The boating season is underway. You are either a Newbie or a returning “veteran” to boating. Maybe you need a few reminders about how to steer a boat into a lift.

Newbies – we recommend that you wait for a calm day with very little wind to start practicing your technique. If you practice these maneuvers without the stress of winds or waves, it will be a lot easier to understand what you have to do. Initially, practicing in waves will only result in damage to your boat or equipment.

Your ability to steer into a boat lift correctly is critical. It can mean the difference between damage or no damage. Even an experienced boater has to constantly adjust his docking technique each time he/she approaches a lift. Factors, like wind and the changing waves and current, will force you to make adjustments continuously.


FIRST – Know how deep the water is around your boat lift. How far can you lower your motor while you maneuver into your lift? Did the ice bring in any boulders this past winter?  Reminder – the lower your motor is, the better overall control you have of the boat. 

Consider this – if your prop is near the surface, you will have little or no control of direction or speed. If the surface water is being churned up by the prop, you have limited your control of the boat.

SECOND, as you approach your lift, ALWAYS have the motor in neutral BEFORE you turn the motor. This way, when you re-engage the motor, you will immediately go in the direction you intended to go.  It is recommended that you lower your speed, shift into neutral and then turn the motor before re-engaging the throttle.

THIRD – Watch your boat speed. Always steer into the lift with a controlled speed. How slow? How much damage do you want to incur?

That’s the determining factor. At the same time, the slower you are moving, the less control you will have.  It’s a delicate balance.

If you apply too much (or even too little) power, it can also be a problem. You must maintain enough speed to overcome the wind and waves. The best approach to take is to approach your lift at a steady pace by applying short bursts of power. This technique allows you to change directions and steer easily without losing control.


Watch for any mooring lines hanging over the side and aft of the boat. How about those lines from the dock?

Remember, mooring lines on a dock can move with the wind and currents. They can seriously damage your prop if they become tangled.

Don’t forget to watch for people (especially kids) in the water. The prop can do terrible damage to a body. NEVER allow someone to be near the stern of the boat while in the water. Kids get excited and want to “help” you bring your boat in. People may want to help you by hanging over the side of the boat or dock.  Don’t allow it.


Need to adjust your direction? Reduce engine speed, shift the motor into neutral, turn the motor, then apply short bursts of power. Short bursts help you to maintain controlled movement, forward or back.

Correctly positioning your boat on the lift is very important. See this article for more information. 

How to steer with waves


When you steer, allow for changing winds coming from either side. Your boat acts as a big “sail,” and it will follow the direction of the wind, so adjust for it. Waves and winds are the tricky part of maneuvering your boat into a lift. You will seldom have a perfectly calm day with no wind or waves. The early evening might be the best time to practice your boating skills.


Unlike a car, a boat will literally “slide” across the surface of the water sideways.  A boat has no grip on the water, unlike car tires on a road. A power boat is steered by a motor located at the stern instead of in a car by the front wheels. 

Think of a boat as a wheelbarrow but without a steerable wheel. A boat acts like a wheelbarrow in that, instead of turning the front wheels, you change the direction at the rear of the boat much like a wheelbarrow.  In reality, the front of the boat acts similar to a pivot point while the stern is the steering point.

One more thing to remember – the boats “pivot point” is usually about 1/3 of the way back from the bow of the boat. It is not at the bow.  Notice that the boat is pivoting at this imaginary point so that the bow goes one way and the stern the other.

Try this – On a calm day with the boat drifting, take the motor out of gear and turn the wheel for a hard right or left turn. Next, shift into forward and give the engine a short burst of power. Watch where the pivot point is. It won’t be at the bow.  The only time the bow is the pivot point is if you have side thrusters or are tied to a fixed point.

If you do the same procedure but shift into reverse the pivot point shifts to 1/3 of the way from the stern of the boat. Watch the position of the bow because it is now swinging the most.


Wind affects boat handling in two ways:

1) The bow always drifts downwind because it has less drag than the stern where the motor is located.  The motor produces drag, therefore it acts as an “anchor” of sorts. 

2) A slow-moving boat will drift downwind.  You must be aware of the strength and direction of the wind at all times.

The simplest way to hold the position in the water when stopped is to reverse the motor gently and keep the stern to the wind. By going in reverse, you move the pivot point to the stern enabling the bow to swing downwind.


A car on an icy road can cause a loss of control.  When a car loses control like this, you must turn in the OPPOSITE direction of the skid. When changing the boat direction, the amount of slide depends on :

                  1. How fast you were going;
                  2. The type of boat, and
                  3. The underwater configuration of the hull.

A slide can be a hindrance, but it can also be used to assist entering a boat lift. How do you ask? By approaching a boat lift so that the slide drifts the boat into the lift.


Boat safety is essential, not only with your dock but also with how you steer the boat into the boat lift.  Don’t forget about the people around it.

Applying these tips will help you to keep your boat from getting damaged and your family from getting hurt.

Do you have a friend that might be interested in this post?  Please forward it to them.

Pier & Waterfront Solutions 

PWS is located at 7325 St. Hwy 57. That’s 1 mile North of County MM (Hwy 42) and 3 miles South of Sturgeon Bay at the Idlewild Road intersection.  Or – for more information, you can call Jerry @ 920-493-4404.