Outboard Steering Tricks

The pocket cruiser’s secret weapon is directional thrust at the stern.


Outboard powered boats can be slow to respond when maneuvering around the docks at low speed. With no prop wash over the rudder, it becomes largely ineffective at speeds below about 2 knots. Prop walk is negligible with outboards, so it can’t be used to push the transom to port or swing the bow to starboard. Lightweight multihulls, already unruly in a crosswind, can be just plain unmanageable with a single screw.

If you have crew on board, you can usually warp your way out with spring lines and some engine thrust. But can warping be avoided? Coordinating the outboard’s directional thrust with the boat’s rudder position, you can master some tricks that are useful not just for docking. It’s a bit like handling an outboard powered dinghy, but with the added variables of keel and rudder. It helps to imagine the outboard as a variable direction stern thruster.

Outboard Steering Tricks

Scenario: Exit requires a sharp turn out of the slip. Begin backing with rudder and outboard engine both set for backing to port — i.e. with boat’s tiller hard to starboard and the outboard in reverse gear with its tiller centered or turned as needed to clear pilings.

Figure 1: Once clear, switch the outboard’s tiller hard to the opposite side (port, in this case) and shift into forward gear at a low rpm briefly while the boat is still reversing; this slows and rotates the boat, pushing the stern to port and the bow to starboard.

As boat begins to make way forward, move tiller hard to port (steering hard to starboard) to make turn to starboard and exit with pilings left to your port. 


Sharp turns into the fairway are started by steering with the rudder and motor in the same direction, but once clear of obstacles, you can rotate the boat more quickly by using the rudder and outboard in opposition.

In the example in Figure 1, start by backing to port with tillers for the rudder and motor on the same side. Then, once the boat is moving aft and clear of the pilings, push the motor’s tiller sharply to the opposite side (port, in the example) and apply forward thrust. The boat will keep backing for a few moments, as thrust from the motor helps it rotate. When the boat stops moving aft, shift into forward and turn to starboard (boat and engine tillers hard to port) to finish the turn.

The takeaway here is that as the boat is moving backwards, the stern can be shoved one way or the other without changing the boat’s tiller. You simply apply a little forward thrust to push the transom in the direction you want it to move. The momentum can then be restored with a bit of reverse, after swinging the motor to the opposite side.

Outboard Steering Tricks

Scenario: With engine centered and in reverse, and the boat’s tiller to starboard (to counteract wind and direct the stern to port), the boat starts backing straight, but the boat is moving too slowly for the rudder alone to overcome the wind. While still in reverse, the outboard tiller arm is pushed over to starboard side (reverse thrust to port) to re-center the stern, but starboard ama is about to clip Piling B.

Fig. 2 The motor is put in neutral, its tiller is put hard to port, gear is put in forward, and throttle applies a moderate burst of forward thrust. This slows the boat and kicks the transom to port. Since the boat never actually stops, the helm can remain unchanged (tiller to starboard).

Once the boat is re-centered and clearing pilings, push the outboard tiller back to starboard, put the engine in reverse, and again crab to port against the wind with boat’s tiller still to starboard. 


This trick is particularly helpful when coming along side a bulkhead, but also useful when positioning a boat in a slip. The concept is similar to using the spring line from a dolphin piling.

Approach the bulkhead as though pulling into a parking space along the curb. As you begin the counter turn away from the dock to bring the boat in parallel, apply reverse with the engine pulling towards the bulkhead. The tiller remains in the counter turn position. This reverse thrust will both slow the boat and pull the transom in toward the dock. Timed properly, the boat can be parallel-parked in a tight space and stopped within inches of the dock.

Outboard Steering Tricks

Scenario: Boat is coming alongside dock too fast and at too sharp an angle.

Figure 3: With helm steering hard away from the bulkhead (with boat’s tiller pushed hard to starboard in this example) and engine in reverse (outboard tiller arm hard to port, in this example),the outboard both slows the boat and pulls the transom in. This is very handy if the wind is blowing off the dock. 


The textbook method is to drive forward against a fender placed near the bow, and to arrest forward motion with the spring line. However, with the steerable outboard, the spring line can often be dispensed with. Turn the outboard away from the dock and use reverse to pull the stern away from the dock. Keep the rudder opposed to the engine to reduce sternway until well clear of the dock. The boat will lever off a forward fender, but without the spring line. Once well clear of the dock, bring both the rudder and motor closer to the center line (to avoid swinging the bow into the dock) and continue backing out.

Outboard Steering Tricks

To safely forereach and make headway against strong winds and an adverse sea, the outboard helps keep the wind on the quarter to minimize pounding. 


Smaller boats are more likely to find using the engine both beneficial and necessary in strong conditions, such as thunderstorms. Your first reflex may be to blast straight into the waves, heading for shelter, but the pounding can be unmerciful and a light boat may fly off the waves, and go out of control.

In heavy rain, you can’t see where you are going. In the case of a squall, the wind won’t last, and it may be smarter to just mark time, moving forward very slowly until things settle down. Unfortunately, at dead slow, the rudder becomes ineffective and the wind and waves force you beam-on to the waves.

The solution is to boost the steering force of the rudder by also pushing the outboard tiller to leeward. This will balance the helm, allowing you to steer using the rudder. Maintain a course 10-25 degrees to one side of the wind, increasing speed only as seems prudent. Avoid steering straight into the wind, since the bow can be suddenly tossed to either side. Think of it as motor-assisted heaving-to without sails.

Likewise, traditional heaving-to with the jib backed is a good way to capsize a multihull or unballasted monohull. Instead, reef way down, sheet the jib tight, drop the traveler a little, and make a slow pinching course to windward, not steering for speed but only for stability. Similar in function to the motor-assisted version in the previous description, but without the motor. In this case, the small mainsail keeps her from going beam-to the waves, while the low traveler position reduces heeling and speed.

What about linking the engine to the rudder? This can be a good arrangement, particularly if the motor is hard to reach. But we like the possibilities of independent steering.

Outboard Steering Tricks
John Stone and sister Gayle enjoy the versatility of outboard propulsion on Stone’s highly customized Cape Dory 36. The side bracket was designed by Yves Gelinas, inventor of the Cap Horn windvane (on stern). Stone wanted a bracket that didn’t
clutter the stern and allowed the motor to be pulled high out of the water when not in use.


A single outboard is not as maneuverable as widely spaced twins of a catamaran. It’s not as handy or simple as turning the single outboard on a tender or runabout, and so its usefulness is often overlooked. The steering action is complicated by the presence of a keel and large rudder. But with practice and thought, together they can do some neat tricks.

Drew Frye, Practical Sailor’s technical editor, has used his background in chemistry and engineering to help guide Practical Sailor toward some of the most important topics covered during the past 10 years. His in-depth reporting on everything from anchors to safety tethers to fuel additives have netted multiple awards from Boating Writers International. With more than three decades of experience as a refinery engineer and a sailor, he has a knack for discovering money-saving “home-brew” products or “hacks” that make boating affordable for almost anyone. He has conducted dozens of tests for Practical Sailor and published over 200 articles on sailing equipment. His rigorous testing has prompted the improvement and introduction of several marine products that might not exist without his input. His book “Rigging Modern Anchors” has won wide praise for introducing the use of modern materials and novel techniques to solve an array of anchoring challenges. 


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