speed? That depends on the boat and the experience of the operator.
However: as said, most boats lean into the turn but some do not. Flat bottom boats such as john boats or flat bottom skiffs such as the Carolina Skiff do not. They will lean away from the turn and if turned too fast will "trip" on the chine and turn over. Pontoon boats have a tendency to lean away from the turn also.
A very important characteristic of any boat that you need to learn as soon as possible is carry. Carry is how far a boat will keep moving forward after you shut off the power. How far does it drift? This will tell you how fast you can approach a dock, or other object in water (including a person) without running it, or them, over. See the end of this page for an exercise that you can use to practice this.
How a motor boat maneuvers depends a lot on many factors. Does it have one engine or two? Is it an inboard, an outboard, or a stern drive? There are some other configurations, but these three are the most common. Hull type and shape is also a big factor.
Outboards steer by turning the engine and pointing the propeller in the direction you want to go. If the prop points to the right the boat turns to the right. If it points to the left you turn left. On some very small outboards you have to turn the outboard around to go in reverse, but most outboards over three horsepower have a reverse gear. Stern drives steer basically the same as outboard engines.
Inboards have a rudder, usually directly behind the propeller that redirects the flow of water from the propeller. To turn to the right you move the rudder to the right and to turn left move the rudder to the left. Rudders are not very effective at slow speeds, so it is easier to maneuver a boat with twin engines, than one with one engine. You can actually use the engines to steer the boat by adjusting the speed of the engines. But, this is an advanced technique that you should learn after you learn the basics.
An important point to remember is that the steering is at the stern, the back end of the boat. So if you turn the steering wheel, or push the tiller on an outboard, the back end of the boat actually moves sideways and the boat pivots on a point near the forward end of the boat. So if you are moving away from a dock, then turn suddenly and accelerate, the back end of the boat will collide with the dock.
Another important point is propellers develop two forces, thrust and torque. Thrust makes the boat go forward (or backward). Torque makes the boat go sideways. A typical boat with one engine and a right hand propeller (spins clockwise) will slip sideways to the right when you apply thrust. This will make the back end tend to skew to the right (turning the boat to the left). This is more pronounced on boats with large engines and big propellers and at slow speeds.
On boats with twin engines, if the left hand engine turns counterclockwise (left hand), the torque cancels out. However, on most outboard and stern drives both propellers turn clockwise (right hand) You can, of course, get boats with twins that turn in opposite directions, and most twin inboards turn in opposite directions. This prevents any side slip and the boat goes in a straight line.
On large single engine boats the side slip can be enough that you have to adjust your course for the amount of slip just as you would for a side wind or current.
If you are just learning, or have a new boat, you should practice with the boat and get used to it's handling characteristics . A good way to do this is go out in the middle of the lake, or some other place where there is not a lot of boat traffic, and throw a buoy or anything else that floats, over the side. Then practice approaching it without hitting it. Do this from different directions to learn how your boat handles with the wind coming from different directions. It will also help you to learn how far the boat will carry after you shut off the power.
This is also a good way to learn how to handle your sailboat without an engine. Docking a sailboat without an engine is particularly difficult and this is a good way to practice.
Handling your single engine Inboard/Outboard: You Tube http://youtu.be/zxpTilwZQYE
Boat Handling: http://www.boatsafe.com/nauticalknowhow/safetips.htm
Boat Docking: http://www.boatsafe.com/nauticalknowhow/bdock.htm
Boat Handling Skills: http://www.boatingmag.com/how-to/seven-important-boat-handling-skills
Commander Bob: (I hope they fix this page) http://www.commanderbob.com/art18.html
Boating Tips, You Tube: http://youtu.be/jzrk-pi-u9U
Docking techniques. You tube: http://youtu.be/PoGMAEjiHmU
Heavy Weather Boat Handling: http://www.boatsafe.com/nauticalknowhow/heavy.htm#jackline
Chapmans Piloting and Seamanship. Maloney, http://www.amazon.com/Chapman-Piloting-Seamanship-Edition-Handling/dp/1588169618
Power Boat Handling Illustrated: Robert Sweet, http://www.amazon.com/Powerboat-Handling-Illustrated-Make-Exactly/dp/0071468811
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