Motor Cruiser Owner’s Guide - Part 2

The second part of our motor cruiser owner’s guide looks at advanced driving techniques, preparing for longer trips, and how to cope with heavy weather.

A large motor cruiser with powerful engines and a planing hull can be handled relatively easily through flat calm waters by day, but coping with waves and head seas is a different story. It takes skill and concentration to handle a fast boat safely in demanding conditions. As you gain in experience you will learn how to handle your boat in different conditions and how it will react to different sea states. And with greater experience and skill there will be more scope to undertake longer trips and to navigate at night, as well as by day.

Sailing a motor cruiser at speed

Driving at speed is enormous fun but it requires quick responses at the helm and is potentially much more dangerous, not only for you and your crew but for others out on the water. Wave patterns can quickly change resulting in a very bumpy ride if the driver is not reacting well to the conditions. Objects such as lobster pots and marker buoys come up very quickly and some are not easy to see, especially if you are heading into the sun. Remember to keep well clear of other boats, especially smaller ones. If you are tearing down a crowded stretch of water such as the Solent, look out for yacht races, kayakers and angling boats - give them all a wide berth as your wake will be spreading out over a considerable distance.

Coping with waves

motor cruiser going into harbour

Waves can be unpredictable. At speed, waves approach quickly and the driver must anticipate and react to waves without hesitation. Every now and again you can suddenly find yourself up against a big one and you have to react very quickly in order to stay in control, not only coping with the higher crest, but also the deeper trough. This is where the throttle and trim need to be adjusted quickly and smoothly. It is going to be more comfortable and less stressful if you are not travelling right on the edge for the conditions. Keeping a speed safety margin will allow the boat to cope with the larger waves without having to drastically reduce speed, making for a smoother ride. It is also important to keep looking well ahead so that if a freak wave does approach you will have time to adjust. The challenge is to be able to make just the right amount of throttle adjustments to keep the boat planning and to steer into the waves with the boat set at the ideal attitude and angle. This is where the angle of trim needs to be finely adjusted to keep the boat well balanced.

Adjusting trim

The way you trim your motor cruiser will vary with the design of the hull, the load, your speed and the sea state. There are two ways to adjust trim - by using power trim (which adjusts the angle of the propeller) or by trim tabs (which act like flaps on an airplane). A boat can be trimmed by raising or lowering the bow and, if fitted with trim tabs, from side to side. As well as making for a more comfortable ride, a properly trimmed boat will be more fuel efficient when planning.

Trim tabs tips

tabs down illustration
tabs up illustration
  • Trim the tabs down together to lower the bow and raise the stern.

  • Trim the tabs up together to raise the bow and lower the stern.

  • Trim the tabs down together into a head sea to stop the bow lifting too much over the waves.

  • Trim the tabs up together in a following sea to stop the bow burying itself as the stern is lifted.

  • Trim the tabs individually to adjust the transverse trim of the boat - useful if the weight of the boat is unevenly loaded or in a beam sea.

It is a good idea to practice this part of driving as much as possible, so that you instinctively know at what point you should be making adjustments. Much is going to depend on your knowledge of your own boat and what works best for different conditions. A good excuse to get out there and have some fun!


Preparing for a long coastal passage is all part of the enjoyment of cruising. There is plenty to consider and includes:

Boat preparation:

Boat checks, state of maintenance, all onboard systems functioning, charts, inventory, provisioning.

Passage planning:

Duration,weather information, tides, distances, navigation strategy, boat speed, ports of call, alternative ports.


Experience, skills and abilities, assigning responsibilities, watch keeping, health.

Safety and emergency drills:

Best done in advance of the trip rather than just before departure.

In summary

Boating is a continual learning process and part of the enjoyment is stretching your skills and taking on more challenges. If you know your limitations then reaching outside your comfort zone is not so much a leap into the dark, more a series of careful steps. As a skipper the decision to go to sea is always yours and it is up to you to decide if your boat and crew are ready for the trip. With the right attitude and experience there will be less chance of finding yourself in a potentially risky situation at sea.

  • If you have limited boating experience, personal skill advancement is critical.

  • Research the RYA training scheme and book yourself onto a RYA Motor Cruising - Coastal Skipper course (see Motor Cruiser Owner’s Guide -part 1)

  • As well as all that training, get out on the water as much as possible and have fun practicing your skills

  • Make safety your top priority at sea

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