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Q&A: Fender Bending

Q: What can you do to keep your fenders from popping out when you need them most?

Q: What can you do to keep your fenders from popping out when you need them most?

A: There are three standard fender shapes: round, cylindrical and flat. They can all work well to protect your boat if you rig them properly and if you use the right fender for the right circumstances.

The most difficult fender deployment usually involves protecting the boat from impact against vertical pilings. In this situation a cylindrical or a round fender often will pop out from between the boat and the piling, so many prefer a flat fender. It’s easy to place and, if secured well, is much more likely to remain stationary.

Ball-type fenders are least likely to perform satisfactorily with a vertical piling, as it’s easy for them to simply roll aside. Cylindrical fenders, if secured so that they are horizontal to the water, are better, but they are likely to roll up between the boat and the piling or become pushed to the side. However, if you secure them at an angle of approximately 45 degrees to the water they will be less likely to roll up and more likely to remain in place.

Regardless of the type of fender you use, it’s important to rig spring lines well to keep the boat from moving fore and aft. Even if you’re fendering off a flat surface such as a bulkhead, reducing the fore and aft movement of the vessel will help prevent fenders from rolling up and out, and will assure that the fenders are protecting from any protrusions, such as the ends of tie-back rods, which are often found on bulkheads.

Ball fenders can be particularly useful when fendering one boat from another or when keeping the boat off a bulkhead or other flat surface. They hold the boat relatively far from the other surface. Cylindrical fenders normally are also satisfactory but, depending on size, may not hold the boat as far out as ball fenders. This distance of separation is important if wave or wake action is likely to make the boat roll. As one boat dips toward the other or as the boat dips toward a bulkhead, considerable damage can be done to topsides, gunwales, rigging and other components unless there is enough separation.

A flat fender may not hold the boat far enough off a piling if, for example, there’s a dock beam or bolt protruding. Also, if you’re fendering between two boats, a flat fender may not hold the boats far enough apart to keep their gunwales, washboards or masts from crunching in waves or wakes. If using a flat fender (or anything else), be sure it doesn’t cover engine exhaust openings, or restrict or redirect exhaust emissions.

Even though they consume a lot of space, it’s important that your fenders are large enough for your boat and the circumstances in which you use them. A fender that’s too small can be almost worthless. Flat fenders take up less storage space than large ball and cylindrical fenders, but the latter can be deflated, although it’s best to have them ready to go at all times. If you deflate them, you should have an electric pump on board so that you can inflate them quickly.

We never deploy fenders, particularly ball or cylindrical, when coming into a fixed dock with pilings. Often the boat’s rubrail will slide against a piling as we’re docking. Also, contact with and use of a piling for pivoting or coming alongside often is a good way to maneuver. If you have a fender hanging over the side, it will catch on the piling as you slide past, perhaps even if the boat isn’t touching the piling. When this happens the fender’s line may part, the fender may pop or roll up, the cleat or stanchions may break or bend, and/or the snagged fender may swing the boat out of control. None of these scenarios makes for a pleasant docking experience.

When docking against pilings, have the fenders ready to be deployed at the proper time. It’s a good idea to have at least one crewmember standing by with a fender in hand to put in a critical place if the boat looks like it’s going to unexpectedly crunch into another boat or object.

When docking against floating docks it’s usually preferable to have the fenders rigged at the correct height above the water to protect the boat before you come in. Often it’s very hard for the skipper to see the floating dock as he or she draws close, because the boat itself is blocking the view. Also, fenders usually will slide along the edge of a floating dock, which should have no obstructions for them to catch. Usually cylindrical or flat fenders serve best in this case, unless the dock is high enough above the water for round fenders.

Like many other aspects of boating, placement and adjustment of fenders can be dangerous. All crewmembers dealing with fenders should be agile, knowledgeable and well aware of the dangers of getting any body part injured or falling overboard and getting crushed between the boat and other boats or pilings or bulkheads. Your entire boat isn’t worth a single toe or finger.

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