Operating a houseboat can be challenging at first, but it doesn’t have to be hard. Practice is the key to safe and successful houseboat driving.
It’s easy to operate a houseboat with practice or previous boating experience, but there’s a learning curve and a few things to keep in mind. The biggest challenge to houseboat driving is the boat itself, which is boxy and susceptible to wind and current.
In this article, we’ll go over what it’s like to drive a houseboat and if it’s considered difficult. Additionally, we’ll go over how previous boating experiences can improve your abilities or hamper them. Finally, we’ll go over houseboat driver-aide modifications and strategies that make driving them easier.
We sourced the information in this article from houseboat driving guides, along with the tips and tricks of the experienced houseboat community.
What’s It Like to Drive a Houseboat?
Driving a houseboat is like driving a shoebox in the water. It’s big, boxy, and visibility isn’t always the best. But sometimes visibility is excellent, as there’s usually no bow in the way to obscure your vision.
People sometimes compare it to driving a Volkswagen bus with no brakes—which is a much more complementary comparison than it may sound. Driving a houseboat is also slow, as it takes a long time to start, stop, and perform maneuvering tasks. It takes time to complete a turn too, so it’s important to overestimate your turning radius before making a turn.
How Hard is it to Operate a Houseboat Without Experience?
It depends on your experience and the size and handling characteristics of the houseboat. Thankfully, houseboats can be fairly easy to drive once you’re out on the water. But once you’re in an area with strong currents, wind, or tight spaces, the story changes.
In most cases, anyone with a bit of patience and room to work can learn to drive a houseboat. In many cases, it only takes an hour or two to become competent enough to drive it safely. This is especially true for anyone with experience piloting other boats.
How Hard is it to Dock a Houseboat?
Docking and driving are completely different stories. Driving a houseboat in ideal conditions (in calm water, low or no wind, and daylight) without obstacles is fun and easy. This is primarily because houseboats are usually underpowered floating boxes, and out in the open, there’s nothing to hit.
Docking is the opposite story, as it can be extremely difficult to dock a houseboat. This is especially true with large houseboats, as navigating a 50-foot box into a slip on a windy day can be daunting or almost impossible. Many boaters wait till conditions are perfect before even attempting to dock.
Houseboats vs. Speed and Ski Boats
Many people with experience driving speed boats become overconfident when handling houseboats, though it’s better to have some boating experience than none.
But the good news is that speed boat owners usually understand one of the most important things to know when operating a houseboat: boats don’t have brakes.
Speed boats are small and maneuverable. They usually don’t weigh much either, and they can use speed to avoid dangerous situations. Paradoxically, speed boats give you more time to react to some situations on the water.
For example, if you see a boat coming towards you far down the channel, you don’t absolutely need to begin turning until the threat becomes more imminent. This is because speed boats can snap back and forth like cars and quickly jump out of the way.
This is not the case with houseboats. Comparatively, even the most nimble houseboats are slow and bumbling beasts compared to speed boats and ski boats. They take longer to turn, both due to the proportional size of their rudders and their boxy and un-hydrodynamic design.
Sailboats vs. Houseboats
People who are experienced with sailboats should have a much easier time adjusting to controlling a houseboat. This is especially true for people whose sailboats have inboard motors. Sailboats, due to their deep draft and often heavy displacement, share some of the slower characteristics that houseboats have.
As a result, controlling a sailboat (especially one that’s motoring along with a slow inboard and a small propeller) is a lot like driving a houseboat. It’s easy for sailors to get the concept, as many sailboats are slow with an engine to feel like they shouldn’t be under power at all.
However, those with less experience behind a throttle should take care when operating it. Many houseboats are a lot snappier on the gas than sailboats, as (despite their odd shape) they have shallow drafts and much more power per pound of displacement.
Modifications to Reduce Houseboat Driving Difficulty
The earliest motorized houseboats had a single propeller, a rudder, and absolutely no hydrodynamic features to speak of. These vessels are part of the reason why houseboats get a bad rap when it comes to maneuverability.
Thankfully, numerous improvements have been made over the years to houseboat design, which has changed the situation a bit. The most common maneuverability change is hull shape, as many houseboats now have hull modifications that help them track straight in the water and resist wind.
Thrusters are also a very common addition these days, and they can make a world of difference out on the water. Thrusters are directional propellers or horizontal through-hulls placed in strategic locations below the waterline.
Some thrusters can be pointed, and some are fixed in place, but they all help with maneuverability. Thrusters can keep a boat from drifting, and they allow the captain to line up next to the dock (or another boat) and propel the boat directly to one side or another without moving forward.
How to Make Driving a Houseboat Easier
If you’re having trouble driving a houseboat or if you’re worried about your skill level prior to a rental, don’t worry—there are numerous ways to sharpen your skills. Most houseboat rental companies have professional trainers that provide lessons on the water, and others will send a pilot to your boat to dock it for you.
While you’re out on the water, you can find a secluded part of the lake and drive around to your heart’s content. The only way to get better is to practice, and houseboats are usually found in areas with plenty of open water. Just take some time and do it, as you’ll be surprised how quickly you master the intricacies of controlling your boat.
About THE AUTHOR
I have a deep love of houseboating and the life-changing experiences houseboating has brought into my life. I’ve been going to Lake Powell on our family’s houseboat for over 30 years and have made many great memories, first as a child and now as a parent. My family has a passion for helping others have similar fun, safe experiences on their houseboat.Read More About Brian Samson