Henry G. Dietz, the inventor of the Dietz Model 1001 Powerboat Handling Trainer, has a story he likes to tell: An airline pilot he knows with no prior boating experience purchased a boat, took her out for her maiden voyage, and immediately wrecked her. We've all heard similar tales of inexperienced mariners who crash their boats and then never head out again. Such stories shed light on an interesting problem: If someone is an aspiring boater without a lot of wheel time, how can he or she become confident and capable without running their new purchase up on the rocks? That's the question that inspired Dietz, who's been a passionate boater for more than 40 years, to develop his Powerboat Handling Trainer. He claims that it will allow boaters to "learn basic principles and practices to help maneuver and control [their] powerboats"—in other words, make it possible to practice and get comfortable before it really counts.
Dietz's simulator consists of a control station that sends radio signals to a nearly four-foot-long model powerboat. The control station duplicates the controls found on a typical twin-engine powerboat: It has two clutch levers, two throttle levers, and a wheel. The station also has an antenna and a radio-control transmitter that broadcasts a signal directly at the model, which has two electric propulsion motors powered by a 12-volt battery that can be easily removed for recharging. The only "parts" not included with the simulator, which Dietz sells for around $3,000, are a small pool and a model dock, but Dietz provides simple instructions for making your own.
I tried my hand at operating the trainer when I visited Dietz's office in Long Island City, New York. It was clear from the wall of patents that greeted me that I was in the presence of an accomplished inventor and engineer. That became even more clear when I began using the trainer, which did indeed have the feel of a real boat. I was able to pilot the model in and out of its miniature slip without fear of causing damage, and though it was perhaps too easy (I didn't have to contend with weather, wind conditions, or other boats), after an hour it was obvious that my ability to maneuver the boat had improved and that this was a great way for newer boaters like me to practice docking and close-quarters maneuvering.
Dietz has sold a few of the trainers to individual consumers and also donated two to the Chapman School last year. I spoke with Chapman's dean of instruction Tom Danti, who told me that the school has been using its Dietz Model 1001 primarily at boat shows as a way to introduce folks to the school, explaining that the staff prefers to get students out on actual boats for practice. However, he did say that Dietz's simulator serves as a good training model, adding that "everything is to scale and reflects the kind of motion you'd have on a real boat."
At the end of the day, there is obviously no substitute for piloting a real boat, something Dietz himself readily admits. But any newbie fortunate enough to have access to a simulator will find, as I did, that it's a useful supplement to regular on-the-water training. Because when it comes to boating, as with so many things, practice makes perfect.
This article originally appeared in the January 2008 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.