A Greenhorn’s Guide to Boating, Your New Favorite Pastime

Whether you dream of taking friends on all-day fishing trips on a glassy lake, cruising down a river deep in the woods, or sailing across a bay to catch the sunset over the ocean horizon, a boating trip is an instant vacation. It’s also a must-do for any dedicated outdoorsman — an intimate encounter with nature that you can’t get any other way.

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Petar Chernaev/Getty Images

However, boating isn’t one of those things you just pick up in a weekend. As much as it might seem like you can let the boat do the work, navigating any waterborne vessel is quite an athletic endeavor. Sailing involves tremendous agility. Rowing is a stamina buster. Even operating a powerboat safely requires concentration, coordination, and strength.

But it’s all worth it when you take that first big breath of salt air, catch sight of dolphins playing in your wake, or hear loons calling over a twilit lake.

To encourage would-be boaters to take the plunge (metaphorically, that is), we’ve compiled a list of the essential ways to prepare for this outdoor pastime. We also caught up with Jeremy Pearson at Van Dam Custom Boats, a family-owned workshop in Boyne City, Michigan that builds each unique vessel by hand, to get his expert advice on what new boaters need to know.

Connect with Experts

Simply jumping aboard and trying to figure things out as you go is a recipe for disaster. Instead, you’re well advised to connect with veteran boaters who can show you the ropes — there’s a reason that phrase comes from the sailing world. If you don’t know any boaters personally, join a boating club or other marine organization, attend a sailing school, volunteer on the crew of a large vessel, or hire a guide who can train you in important aspects like boating terminology, wind awareness, equipment use, knot-tying, and sail-rigging, as well as safety measures.

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Chelsea Batten/The Manual

Get Licensed

A boating license isn’t optional — it’s a necessary prerequisite to operating a complex waterborne vehicle in a public space. And few of these licenses are “one size fits all,” so you’ll need to seek out the rules and regulations for the type of boating you want to do and where you want to do it. You’ll also need to register the boat you plan to operate. Additionally, you might need a separate registration for where you plan to moor or dock your boat when you’re not using it.

Gear Up

No, we’re not talking about a nautical-themed pashmina afghan. That can be on the list, but it should definitely fall well behind things like a compass (ideally an electronic one), a GPS/chart plotter (to get a real-time picture of water traffic and other objects you may encounter), a depth sounder (to make sure you don’t run aground), and a marine radio, as well as safety equipment such as life vests, distress flares, and fire extinguishers. If you’re into nifty tech gear, you’re in luck — boating technology is constantly evolving and there are plenty of cool gadgets to geek out about.

Pearson also suggests the following:

  • “Non-marking-sole shoes are great. They offer a layer of protection for feet and often help with grip on top of a deck. Although I prefer to be barefoot, deck shoes are great when the weather is cool.”
  • “A good pair of binoculars can come in pretty handy.”
  • “Rain gear. You never need it until you need it, and if you don’t have it, it’ll be too late.”

Become a Weather Watcher

You can hop in your car and take a drive pretty much anytime you feel like it, but boating is much more dependent on the vagaries of weather. Getting to know the different types of clouds is a plus, as is learning which wind directions signify storms in your area. And even if the skies are cloudless, make sure to check the forecast before you leave. Weather is particularly changeable over bodies of water, and for a beginning boater, even a minor squall can prove fatal.

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Chelsea Batten/The Manual
“Every place has its own unique weather and wind patterns. It’s important to take the time to learn what that is, especially if you’re in a tidal region. The time of year can have a dramatic effect on those patterns. The sea breeze and land breeze are regular local onshore/offshore counterpart weather patterns experienced in warm climates, or seasonal climates that have heavy fall/spring temperature swings caused by the sun heating the land and sea. You really need to be aware of where you are, and the patterns that affect your area for that time of year,” Pearson adds.

Have a Float Plan

A “float plan” is a boating euphemism for a written document to leave with the last person on shore to see you alive. We kid, but seriously, it’s a pretty important safety measure. Usually two or three pages long, a float plan includes detailed information about what kind of watercraft you’ll be using, how many passengers are on it, what kind of safety and emergency gear you’re carrying, your itinerary, and even a checklist for the person you leave it with so that if they have concern for your safety, they know exactly whom to contact and what to do. You can download the official US Coast Guard float plan template here; it covers everything.

The Benefits of Boating

Becoming a boater comes with its own special language. Some of the cool new terms you’ll learn include:

  • Windward and leeward: Directions that indicate where the wind is coming from.
  • Fore, aft, port, starboard: Front, back, left, and right sides of the boat, respectively.
  • Tacking and jibing: Maneuvers done with a sail.
  • Heel and list: Ways that the boat can move.

An interest in boating is a gateway to appreciating boat design. Even if you’re not the type to page through car magazines for the latest in technology and aesthetic design, we’re willing to bet that you’ll fall in love with the beautiful lines and rich natural materials that characterize most watercraft. From luxury yachts to handcrafted rowboats, there’s something to ogle for every taste and type.

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Chelsea Batten/The Manual

Boating offers a wealth of physical and mental health benefits. There are those who call boating a “sickness” or their “drug of choice,” and they’re not wrong — being on the water is nothing short of addictive. However, it’s a high you can feel good about. We know boaters who credit their hobby with getting them off the couch, lowering their cholesterol, even “curing” their addiction issues. Let’s start with the obvious: the physical strength, flexibility, and focus required to navigate a watercraft. The fresh air in your face stimulates deep breathing that promotes blood circulation and detoxification of the tissues. A sunny day on the water soaks your bones with vitamin D, while a rainy fishing session is as good as a Wim Hoc ice bath. (Just make sure to have a thermos of hot coffee handy.) The thrilling movement of the boat through the water triggers a flood of feel-good endorphins. And there’s nothing like catching a stiff wind in your mainsail or spending an early morning in a rowboat wrapped by mist to put you in a warm meditative state that encourages relaxation, mindfulness and a sense of peaceful well-being.

Pearson had plenty to say about this: “There is nothing like jumping in a boat and going for a ride. You really begin to fall in love with it once you have a grasp of what you’re doing. For a while, you leave the world as you typically know it behind. There’s no traffic, no urgent calls, no emails. Just you and your boat. And probably the best benefit: There’s no better place to watch the sunrise or sunset than on the water.”

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