Boat handling skills

I don’t think anybody is born bat handlers. It has to be learnt, but some learn faster and better than others and some never do.
The problem that some Masters never allow the Mates to try used to be a big problem. The day you stand there in command of a vessel and you are supposed to be instant expert in boat handling. (Unless you serve on large ships, where you can leave it to the pilot and learn from watching)

Better maneuvrability is mostly the case on modern ships, but why do you want shorter weather windows?? I would prefer longer, but with climate change that may not be realistic.

Another very important thing that is being overlooked is the importance of feedback with regards to learning. This is why learning to control a car is quicker then learning to control a boat. Learning to control an automobile on solid ground give instant positive feedback. The skills quickly move to a mostly unconscious level.

Same is true of larger ships vs small boats. While handling a small boat may look more impressive it takes much longer to learn how to control a large ship as the feedback is much slower.

Here’s a good video about how it’s not true that you can’t forget how to ride a bike:

Interesting experiment with the bicycle. As a kid I learned to control small boats with tillers. As an adult I ran boats with wheels - no problem. At some point I was assigned to a boat that had a wheel and a jog stick for close maneuvering. My first time using the stick I pushed it to the right expecting the boat to turn left. I was surprised at the difficulty of rewiring my brain by what seemed such a simple change. It took practice and I had to concentrate so as not to revert back to using it like a rudder. Like the bike experiment, deceptively more difficult than it appears.


That’s the thing about the way the brain works. The tool being used disappears so to speak.

I recall the first time I steered by compass. It’s natural to “chase the compass” the first time and at first you have to concentrate not to do it. Once it gets written into the brain circuitry it becomes unconscious.

Same with running yard and stay gear, running a back hoe or excavator or even driving a car. At first it’s herky-jerky but after a while one by one the basic tasks get automated and you can move on to higher level tasks.

Even true of using tools like pencils, calculators etc. It’s frustrating to have to think about the tool instead of the task.

A back hoe is called a digger down here and at our agricultural show we normally have a competition where the object is to pick up an egg with a 10 tonne digger and place it in a saucer.
After a period where you jumped in one digger and the controls were the opposite of those of another manufacturer most modern ones have a switch so you can change them over to what your used to.
We use the term back hoe for something mounted on a tractor.
Nothing much to do with boat handling but more to do with the excellent video on the bicycle.

Boat handling and operating heavy machinery have a lot in common.

If you have to think about what you are going to do with your hands to make the boat or machine do what you want it to, you are not good yet. When you can manipulate the controls without thinking about it, when they become an extension of your own anatomy, then you are good at it.

Also, its one thing to be good at operating the boat or machine, and another thing entirely to be good at accomplishing useful work with it.

There are many different types of useful work that might be accomplished with a boat or machine. No one is good at doing them all. You can be very good at some, and terrible at others.

When it comes right down to it, having good hand eye coordination, good situational awareness, an understanding of the environmental elements, flexibility to move seamlessly to plan B or plan C (if Plan A does not work out), and having nerve is a huge advantage. The sum of that is a natural talent for the work.

It takes the right balance between brains and balls.


Boat handling and marine operations in the not so good old days:

The boats and equipment were a lot simpler and the job more dangerous back in them days.


And that’s what we got the big money for. There were few guide lines and we did things that are no longer tolerated. Discharging casing and drill pipe on the windward side of a rig because it was too rough to sit on the leeward side. The 704 bow thruster at full noise to keep the bow into the weather and very busy on the sticks.
I don’t have a sea view at my place and I appreciate it.

I sense that there might be a different view about what ship handling is, between those involved in conventional commercial shipping, and those involved in the offshore industry, so I’m contributing the following which marked my move into the offshore business, and here it is essential to say that in Europe back in the 1970s the offshore companies were all offshoots of deep sea operators, and they recruited mariners to start with from their own staff. I went to work for OIL (Ocean Inchcape) whose parent was the deep sea company Alfred Holt. My first offshore vessel was a well testing ship out in United Arab Emirates, and I was stunned by the efficiency and effectiveness of the operation. The ship had once been an LCT, but had been turned into a small freight ferry. This resulted in the open deck running from forward to aft, and for the accommodation topped by the bridge straddling it. Sticking out from the bow was a boom with a number of oil burners on the end. At full flow it could burn 30,000 bbls a day. The stern door had been welded up and a deck placed on top of it at the same height as the required access to the small platforms to which the ship tied up, several times a day. It was crewed by four British officers, Master, Mate, Chief and Second Engineers, with Goanese catering staff, and Gilbert and Ellis islanders on deck. The client, Flopetrol, had a crew of about twenty technicians. The ship’s task was to go round the individual wells and test the flow for two hours, carrying out two or three tests per day. Each of the platforms was provided with a mooring buoy to the east and one to the west. My job as Mate was to get up at dawn and take the ship from its anchorage to the first platform of the day, and once there would call the captain. We would then get to the serious bit. The captain would take over and nose up to the buoy on the downwind side, meanwhile two of the seamen would have been launched in our small boat and would be waiting at the buoy, me, now in charge of the forecastle activities would have a wire lowered down and they would shackle it to the ring in the top. They would then high tail it to the platform, tie the boat to the ladder and get to the deck to await reception of the mooring ropes. I would dash to the bridge and take over from the captain who would make his way to the stern platform with a radio, and I would then operate the engine and rudder controls to his radio instructions. Magically so it seemed to me, the ship would back up close enough for the guys on the stern to throw heaving lines to the men on the platform. The ropes would be deployed and the ship tied up. We would then retire to the bridge for coffee and let the technicians do the well test, not forgetting to put the shutters up over the bridge windows as a barrier against the heat. I had the benefit of actually operating the controls and seeing what the ship would do as a consequence; it was professional stuff, and stood me in good stead later.


My first experience in boat and ship handling (other than small traditional sail and motor boat) was with MTBs (Nasty type) with 2 powerful engines and clutches, pneumatic controls and long reaction time. (10-12 sec.)
The rule of thumb was; “Clutch one”: 6 kts. in 12 sec. “Clutch two”: 12 kts. in 6 sec."
To give a short kick in close quarters you had to pull back on the throttle before the engines actually reacted.

Squat could also be a problem if in shallow waters; “Clutch one: 45-50 cm. Clutch two: 60 - 65 cm.”

Also; not allowed to use “one ahead, one astern” simultaneously because it could cause too much differential force on the wooden hull structure. But it was possible to “walk the boat” by making a sharp turn on approach and stop headway with the outboard screw.

Later, as Master on merchant ship the reaction time was dependent on a lot of factors. Standing on the bridge wing shouting engine orders to the 3rd Mate on the telegraph and rudder commands to the Quarter master at the wheel, both sometimes with limited English, was open for delays and misunderstanding. Orders to the Ch. Mate on the bow and 2nd Mate on the stern was also conveyed via the 3rd Mate and by hand cracked voice activated phone, which had the same limitations.

The time it took the Engineers to get the engine from ahead to astern was also a factor that had to be considered. (some Engineers where slower than others) Besides, misfire(s) occurred at times to make things even more interesting.

I have never been Master on any Offshore vessel, but as Rig mover and Tow master I have manoeuvred slotted rigs onto fixed platforms couple of feet narrower than the width of the slot, using 3 x AHTS only (no anchors). Standing on top of the dog house with and old Motorola portable VHF the size of a lunch box, giving heading and power instructions and hoping that the boats were able to execute accordingly.

No fancy navigation gear with real time display showing position to within a foot in the early days. (>1974) Open locations were marked with a single buoy to be positioned in the centre of the slot. Final position was confirmed by a survey boat with Syledis equipment, but only in daylight.(Later by SatNav, interpolating between at least >30 good passes 15 degr. above horizon.

Very different from the later years (>2000) with DGPS based “Barge Management System” giving position and heading of each towing vessel and each leg of the rig, + any obstructions above or below water. I could sit comfortably in the control room with a hand held VHF, giving instructions to the boats and jacking operator based on what I could see on the screen in front of me. (Besides, no more slotted rigs)

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One of the nastiest handfuls I ever came across is the Sessa Islamorada 32. This seemingly adorable Italian sports cruiser, no larger than a half decent life boat, combines a comparatively large drive center offset, ~8.5 kts idle speed, first generation VP electronic helm with a minimum 3.5 sec in-gear time, low weight and the sort of high-gloss finish you really can’t bounce off the dock, for a truly hair raising handling experience.

There was something between the electro-mechanical actuators, the effort required to disengage the cone clutches in the DP-H (?) drives, and the programming, which meant that you couldn’t put the gear selector in neutral before the clutch kicked in or it would fail to engage altogether, hence the minimum in-gear time. This in turn meant that the smallest possible gear movement incurred a ~4 kts speed change and a ~5 degrees / second rate of turn. The only semi elegant landing possible with that boat was to approach the dock at 3.5 kts with the bow swinging violently in, then stop her at the last second on the outboard screw and hope you timed everything just right.

I picked up that boat for service every fall and delivered it to the owner’s cottage every spring for several years running, and learned to hate it with a vengeance. Apparently the owner didn’t like it very much either, as it hardly saw any running hours before he eventually sold it. I wonder what the testers wrote in the margin to allow that vicious dog into series production… “A real man’s boat”, perhaps? Anyhow, it perfectly underlines how the Italians consistently failed the transition from semi custom to series production…

So true. You can spend your entire life driving small craft, then have that special feeling of starting all over again when you take the wheel of a big boat for the first time. To me, big boat handling remains a much more cerebral process, ie I tend to think through my every move before committing, whereas docking a smaller boat feels more like parking a car. This may be down to my limited experience, though…

In this context, large planing craft with surface piercing propellers and rudder control (Levi / Eco drive) deserve special mention. Once up and running, the rudder response feels like you have enormous moment of inertia, but the boat remains as whimsically influenced by wind and waves as any planing 60 footer. The net effect is… interesting. I’m sure there are some fast ferry drivers in the crowd who can chip in some properly qualified insight.

No, it’s how it is, not your limited experience.

It’s about how much time and and resources available to flatten the learning curve. If someone is going to take you under their wing and slowly coach you up to speed or your just going to stay on the same on run you might get away without a methodical approach.

If you need to get up to speed quick it’s a different story. The shiphandling book I used didn’t just have how-to, it also had advice on the approaching to learning.

For example my harbor speeds are:
Full: 12 kts
half: 10 kts
slow 8 kts
dead slow: 7 kts,

I need to know how much room and time to slow down. So I do it in a repeatable way and take notes. When the ship hits 14 kts I drop to half, at 12 kts I drop to slow etc. Once I have those times and distances I can estimate any problem in that neighborhood.

Same thing with turning radius. After a few times in practice it becomes second nature and time to move further up the learning curve.

It’s not what you can do, it’s how fast and how little experience needed to expand skills.

Just another anecdote to keep this thread from completey disappearing because I enjoy people’s views about what it takes to drive a ship. It illustrates that it is not quite as easy as it looks.

Many years ago I worked out in the Saudi oilfields on a Halter 180 footer, mostly moving jack-ups from one place to another. Out there at the same time was what had originally been a tanker but now had a big crane on it, and they were building a GOSP (Gas Oil Separation Platform), on behalf of an Italian company. It was moored with big concrete blocks on the ends of wires located by buoys on the surface, and with it as part of its support was a small grey anchor-handler which had originally been one of the OSA 6000 bhp tugs. It never did anything except lie at anchor, and we would pass it, towing a rig or supplying one and there it was doing nothing. When it came to the time for the crane barge to go away, it was at last going to have to go to work, lifting the concrete blocks and taking them back to the mother ship. The Barge Office put a towmaster on the ship and one on the barge, and as the job started we heard an entertaining conversation which roughly was. Man on the ship: “Here, this thing can’t even back up to the buoy. They don’t know how.” Man on the barge. “Well tell it to fuck off, we’ll get one of our own ships to do it!” I always assumed that the ship had been provided as part of the contract, but that no-one had ever bothered to make sure that it was capable of doing the job.

Norwegian Epic in San Juan taking down a couple mooring dolphins.

Don’t know what exactly is going on here. The dolphins don’t seem to have fenders on them so presumably that are not intended to take the weight of the ship but are only to provide a spot to put mooring lines. That might explain why they collapsed the way they did. Doesn’t look like that took that much weight.

I thought it was genius. Just imagine if they could design all docks that way. Coming into the bulkhead a little too hot? No worries, mate. It’ll just fall over and sink. Not a scratch on your hull.

There was apparently a problem with her propulsion before arriving in San Juan:

If I was him, I would have been ever so antsy about the possibility of putting the piling through the skin.

Container and breakbulk ships typically require a pier most of the length of the ship at minimum. RO/RO the minimum is less. Need some fendered dolphins to lay against, a place for some mooring lines and a place to put the ramp.

A cruse ship needs a place for a passenger walkway instead of a spot to land the ramp.

I’ve seen a few sketchy set-ups.

One of the worse ports in the U.S. is Portland/Vancouver. At least three terminals use an old barge to land the ramp and dolphins to lay against.

The worse one is Terminal 5 in Vancouver. There are not even any walkways for the linehandlers to access the dolphins with mooring bollards. Instead an assist tug has to drop a couple deck hands off to handle lines. Nasty job in winter when everything is iced up.

When I am handling a boat into a mooring/jetty (and I will admit I am an amateur WAFI) I am always sensing … where will I be in 20/30 boat lengths… and more importantly,… can I get to my target spot from where I will be?

The more I do it in a small craft the more I admire those who manoeuvre large vessels where the sensual feedback is so much slower and gentle.

They both had giant Yokohama fenders on them.