Beginner’s lessons on boating

And common pitfalls by example

It’s my 30th birthday soon. Having been struck by an age crisis, I was in desperate need of a crisis project — and bought a boat. My ’79 Flipper 850 kept me busy first renovating through the spring and then boating through the summer. The latter part should’ve been easy. I had become a licensed skipper and all. But boy was I wrong.

Learning from other people’s mistakes is always rewarding, or at the very least knowing other people make them too, so I decided to share mine. And yeah, I don’t really have an age crisis. I just needed an excuse to pour money into something totally useless but dead fun (pun intended).

Theory is king (of the fools)

Being the diligent engineer that I am, my boat project started way before actually buying one. A year earlier I had started attending courses required to travel the archipelago (level one) and the coast (level two). Those courses took about 60 hours of my life that I will never get back. What was worse, I learned nothing to get me off the god d*mn pier.

One learns a lot on navigation by different manual instruments and piles of rock based at various strategic locations (also known as lights). But then the 20th century and electronic navigation arrived, rendering that information pretty much useless in all but exceptional circumstances. Being smart, you should avoid getting into exceptional circumstances during your first year. In fact, you should avoid all other circumstances but sunshine.

Theoretical knowledge that you do need:

  • mandatory equipment for your boat (or you’ll get fined)
  • who dodges who (if it’s bigger or coming from the right, you dodge)
  • how to read a map (read further to find out why)
  • coordinates (there’s really no other way of exactly telling where you are)
  • the concepts of nautical miles and knots (used for everything except speed limits, thank you Trafi)
  • lateral and cardinal signs (there are about eight important ones)
  • traffic signs (again, about eight important ones)

And that’s about it. You can google for the information in less than an hour — definitely better than 60 hours of getting bored to death.

Getting off the pier

My boat is located at a private harbour in Kulosaari, Helsinki. The parking spot has a front and side attachment, meaning that there is a platform to the right and another boat to the left. So obviously, I have to reverse to get out.

My boat is old, has only one propeller in the stern and is steered with a rudder. Rudder steering means that the boat only really steers when going forward. The propeller is left-handed, which means that when going forward it tends to steer a bit to the left, and when going backward it tends to steer heavily to the right. Now when you try to reverse from a front and side attachment, you will hit both the platform to the right and the boat to the left. I learned all this only after googling for “why I keep hitting the pier”.

Getting off from a front and side attachment like a boss

Here’s a quick and dirty shortcut: just push your boat out using a stick. Do it especially if you are low on skill or tight on space (and the boat next to you looks a bit too expensive to be hit).

You have reached the boss level, when you actually manage to reverse. The trick is keeping your boat straight, until the prow is beyond the other boat’s stern and the end of the platform. Well how does one keep it straight then, when it tends to steer heavily to the right? Easy. Just turn the helm all the way to the opposite direction and give the boat an occasional kick forward, which straightens the stern. Then continue reversing.

Making your way from A to B

Most of us have driven a car. Getting from Helsinki to, say, Porvoo is pretty simple and requires practically no planning. One googles for the route and then follows the signs on the freeway. It takes less than an hour and no refuelling.

But guess what. Nautical routes are not yet on Google, there are no signs that say “Porvoo” on the sea and the journey will certainly take more time and fuel with a boat.

Driving is by far the most easiest and enjoyable part of boating, provided that it is good weather. It is also where you put all that practical knowledge into use.

The route

You will need to plan for the route in advance, for which you will need a map and the ability to read one. Planning for a route helps you to avoid

  • bridges too narrow or low and other places not suitable for your boat
  • running out of fuel
  • not making it in time to a harbour (places are few during the season)
  • not making it before sunset (it’s harder to navigate in the dark).

My boat takes about two litres of diesel per nautical mile. It’s comfortable cruising speed is somewhere around 15 knots. Since it’s about 30 nautical miles from Helsinki to Porvoo, it takes 60 litres of fuel and around three hours to get there. That’s quite different than with a car — and understandably fuel and time can become issues if you hadn’t planned for it.

Most importantly, though, having a route tells you when to turn. Maps are full of lines, also known as routes, which are somewhat like roads but on sea. The culprit is that you need to know after which island, buoy or other suitable landmark to take the next line. The navigation device will of course help you, but a plan and a bigger map make it easier.

The weather

Bad weather is a b*tch that doesn’t wave its tail, but will rock your boat. It also gives a sh*t about your plans for time and fuel consumption. It is by far the number one mood killer on the sea.

For my boat it starts to get heavy when the wind speed goes beyond 8 m/s. Obviously, the more wind, the taller the waves and the higher the chance of your boat getting capsized, or having a technical failure. The visibility isn’t that great either, so hitting the rocks or another boat is a real possibility.

During bad weather the best solution is to stay in the harbour. If you do decide to get out there, here are a few tips:

  • Make sure everything is fastened, and absolutely cannot hit you.
  • Wear the life vest.
  • Turn on your lights.
  • Avoid the open sea, if possible.
  • Reserve at least twice the fuel and time than for good weather.
  • Have backup harbours planned in advance.
  • Make sure your navigation, sonar and radar work.

One final warning. Beware of sea sickness. Over time it paralyses and you might not make it to the shore in time. So know your own limitations too.

Arriving at the pier

If getting off the pier was hard, arriving at the pier is not exactly simpler. How you do it, depends on the attachment. However there are a few general rules that help:

  • Go slow.
  • Have the ropes and other attachment gear ready well in advance.
  • Make sure the ropes are rather too long than too short.
  • Makes sure that the ropes are attached to the boat.
  • Remember to put the fenders out. (And for god’s sake, get some.)
  • Have a stick at hand to keep you away from other boats and the pier.
  • When you jump off of the boat, make sure to have a rope with you.
  • If things start to go wrong, stop and try again.

Alternatively, you can not have the gear ready, go a little too fast and park on the pier. Whatever works for you…

(No, I did not end up on the pier, and not even on another boat. Some swimming and a small paintjob was needed though.)


During the summer I learned that boating requires planning, foresight and consideration in every turn. It isn’t really something that you can just figure out on the way, but there is theory that you need to know and things that you need to actually practice.

It’s challenging, and it has grown me so much. There is still so much more to it. I can hardly wait for the next season.

If I had to give one final advice, it would be: prepare, think and only then possibly act. If you are unprepared and act without thinking, the sea will eat your sorry ass alive and dump the remainings on an abandoned shore somewhere.