Boat Hack 101- No Reverse

Elizabeth Jolin- Island Jane MagazineWe’ve all witnessed it. The guy at the helm roars up to the dock, has a flash of, “Holy crap! I am going to ram this thing!”, and a moment of panic immediately follows. He throws the boat into reverse to avoid smashing the gleaming gel coat and the boat fishtails backwards. The captain turns to see what he is going to smash into and barely misses the piling behind him, so he throws it into forward. He comes at the dock again, hardly slowing down at all. He slides up to it, slams it into reverse again, fishtailing violently, and eventually manages to land the thing – only to bark out an order to his mate to, “Grab the lines and hurry up!”

This scene takes place again and again. Reverse is used to “save the day!”

Actually, reverse was not created to “save the day”, nor was it created to “escape” or prevent “near misses”. It was created in order to . . . simply . . . reverse the direction of a boat.

Sometimes, we forget this and we fall back on using reverse to correct boat handling errors. Of course, the captain has far less control of the vessel in reverse gear – making it that much more difficult to maneuver the boat with precision.

The first real boat I learned to drive was an old Grady White. It was battered and cranky, but absolutely seaworthy.

Just one of the personality quirks of this old boat, was that the engine did not have reverse. Since I wasn’t comparing it to anything else, it didn’t matter. That boat took me everywhere! Fishing, snorkeling, touring, overnight boat camping, to the Everglades. . . absolutely everywhere – all in forward gear.

A boat without reverse forces the captain to be CAREFUL around solid objects. The adage, “boat as slow as you want to hit the dock” was a very real warning on the Old Grady because I had NO other option. I was either going to boat smarter, or ram into docks. My pride kept me from ramming.

I guarantee there is no quicker way to step up your ability to boat with precision, learning how to place your boat exactly where you want it, than to take away your reverse gear.

Without reverse you will immediately grasp the concept of momentum which is so critical to boating with precision. You will realize how wind, waves, and current affect your ability to maneuver your boat and how you can steer to manage these influencing factors.


  • Just for kicks, choose an outing and PLEDGE to avoid using reverse for an entire day. Choose a nice weather day with light winds and fair conditions.
  • Tie up to a mooring buoy without using reverse. See if you can precisely put the bow of your boat right where you want it – by managing your throttle and adjusting for wind, waves, and current using only forward gear. Realize how much effort went into this simple task.
  • Take the boat to a channel marker or piling (one that is safe for you to boat around). Aim to place the bow of your boat inches away from it – operating with precision and placing your boat exactly where you want it.
  • Find a protected docking situation (somewhere void of raging current or waves) and try your hand at boating using forward only.

Skills improving? I thought so.

Captain Elizabeth Jolin owns She’s at Sea, a Boat Handling Course for Women. She has been chartering and teaching women to boat in Islamorada for the past 20 years. Contact her at to comment, ask boating questions or to suggest article topics. She would love to hear from you.

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