Boating 101: How to Get Started

Anchors aweigh!
By Bill Lindsey
Bill Lindsey
Bill Lindsey
Bill Lindsey is an award-winning writer based in South Florida. He covers real estate, automobiles, timepieces, boats, and travel topics.
August 27, 2021 Updated: August 27, 2021

Endless months of social distancing have affected the ability of family and friends to enjoy get-togethers at restaurants, movies, concerts, or other entertainment venues, leaving many feeling isolated. Here’s one solution: boats allow small groups to safely enjoy each other’s company while offering fresh air and sunshine.

Most bowrider or center console pleasure boats under 21 feet in size are easy to operate while safely and comfortably accommodating four to six people. An express cruiser featuring more seating areas, as well as an enclosed cabin with a bathroom and kitchen (the “head” and the “galley”), may be more appropriate for larger families or groups, or for extended and overnight cruising.

Don’t own a boat? Not a problem; many marinas have fleets of rental boats available, allowing new boaters to “try before they buy” or to simply rent a boat rather than own, thus avoiding maintenance and storage responsibilities. Rental boats are ready to go, equipped with required safety equipment including life preservers, a horn, and signaling devices; just step aboard and choose a direction. Boat rental companies operate coast to coast, offering a variety of boats ranging in size from 18-foot outboard engine-powered models to 40-foot cruisers. Most can assist with hands-on training, in addition to providing references for local boating safety classes.

A boat allows you to enjoy amazing experiences those confined to dry land can’t imagine. Distant islands in the bay are transformed into picnic sites, warm evenings are prime cocktail cruise dates, and any day is ideal for a leisurely, stress-shedding ride across the lake, up the river, or along the coast. In short, a boat is a veritable portable, personal island, making every day on the water a family reunion and every casual cruise with friends and coworkers a reconnecting adventure. A boat allows you to discover how different a community looks from the water and the joys of finding a quiet spot to toss out the anchor, transforming the boat into a waterfront restaurant with no wait or mask mandates.

What to Know

The only thing a boat has in common with a car is the steering wheel; instead of a gas and brake pedal, a lever controls the throttle for speed and engine direction (forward, neutral, and reverse). While most states don’t require special licensing to operate a small boat, it’s always a good idea to have someone experienced at the wheel because every boat cruise is a practical lesson in physics. Wind, water currents, and even the wake from other boats affect speed and direction. These forces have a direct relationship to the comfort and safety of the passengers on the boat. As an example, crossing a large wake from a passing boat or applying too much throttle can cause the bow to unexpectedly rise up, throwing the boat off course while jostling passengers.

Operating a boat is fairly straightforward, but it does require your full attention. In addition to making sure guests are comfortable, they need to stay safe, keeping arms, feet, and hands inside the vessel while underway. Dangling legs over the bow may seem like fun but it could go wrong in an instant if a passing boat’s wake causes one of your guests to fall overboard in the path of the spinning propeller. When the boat is anchored to take a dip, no one should go in the water until the engine is turned off and the key removed from the ignition. And just as drinking and driving don’t mix on the road, the person operating the boat needs to be clearheaded from the time the boat pulls away from the dock until it is safely tied up again at the end of the cruise.


Rules of the Road

U.S. waterways feature navigational markers that may also warn of shallow water, rocks, or other hazards. Keep the boat centered between these markers, staying on the right side just as you do on a highway.

Safety Equipment

Ensure there is one PFD (personal flotation device) sized to fit every person on board, as well as a throwable flotation device, all kept within easy reach. If the family dog is coming aboard, make sure it also wears a PFD.


Essential gear for every cruise includes sunblock, sunglasses, hats, medications (in case delays keep you on the water longer than expected), a basic first aid kit, cell phone and charger cable, snacks, and a cooler filled with water.

Bill Lindsey
Bill Lindsey
Bill Lindsey is an award-winning writer based in South Florida. He covers real estate, automobiles, timepieces, boats, and travel topics.