High-Speed Boat Handling Tips

Does your boat break 50 mph? More importantly, how good are you at handling it while running at such speeds?  Here are some tips to keep it safe!

Once upon a time, center console fishing boats cruised in the 20- to 30-mph range and rarely broke 40. These days, it’s quite common to step on a new boat, hit the throttle, and blast right up to speeds that would bring red and blue flashing lights into your rear-view mirror on I-95.

This can be very cool – and very dangerous.

high-speed boat handling
This Freeman 37VH can hit 70-mph with quad 300s… and max power is 1600 horses.

You can go out right now, buy a 70-plus-mph boat, launch it, and blast across the water’s surface with the throttles mashed to the dash. No one can stop you. But truth be told, once a boat starts reaching speeds of just 50 or so mph the handling dynamics change. Even an old salt with years behind the helm probably lacks the experience someone should have to run a boat at speeds like this, and boaters with limited time at the helm really shouldn’t be behind the wheel at WOT until they’ve worked up to it.

There’s no substitute for on-the-water experience, and that’s something we can’t provide. But if you plan on boiling the water any time soon, these five high-speed handling tips will help you get that experience safely.

  1. Before you ever even consider driving a boat at fast speeds (let’s call it 50 mph or more for our purposes), get used to how it handles at slower speeds. At 50, turn the wheel quickly (after warning everyone aboard, of course) one way and then the other. Bump the speed up by five mph, do it again, and so on. Try this at all speed increments in different sea conditions and directions, since they’ll have a very direct impact on how the boat reacts. Just for a point of reference, when the USCG tests boats for safe maneuvering they consider “quickly” turning a boat to be a steering adjustment that takes place in half a second or less. That may be a bit arbitrary, but it’s probably a good benchmark to work with.
high-speed boat handling
You’re blasting to the canyons at 60-mph-plus on a quad-engine Mako 414 CC?

Keep your focus well out in front of the boat.

  1. As when driving a car down the highway, focus on a point in the distance but pay constant attention to your peripheral vision. Here’s the bottom line: when traveling at 70-mph, your boat moves forward 102 feet per second. Yes, per second. So if you fail to see a half-submerged log bobbing around from 100 feet away, you’re likely going to slam right into it. And if you do see it from that distance there’s a fair chance you still won’t have time to react. So you need to spot hazards in your path when they’re still far off in the distance to have any prayer of avoiding them.
  1. Any time you feel the boat coming loose from the water or chine-walking, immediately back off on the throttles. Some people think they can fiddle with the trim or steer their way out of losing control, but that’s hogwash. There’s only one sure way to remain in control, and that’s to slow down.
high-speed boat handling
Boat wakes are generally sharper and steeper than waves created by nature, so look out for them in particular.
  1. When you see a wave that may be large enough to launch off of, especially a boat wake (since they tend to be steeper than wind-driven waves) immediately back off on the throttles and/or change course a bit to minimize its effect. Yes, it’s true that with many modern hull designs a boat can launch and re-enter the water without compressing your spine (too much). But if your lower unit leaves the water the prop(s) will begin spinning without resistance, and your engine(s) will over-rev. This is hard on the powerplant, for sure. But more importantly, when the prop(s) re-enter the water and all that resistance is suddenly re-applied, there’s a fair chance your lower unit(s) will be unable to cope. As in, KAPOW! From then on you’ll be traveling much slower – if at all – and you’ll have a magnificent repair bill in your future.
  1. Use your brain – and your eyes – prior to chopping the throttles. You may have noticed a trend, thus far. In many situations, you’ll need to quickly pull back on the throttles and reduce speed asap. But there’s a catch. When you’re traveling fast and you rapidly reduce speed, on many boats (though not all) the stern will settle in and the bow will rise up. In some cases that can cause a loss or reduction in visibility. If you’re zooming along and you see something in the water out ahead, you may make the snap decision to chop the throttles. If that results in the bow rising up so much that you can no longer see the potential hazard, obviously, this is problematic.
high-speed boat handling
When maneuverability may be restricted by a channel (or other boats, or any other number of factors) chopping the throttle may be your only option – even if it may result in reduced visibility.

Okay: are you now ready to jump behind the wheel, and blast from Boynton Beach to Bimini at 90 mph? Oh, heck no. Remember what we said before: there’s no substitute for experience. You and only you can determine just how fast you feel comfortable running a boat. And if at any time you start feeling uncomfortable, be sure to pull those throttles back a bit.

Get more great boating information and tips from Lenny Rudow on BD.

Lenny Rudow …has been a writer and editor in the marine field for over two decades, and has authored seven books. He is currently the Angler in Chief at Rudow's FishTalk Magazine, is Electronics and Fishing Editor for BoatUS Magazine, and is a contributing editor to several other publications. His...