Navigating A Houseboat

Published in the March 2013 Issue March 2013 News Brady L. Kay

Last summer I just happened to be standing on the dock when a family was getting a quick rundown on how to navigate a houseboat before taking possession of the 70-foot rental for the week. With absolutely zero boating experience, the father was hanging on every word that came out of the young marina worker’s mouth. To say Dad looked overwhelmed would be an understatement.  

The pimple-faced kid in a big straw hat was rattling off all kinds of boating verbish, the way you’d expect someone to do whose summer job is to cover this ten times a day. But he quickly realized he needed to slow down a little and give this newbie skipper some assurance that it’s really not as difficult as most people think.

Those who houseboat on a regular basis tends to forget just how nerve-racking it can be for the inexperienced skipper to take a boat out of the slip. Our thought is to blast the horn a few times when backing out and then off we go for a fun-filled weekend. But for those new to houseboating—or are considering becoming new to houseboating—it can understandably be a concern. However, you have to realize that it just takes a little practice and self-confidence and soon you’ll be operating a houseboat like a seasoned skipper.


Usually the biggest navigating fear for new houseboaters is the thought of docking the boat. If this truly scares you there are options, so don’t let this keep you from making the right decision for you and your family. Most marinas will dock your boat for you if you ask. You simply arrange it with them before you go out, then call the marina on your radio as you enter the no wake zone and then someone from the office will meet you on the water and take your houseboat in for you. The marina is just as interested in keeping the docks intact as you are about protecting your houseboat.

But for those wanting to learn how to dock, good marina neighbors can help too. I’ve been on a houseboat about to pull into a slip at a marina in the middle of the week when I thought for sure no one was around, and suddenly fellow houseboaters came from nowhere to assist. We’ve all been there when we could use a helping hand to save a little paint and those on the dock understand this and are happy to help.

On The Water 

But no matter how you get your boat in and out of its slip, the navigating part can be the most rewarding. Once away from the marina, most captains prefer the view from the top. If your boat has a fly bridge where you can take the wheel (and you’re out in the open water) this can be the best place to navigate your boat. It gives you a birds-eye view of your surroundings and can offer a better feel for where you’re going when you can see for miles in every direction. Although you could dock from the top deck, most captains prefer the view from inside the boat when bringing her in.  

Red Or Green?

Until you’re been turned around and/or lost, you might not realize that the green and red markers on the water are more than just a great place for birds to rest. These navigation aids serve a purpose in helping boaters determine where they’re currently at on a map, as well as helping skippers safely return.  

When traveling from the marina to the open water, the green (Can) markers will be located on your starboard side and signify the rightmost edge of the channel you are navigating through. When returning from open water, you'll find these markers on your port side. The opposite is true for the red (Nun) markers that will be on your port side heading out and on your starboard side when returning. Each should be marked with a number to help you find your location on a map.


Known as the preferred channel marker, this stationary marker or buoy indicates a "fork" in a channel. Also known as a junction marker, the PCM is used to inform incoming or outgoing boaters as to which channel is the primary channel for navigation. This particular marker will have both the green and red colors and whichever color is located at the top of the buoy defines how the PCM should be treated.

Dual-Purpose Aid

These yellow markers located on the red and green buoys that define the edges of a channel are used to show that there are intersecting waterways. These markers are found on the Intracoastal waterway, and signify the "intersection" of the waterways. The two types of DPAs are a yellow square (which would be placed on a green [Can] buoy, or represents a green Can, whether the buoy is actually green or not) and a yellow triangle (which will be placed on a red [Nun] buoy, or represents a red Nun, whether the buoy is actually red or not).

Special-Purpose Marker

Colored yellow, this marker serves a wide variety of purposes. Just like a street light, the yellow color serves as a caution signal to any nearby boaters. The SPM can signify that there could be dredging areas (underwater excavating, digging, mining), spoil areas (locations where dredging sediments and deposits have been piled up, which leaves an area in the channel shallower than normal), and even military exercise areas, which I'm sure is a place you don't want to find yourself drifting through.

Range Marker

These important markers are found in pairs and set to inform boaters of their relative position to the "safe and center" of a channel. When the boats position in the water causes the two markers to align, a boater may safely navigate his boat through the narrow waters of a channel as he sails into the harbor. These markers are set ahead of the channel and on the land.

Isolated Danger Marker

This particular marker or buoy couldn't be more visually imposing. Painted with red and black stripes, the IDM signifies that there is something dangerous within the immediate area. Whether it is a rock, a wreck or any other hazardous obstruction, boaters should be cautious when traveling through the area.

Information and Regulatory Markers

These particular markers are usually associated with a label either written within a red diamond or circle, or posted just below. These also can signify a dangerous area nearby or an area with special regulations or advisories.

Being able to correctly identify and understand these safety markers and what they represent could be the difference between a perfect day drifting on the swells and an untimely accident.

As for navigating your houseboat, once you take the time to build up your confidence behind the wheel you’ll quickly learn that it really isn’t as hard as a lot of people think.


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