Centering The Wheel
Start by figuring out the range of the wheel, which is how many times it takes to turn the wheel from hard-to-port to hard-to-starboard. Turn the wheel all the way to one side or the other, then turn hard the other way, counting the number of turns it takes. Divide the number of turns in half and remember that number. So if it takes six turns to get from one side to the other, three turns should center your wheel from either side. It's very important to know when your wheel is centered, especially with inboard or sterndrive boats where you can't see the drives. It's also a handy practice if you're asked to take the helm on an unfamiliar boat.
Steer A Straight Course
Now that you know how to center the wheel, the next technique is steering straight. Looking at the wakes of many boats, you'll often see a serpentine path, because people are over-steering. To practice:
- Center the wheel.
- Shift into forward gear at idle speed.
- Aim for a distant object, watching the bow.
- When the bow drifts to one side, make quick, short pulses with the wheel in the opposite direction then re-center the wheel.
Many people tend to over-correct when steering and, instead of staying on course, drift too far in the other direction because they hold the turn too long. The key is to use short corrections, and when the boat initially begins to turn in the desired direction, re-center the wheel. As you practice steering straight, you can continually find new objects to use as a target and see how the boat behaves differently at different speeds.
Setting The Wheel
Make sure the wheel is in the desired direction and position BEFORE shifting into forward or reverse gear. This helps reduce your turning radius, making your turn more efficient — useful when operating in close quarters, where you might not have the ability to turn without properly setting the wheel. For many boats, you should be able to do a 180-degree turn in little more than a boat length if you set the wheel, and do so in conjunction with proper gear shifting.