Susan Moynihan (left) takes the wheel on her journey to becoming a boater.

A Wannabe Boater’s Journey Starts with a Classroom on the Water

I love being on a boat. After all, I grew up around boats (that happens in Annapolis). One of my life mottos is to never turn down an invitation for a boat ride. (The other: When someone offers you champagne, say yes.) 

My friends are generous about letting me take the helm from time to time. But lately, something’s changed. I don’t just want to go on a boat; I want to own a boat. 

The idea has been in the back of my mind for years now. But here’s the catch: I’m older now, the boats I like are bigger, and now I know how much they cost. Also, the waterways of the Chesapeake Bay are busier than ever. (That’s not my imagination talking; data show that 420,000 Americans bought their first boat just last year.) 

Just scan the news and you’ll hear of tragedies from on-water collisions to boaters drifting away due to an improperly set anchor. The last thing I want to do is cause myself or anyone else harm when I’m out in my dream boat. So the first step on my journey to boat ownership was a practical one: a daylong Women at the Wheel class through Annapolis School of Seamanship. (Note: ASOS is the sister company of Chesapeake Bay Media, which I freelance for, but I booked and paid for this on my own.)  

ASOS offers a full slate of boating classes, from introductory classes to getting your Master Mariner’s license. I opted for the women-only version of their Basic Boat Operator class. Captain Marla Keith, our instructor, fell in love with sailing during a week-long sailing class in the Caribbean more than 20 years ago; she’s been sailing and teaching ever since. Her solid credentials, engaging presence, and quick laugh built fast trust in our group; two of our group were boat owners with their husbands, looking for more skills on the water, and the other woman was like me, aiming to get a boat of her own someday.

Our classroom was a 23-foot Boston Whaler center console, docked in busy Spa Creek. The small class size meant we’d all get our hands on the wheel, which was exactly why I chose this over online learning. Our first task was practicing turns by doing figure eights in the St. Mary’s mooring field before moving on to 180-degree pivots, designed to build our skills and confidence for maneuvering in tight spaces. 

Captain Marla Keith (left) leads the Women at the Wheel boating class for Annapolis School of Seamanship.

Then came the scary part: our first round of docking practice. It’s probably one of the most stressful things for boaters, evidenced by that familiar t-shirt, “I’m Sorry for What I Said While Docking.” But Captain Marla assured us that docking was a skill we could manage. And if it took us a few tries, no problem — and no apologizing. 

One of her key rules of the class is, “There is no ‘sorry’ on this boat, only ‘Thank you for your patience’ if things take a few tries to accomplish.” That rule was key to building our confidence. Within the hour we were docking on our own without her instruction, as well as entering and backing into slips. 

Our last challenge was entering the fray that is Spa Creek on a sunny Sunday afternoon. We went over radio channels and chart and marker reading, and under Marla’s watchful eye got multiple chances to learn what to do when a nearby boat is blissfully oblivious to your presence.

My biggest takeaway was “Slow is pro.” Go in with a plan, don’t be in a rush, and give yourself plenty of time to do whatever you need to do. Also, stay cool and calm. If you start to panic because things aren’t working out as planned (like when docking), pause and breathe, then go out and try it again. 

I aim to heed those lessons as I start my boat search. Have any wisdom you’ve learned along the way? Email us: [email protected].