Alex Whittaker offers some simple practical advice to those new to powerboating.
Buying and insuring your new boat and getting her onto the water is all well and good. Operating her safely and efficiently introduces a whole new set of priorities. We all appreciate the importance of wearing life jackets, using an engine kill cord, planning our passages and checking the unfolding weather. However, there are a number of often unspoken simple things that a sensible skipper keeps an eye upon.
Know your ropes
The first thing you will need to do is tie up your boat safely to the mooring or, more likely, your marina pontoon. If your boat came with serviceable ropes, you are already a step ahead. If not, you need to take advice on which to buy. This is a big subject, beyond a mere mention in an article. The best advice is to speak to someone who can literally show you the ropes. Besides this, there are the many YouTube videos, which are fab, and these will take you through the required ropes, equipment and knots. As for knots and how to tie them, the following website is very useful and very graphic: www.animatedknots.com.
You will find it fascinating. My own favourite and hugely versatile boating knot is the round turn with two half hitches.
Ropes with eyes
Just as an example, this is how I have set up my own 24-footer. I have fitted a long bow rope and an equally long stern line to my boat for basic mooring up. These two ‘long ropes’ are deliberately just shy of the length of the boat. Do not make the schoolboy error of having your bowline so long that if it fell in the water you could drive over it and foul your propellor. (Don’t ask me how I know!) These long lines are always attached to their respective cleats at either end of the boat, and thus they always come to sea with me. I buy such commercially made-up mooring ropes from reputable dealers like Jimmy Green Marine, whom I cannot praise enough. Keen prices too. Check out their hugely practical Knowledge Centre online – it is very good indeed.
I buy their lines with a ready-made eye at one end. This makes securing them to my boat cleats very simple. The ‘non-eyed’ free end is used for securing to the berth. This free end can also be heaved, when the boat is coming in, to a friend standing on the pontoon waiting to receive it. Alternatively, a crewmember can skip onto the pontoon with the free end in their hand to secure to a post or cleat. Significantly, these lines are long enough to continue from the pontoon cleat to the boat’s central breast cleat. If your boat has a breast cleat it always pays to include it when mooring up. This means my boat is secured at the bow, the stern and amidships. Get a knowledgeable friend to show you how to tie off a rope properly to a pontoon cleat. In the meantime, you might wish to look at the version on the aforementioned Animated Knots website.
As regards the type and size of line to use, many years ago I asked Jimmy Green Marine to specify the sizes for me for my particular boat. These days their above-mentioned online Knowledge Centre has all the details for your particular length of boat instantly available. I have followed their suggestions for decades. Their online presence is also brilliant for anchor sizes, chains and rodes. I use them when I upgrade all my mooring lines every other year. Mind you, for the winter storms, I do double up all my mooring lines.
At sea, I also carry a third, much longer line so I am able to give or receive a tow in an emergency. I also keep a sharp diver’s safety knife to hand to instantly sever the tow line in an emergency. If you do not have an emergency knife, a humble serrated-blade bread knife is surprisingly versatile when cutting boat lines and clearing fouled propellers.
Stowing your lines
My boat came from the factory with enough cleats in the right places to tie up safely at the marina berth. Unfortunately, she had no obvious provision for stowing our long fore and aft lines while underway. In the past I confess that I have simply used an ad hoc bag on a carabiner clipped to a cleat. However, I still fretted that the stern line might somehow slip overboard underway and entangle the prop; therefore I wanted a place to stow these two long lines safely in the cockpit. After much casting about – and discarding the idea of adding any extra cleats – I decided to go simple and lo-tech. I bought a commercial yachting halyard bag and now use that to stow the lines. This is a heavy-duty blue canvas bag with two compartments, plus nylon netting drains sewn in below. It comes with four press stud poppers to fit it to the boat. I duly secured these to the cockpit wall in a place that was out of the way of any deck traffic, behind the captain’s chair. The lines are brought to the cockpit from fore and aft, hanked up neatly and simply dropped in the bag. I usually leave a small rope tail over the edge of the bag to pull the rope out. So far so good. It is a quick and tidy solution that has worked well. I bought my Solent Leisure 250x300mm (10”x12”) double halyard bag because it fitted the available space better. It cost £30.09, including postage and packing, from Force 4 Chandlery.
They also offer a larger three-compartment bag. However, it was a bit long for the space I had available, and my spare towing line was too bulky to fit. That longer (tow) line now lives in the stern locker, under the rear folding bench seat. I commend this simple bag-type rope stowage solution to you. It takes about half an hour to fit the four press studs using simple hand tools.
Very briefly, to protect the hull at the pontoon, your fenders should be put out in at least three places: fore, aft and amidships. It is worth noting that Jimmy Green Marine also provide a very informative Fender Size Guide online
It pays to not let your fenders dangle in the water, because you will only have to clean them later. Mine are held to the boat by smaller-diameter lines than my mooring lines. Setting your fenders to the right height so that they cannot ride over the pontoon is also important. If you cannot get your fender knots right, there are commercial white nylon items that secure your fender rope to a stanchion or rail, by niftily jamming it inside. Also important is making sure that the fenders run on your boat’s rub rail and not, say, on any gelcoat, hull lettering, skin fitting or styling flashes. Some people also fit fender socks to reduce any chafing. One of my much cleverer boating mates pegs out his boat on the water, mid-berth, with no parts of the boat actually touching the pontoon. This is a neat trick if you have the required cleats on the pontoon and can put up with the constant tuning of line lengths. It does, however, stop the hull from touching the stage or pontoon altogether.
It is considered good form to remove and/or inwardly stow your fenders as soon as you are safely underway from the marina. This is why you see vessels idling off harbours while they put all their fenders back out when they return. I don’t always remember to pull my fenders in – and get harried by my boating pals for it. Mind you, worse things happen at sea … There is also another point. I need to work my boat from the cockpit. Indeed, when working the boat alone, I never leave the cockpit. This is for safety, and also because I am always wearing my engine kill switch cord while underway. This means that I can’t go that far from the helm without stopping the engine! Consequently, I have devised ways of pulling in and putting out my fenders directly from the cockpit – mostly through deft use of my boathook. By the way, I would never be without my trusty boathook, which is also great for berthing single-handed.
I have also added big commercial plastic bumpers to my marina berth. These are there for those times when I come in a bit hot, or when the wind catches me out unawares – yet again. I find it best to approach my home berth as slowly as steering will allow. In that way, any impacts are reduced!
We have all seen those harrowing YouTube videos of refuelling explosions. My refuelling routine is to run the bilge blower for a few minutes before tying up at the full berth. Then I get the crew off the boat completely and send them well down the berth. I let the marina staff refuel, and then I restart the bilge blower. This is actually a ‘sucker’ air fan that is supposed to drain the bilge compartment of explosive vapours, just in case there has been an overlooked fuel leak. I’d be lying if I said I was not tense every single time I turn the key on any petrol boat. After about five minutes of bilge blowing, I restart the engine, re-embark the crew and set off. I never carry spare fuel aboard, and I never refuel at the berth or at sea. There are vapour and gas alarms in the bilge and in the cabin. These need keeping up to scratch, and testing regularly. They may save a life.
If your new boat came without a VHF radio, you will need one. However, a new one need not cost the earth. Our boat has a substantial factory-fitted 25W fixed VHF with a 2.7mm antenna, and helm fist mike, complete with GPS readout. However, and perhaps perversely, we tend to use our simple and affordable (60 quid) hand-held marine VHF for most radio traffic. It clips onto a screen support at the helm and is very convenient. It is kept on float charge in the cabin at the berth when not in use on deck. Finally, going on the RYA VHF course is highly recommended. It is great fun too.
Compass and charts
If your new boat has a chartplotter on the dash, you will need to find out how to use it. Once again, a knowledgeable friend is always the best way forward. If not, try the manufacturer’s presence on YouTube or, heaven forfend, read the manual. However, driving most modern chartplotters is not rocket science. The key advice I would offer is to buy a screen that is big enough for you to see clearly while underway. Small screens often look very cluttered, though of course you can tune down their sensitivity. Never forget that a smartphone or tablet can be used like a chartplotter. I keep my smartphone and chartplotter side by side. If cash is tight, best advice is to investigate the Navionics app, which offers a very reasonably priced alternative to a pukka dedicated chartplotter. However, for a small boat inshore in settled weather, a local yachtsman’s chart and a good compass will keep you safe. RYA powerboat courses will teach you how to use them. They’re highly recommended, and once again great fun.
A powerboat will require its key fluid levels to be checked daily. For example, our inboard engine uses a number of different fluids, including engine oil, hydraulic oil and transmission fluid. You should clue yourself up on where these various reservoirs and dipsticks are situated and teach yourself what the levels should be. We carry spare fluids, marine greases and marine lubes in our bosun’s locker.
When a boat is fitted with two batteries and a three-way rotary switch, the operation of this switch sometimes baffles new skippers. The basic idea is that the boat has two batteries, one for engine-starting duties and the other for domestic duties, such as running the lights, the boat stereo and the 12V fridge. The key concept is that you should never let your domestic usage flatten your starter battery. Thus, the three-way switch can be switched to either Engine Only (Battery position switch 1 Only), Domestic Only (Battery position switch 2 Only) or position (3) for ‘Both’. So, if we were staying overnight in a nice cove, after stopping the engine we would select Domestic Battery 2 alone for all the time we were anchored. This would stop our overnight domestic usage (from, say, our fridge, TV or stereo) from draining our all-important engine starter battery. In the morning, we would switch to ‘Both’ to select both batteries in parallel, thus doubling the battery capacity (not voltage) available for cranking. This is to give us a brisk start. Once started and running for a short while on ‘Both’, we would quickly switch back to Engine 1 Only to keep the engine battery backup to muster. Later, when the starter battery is fully charged, we would select either ‘Domestic’ or ‘Both’ to continue to top up both batteries. However, as soft marina dwellers, we have our boat connected to mains shore power all the time we are on the berth, and therefore on float charge, so we tend to leave our three-way switch on ‘Both’. It is very reassuring knowing that your boat will start the next morning!
For emergency use, and for general boat maintenance and updating, you can’t beat having a well-thought-out bosun’s bag aboard. If it lives aboard it can’t be left at home, and you can add things to it is as experience dictates. We bought a basic toolkit in a bag from Halfords many moons ago, to which we have added additional items over the years. Our expanded bosun’s bag now features:
- Mini socket set
- A selection of screwdrivers
- Pliers, engineer’s and electrical
- A set of jeweller’s screwdrivers
- In-line and blade fuses
- Electrical connectors
- Spare manual bilge pump cassette
- First-aid kit with an emphasis on burns and cuts
- Electrical, gaffer and waterproof binding tapes
- Safety knife & serrated bread knife
- A selection of cable ties
- Electrical cables (variety of sizes)
- Hand brace and an electric drill
- A set of engineer’s twist drills
- Simple 12V electrical tester
- 12V inspection lamp
- Screws, washers, nuts and fasteners in a small waterproof jar
- WD-40 and 3-IN-ONE aerosols
- Small gas torch or a gas hot-knife soldering kit
- A set of mini-flares
- Spare 12V socket phone charger and Poundshop multi-lead for a variety of phones and tablets
Which items have we used most?
- Hand tools, screwdrivers, pliers and multimeter
- Hand drill/electric drill
- Tapes, various
- Electrical connectors, fuses, screws
- Safety knife
And the least used?
- Mini socket set
- Gas hot-knife set
- Bilge pump spare cassette