Stop the Boat!

By: Bill Jennings

No matter what type of vehicle you drive, emergencies will occur where you have to stop quickly. Boats are no exception. But there is no brake pedal in your boat, so let’s be sure you know the alternative ways to stop effectively.

For most boat handling requirements, the braking effect of water drag that occurs when you pull back on the throttle is usually sufficient to provide a safe day of boating. But what if you need to stop in the shortest possible time to avoid an obstruction?

Depending on your boat speed and available stopping distance there are two accepted procedures for making emergency quick stops while boating.


The first avoidance tool is the steering wheel in your hands. Because we generally boat on open waterways, not narrow highways, we are often able to avoid most problem situations by simply steering in a different direction. But boat steering ratios differ from boat to boat, meaning the number of turns from lock to lock. Learn your boat’s system by doing this: when stopped, turn your wheel all the way in one direction until it will not turn further. Then turn it back, while counting the number of turns until it will turn no further. If, for example, your wheel makes three turns from full starboard lock to full port lock, you can figure that half this number of turns, or one-and-one-half turns, from either lock position will center your wheel. This is not only critical to know when making emergency turns, but it is also useful when backing out of a slip to know your boat is going to move directly backwards when placed in reverse. Try placing a mark or piece of tape at the top of your wheel, to visually identify the neutral wheel position.

Now you are ready to practice avoidance turns. When alone in the boat, locate an isolated area with calm water. Running at cruising speed, visually check that you are free of traffic then make a 180-degree turn. You won’t wear out any brake pads and you will be surprised how quickly your boat can safely turn. Repeat this turn practice, making each turn a little tighter, until you have reached the limit of your comfort zone and the safety of your boat. Serious turns in a boat add considerable drag on the hull, which will reduce your speed almost as effectively as brakes. Therefore, by making a safe sharp turn away from a problem you are both braking and pointing your boat in a safer direction.


iSaw Company / Pexels

With this newly discovered braking role for your steering system, you should treat it with plenty of respect. If your steering is hydraulic, check fluid levels in the steering fluid reservoir for any leaks in the lines. If you have cable steering, check for tightness and wear on the lines and pulleys. By understanding these steering tips and techniques, your overall boating will take a turn for the better.

If you are not running 100 MPH, and just want to stop your forward motion, you can always shift into reverse. But this second braking method requires some special care. Your propeller blades will instantly have a rudder affect, causing possible loss of control. And, when you shift from forward to reverse, you are instantly jamming gears into place to change the rotation of your propeller. A stainless propeller weighs around 15 pounds, so it carries a lot of torque when rotating. The sudden change can break your prop shaft, damage gears, or at the very least, shave a little metal from your lower unit gears into the oil.

The best procedure for a ‘quick shift’ is this. As you pull the shifter back, stop in neutral for one full second. Your propeller uses this neutral time to slow down before being forced to rotate in the opposite direction. I call this the “One Second Rule.” It is a good habit to get into for shifts in either direction and it can save you a lot of money.

Whether applying the sharp turn or reverse method of braking, be sure to consider your passengers. Neither a face plant into the helm nor rapid ejection into the water will be appreciated. A vocal warning can often be enough to have them tighten their grip.

Interestingly, some race boats have experimented with actual brakes, using pistons that extend into the water to slow the boat for cornering, but it did not work well. Today, even ocean freighters that take over a mile to slow, do not have brakes. Of course, these freighters have the “Right of Weight.”


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