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Sea savvy

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Docking can bring applause or snickers, so here’s how to walk away with your head held high

We were docked in a marina in North Carolina after an outside run up the coast from South Florida. As the afternoon faded, a sailboat came in the inlet, having just completed a non-stop “perfect” trip from the BVIs. The crew happily furled sails as they approached the docks under power. The current in this marina runs hard into or out of the slips, depending upon the tide. The only slip available had current rushing into it and was well in from the outside T-head.

The incoming boat had to come in between the rows of slips and enter its berth as the tide pushed it rapidly sideways toward the sterns protruding from slips. The skipper skillfully maneuvered into the alleyway with sufficient speed to crab at an angle against the current, and to give enough rudder to turn sharply and head into the slip without being slammed against the other boats and pilings. The boat completed the turn, pointing into the slip. It slowed and then suddenly surged forward toward the pier in a burst of speed. The foredeck crew ran wildly toward the stern, and the boat crashed into the pier full speed ahead, with the added boost of 2.5 knots of current. The skipper had done a great job of docking in a difficult situation — with one exception (more on that later).

Docking is one of those things you wish you never had to do but can’t do without. It’s often done to the roar of applause from the waterside bars, like fans at a demolition derby. Boats get bashed, egos get trashed, and shipmates desert with a single-digit salute. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I’ll discuss some of the general principles that I’ve found helpful over the years in crashing — docking — my boats, which have ranged from 12-foot outboard skiffs to our 53-foot motorsailer. I’ll also go into some of the scenarios we’ve all grown to hate. But remember, when it comes to the crunch it’s the captain’s call as to what to do and how to do it.

Learn her moves

Knowledge of theories isn’t enough. Boats have individual behavioral characteristics, both running at sea and while docking. Many factors influence this, including underwater configuration, windage, load, number of props, whether props are left- or right-handed, whether there are bow and stern thrusters, whether power is by outboard or inboard, and size of rudders. Behavioral characteristics, coupled with a variety of current and wind combinations, means docking skills begin with basic boat-handling and seamanship.

Begin getting the feel of your boat on a calm day with no current, in a slip between two or more other empty slips (the more the better). Formal courses in boat-handling usually help. Try some of the tactics I’ll talk about here, and others that make sense for you and your boat.

If you can’t arrange for an isolated slip, try various maneuvers in an identifiable spot out on the water. Some people use anchored floats as substitutes for pilings. If you do, be careful to not wrap their lines in your running gear. If you really need that isolated slip, spread the word that you’re coming to practice. That’ll clear the marina.

It helps to have specific tactics in mind before you begin to dock. Be sure your crew understands them. But remember that it’s a boat, and you can’t depend on anything happening the way it should. So warn crewmembers that plans may change without notice. Sometimes the day is saved when sheer instinct kicks in despite logic and schemes. The more practice and experience you have, the better this will work.

Prepare your guests

My instructions to guests range from “OK, it’s your turn to tip” to “Fasten your seatbelts.” Often guests aren’t experienced enough to be helpful. If there are people on board who aren’t fit or familiar with what needs to be done, I ask them to sit down and stay down.

If you think your guests can be helpful, consider assigning specific jobs — for example, stationing someone in a critical area of the boat to help with blind spots. Typically guests will try to fend off when needed, but stress that they should do it with fenders, not body parts. Fending off can be very dangerous. Emphasize that your boat and all the boats around it aren’t worth even a little toe.

Communicate on board

Even though my wife, Mel, and I have been married and boating together for 37 years, and both of us have been boating since we were kids, we still have communications problems when docking Chez Nous. Contributing factors are the length of the boat, the fact that the wheel is partially enclosed by a Bimini and cockpit enclosure, and noise from the engine. But also critical is the fact that important messages often must be delivered in a hurry when the person at the helm and the helper are busy doing other things. We have hand signals, but these are impractical if you’re busy handling lines, fenders or the wheel, throttle, transmission and thruster.

One simple piece of equipment solves this problem. We often wear communications headsets so we can calmly talk to each other hands-free. There are many on the market. Some have poor microphone voice activation that kicks in a second after you’ve begun talking and clips off the first words. These, in my opinion, are worthless in docking when much must be done and communicated quickly. If you buy a set, test them immediately so you can return them if they don’t work well.

Communicate with the marina

Talking with marina personnel can solve many problems. Andrew Hodges is the harbormaster at one of our favorite marinas, Camachee Cove Yacht Harbor in St. Augustine, Fla. He wrote a helpful article on the subject in which he points out, “There is nothing more awkward than a boat sitting in the middle of a marina trying to figure out what to do next. You don’t know what to do, the marina employees don’t know what you are doing, and other boaters in the marina don’t know what you are doing.”

Before you come in it’s crucial that you understand the lay of the land and where you’re supposed to go, especially if maneuvering spaces are tight. This is even more important with larger boats and when dealing with wind or current. It may be difficult, if not impossible, to safely abort a wrong turn once you get inside the marina area. But describing a marina layout to someone who hasn’t seen it before can be difficult. Some people have difficulty explaining concepts, particularly when they’re familiar with them and the recipient isn’t. It’s even more difficult when the skipper is a bit stressed as he or she tries to figure out what’s what in that maze of docks and boats.

If necessary, ask marina personnel to repeat until you get it. It may help to have the discussion on the cell phone. Check if there’s a marina dock map in a guide or brochure you may have on board. If you have wireless Internet access check if the marina has a Web site with a dock layout. Ask whether dock personnel will be on hand to help, and whether there are any special docking considerations. And — this is important — if you think you’ll need help, tell them.

During all this, each side should be assessing how well the other knows his or her stuff. In other words, you need to know something about the experience level of the marina helpers. An inexperienced dockhand can turn your best efforts into a mess. And marina personnel need to know something about you. (They need to know whether to call out the firetrucks and National Guard to clean up a disaster area after we “dock.”) I’ve noticed that they frequently assume boaters won’t have a high level of skill. If you spend a few hours watching boats come in at the end of a day, you’ll understand why.

When entering a marina that’s new to you do the best you can, on the VHF or cell phone, to diplomatically evaluate the situation. The ultimate responsibility lies with the skipper.

Dock lines

Ready your dock lines before you begin to dock: Secure them to the boat and arrange them so that they can be thrown or handed off without a snarl. How you do this will depend upon your deck layout. Take care that they won’t fall off and foul the propeller. Even if you plan to tie up on one side only, rig lines all around. The one thing that docking plans do best is change. This isn’t a time to be running around rerigging lines.

We prefer to have spliced loops, not metal eyes, at the dock end. This enables those on the dock to quickly temporarily secure them if needed. Also, it can be dangerous throwing a metal object to a dockhand. Practice throwing lines.

The use of an after spring line when docking can be invaluable. You can use it to gently bring your boat alongside the pier and into your planned resting position, even if current and wind are blowing you off. The length will depend upon your boat and where you’ll need to secure it to the dock. Many boats respond best if it’s run from roughly midships (or the vessel’s pivot point) to a point on the dock well aft of where you want your boat’s midships to come to rest.

Once the spring is secured to the dock and slack is taken in, motor slowly forward with rudder turned away from the dock until you’re alongside. The length may need to be adjusted by letting it out on your deck cleat as you bring the boat alongside and into position. Your deck help should be familiar with how to wrap the spring line around the cleat so it can be snugged with tension or let out around the cleat while still under control. Like so many aspects of boating, this can be dangerous if not done well, but it can decrease danger if executed skillfully. Practice using a spring line under varying circumstances, beginning with ideal. You’ll be amazed at how it can help, both in docking and departing.

We find that it’s seldom a good idea to secure a bow line to the dock first. Once it’s secured to the dock anywhere aft of where you want the bow to stop, and if you’re still moving, it can cause the bow to veer sharply and uncontrollably into the dock. However, a bow spring may be helpful, as I’ll discuss, in warping in around a piling. It can also be used to spring out the stern to help in getting away from a dock.


In general, fenders shouldn’t be hanging over the side as you come in. A fender over the side can catch on a piling, possibly destroying it or whatever it’s rigged to, or even causing the boat to veer and crash into the dock. Have your fenders ready on deck (not where they’ll trip crewmembers) in the general areas where you expect to need them. Have a big fender ready to put over the side at the point of impact if you’re going to lay into a piling or the corner of a floating dock. If you’re coming alongside a floating dock with no pilings at the edge, you’ll probably want to hang your fenders at dock level before you approach.

As you approach, check for fender material on the dock, pilings and at corners in particular. You may need to slide along some of the structure, and if so, you’ll want to do it where there’s protection. On a reverse note, some piers are poorly constructed, with beam ends or bolts protruding where they can cause significant cosmetic or more serious damage. You’ll want to know about these. Ask your helpers to watch for them.

Help from the dock

Help from people around the dock can be a good thing or a bad thing, so beware of handing your line to a friendly passerby. This may be an experienced boater who will help greatly, or it may be someone who’ll take the line and stand there looking at it. The “professionals” (marina dock personnel) can be worth their weight in gold if they’re experienced.

An example of when help is needed from the dock is securing an aft spring, as previously discussed This often is the first line secured to the dock, and it’s seldom safe or easy for someone on board to jump to the dock and secure the spring as you’re moving into the slip. You may have to tell the dock person where to secure the spring on the dock. An experienced, professional dock hand likely will know. An inexperienced person may cleat it in the wrong position, causing you to lose an important element of control.

As I’ve said, the skipper is ultimately responsible for running the boat, but this doesn’t preclude listening to someone who knows the situation at the docks. A good dock hand works very hard, sometimes at personal risk, and has developed important skills to help you. In my opinion, they usually deserve a tip. It will be appreciated.

Close encounters

I’ve discussed some of the basics of docking. Now I’ll address some examples of “when the going gets tough.”

Docking in areas of limited maneuverability often catastrophically emphasizes the fact that moving boats behave quite differently from moving cars. When a boat begins turning it continues moving in its original direction because of momentum. That distance continued is determined by the boat’s characteristics, which include its weight and underbody. Of equal concern is the fact that, as the bow swings in one direction, the stern swings in the opposite direction. Again, the extent of this depends upon a boat’s characteristics.

The skipper can control these movements to some extent by using bow thrusters, backing and filling with proper use of the rudder, slow movement, judicious power bursts, and anticipation of momentum. Anticipating momentum means beginning your turn before you reach the point where you actually want the turn to occur.

All of this is more complicated when you add wind and current to the equation. Vessel traffic compounds the problems. If you’re planning to enter an area where there is little room for maneuvering, ask dock personnel about other traffic. Tell them if your boat has limited maneuverability for the space available, and wait until the situation improves, if necessary.

Twin-screw vessels usually are easier to control. Prudent use of forward and reverse can turn the boat on a dime unless it’s sliding from wind or current. Many skippers simply jockey them into slips with bursts of forward and reverse. Some find this is easier backing into the slip.

Bow and stern thrusters also help greatly, but they don’t have the power of your propellers and should be used to supplement rudder and props. The tactics I discuss here can help boats with thrusters and twin screws, in the right circumstances.

Current events

Find out what the current is doing before you dock. If practical, make a pass by your slip and look at the pilings, or ask marina personnel. If the current or wind poses a problem, consider anchoring until either abates. Also consider what wind and current will be doing when you want to depart. This may influence where you dock or when you leave.

Check for eddies. Frequently a current will be deflected by underwater obstructions and loop into or away from the dock. Sometimes this happens between the T-head and the shoreline, and is hard to see until you’re in it. If there’s any question, ask someone on the dock. If he says, “No, there are no Eddies, but hi, I’m Joe,” throw your lines to someone else.

Current across the slip

When docking with the current running across the entrance to a slip, consider two basic tactics. The first is the “aim high” approach. The idea is to start heading directly toward the slips upstream of the outer pilings of your slip, letting the current push you laterally down toward your slip as you motor forward toward the outer row of pilings. You must time your approach so that the current and your forward momentum have your bow immediately off the upstream piling as you reach it, then proceed in.

Continue into the slip with whatever speed is necessary to safely get you into docking position without creaming pilings, your boat, or others. You must reverse hard at just the right moment to stop the boat from plowing into the dock ahead. If you miscalculate and must abort, do so decisively with enough power to get you out of the impending disaster fast. If you end up pinned against an outside piling, the current likely will pivot your boat around so that the bow or stern hits the boat in the next slip.

This approach requires considerable skill. If you blow it, the consequences can be disastrous. If you don’t blow it you’ll feel really good, but you’ll probably have to give CPR to everyone in the boats around you. I’ve used this tactic from time to time over the years, and I’ve only knocked over one piling. (Well, it was rotten.)

A much gentler and usually less risky approach is to warp the boat in. This requires a strong outside piling on the downstream side of the slip. The piling should have no damaging protrusions, such as beams or bolts, and should be wood so that it will flex some. Also, there must be no boats protruding beyond the outer pilings downstream.

Carefully and slowly approach the piling from downstream. Since you will be heading into the current, you should be able to maintain adequate steerage as you approach the piling, although your boat is moving very slowly relative to the piling. This should allow you to gently lay the appropriate side of your bow alongside the piling at a shallow angle to the outer line of pilings. The current should hold you against the piling as you maintain position with your engine and rudder.

Crew must rig a long spring line from the piling to a strong bow cleat, with little or no slack. Thrust forward with your engine (sometimes short power bursts work best) giving hard right rudder if your starboard bow is against the piling, hard left if it’s the port bow. This should swing the stern out and push the bow into the slip, sliding along the piling. The bow spring line must be let out from the cleat as the bow moves into the slip. The crew handling this line must be familiar with the tactic, and know how to cleat and let out the line without getting hurt. Twin engines make this tactic easier, as do bow thrusters. Many experienced skippers with twin screws don’t need to rig a bow spring line, but rotate the boat around the piling with prop action.

Current into the slip

If the current is running into a slip and you want to go bow in, you may have severe problems. This is especially so if the slip is inside an alleyway, well in from the T-head, and there is another row of slips from which direction the current is running. You must go in with the current abeam and turn into your slip as the current is setting you toward the boats already docked. If the current is running strong, particularly with a single screw, you’ll have to maintain so much speed for steerage that any “problem” likely will be a disaster. And you’ll have to throw the boat hard into reverse to stop the boat once you’re in the slip.

In my opinion this is one of the most difficult docking situations, especially if the runway between the piers is narrow. This was the situation faced by the sailboat from the BVIs. I generally wait for slack water or ask for another slip. The captain from Tortola had little choice, as night was falling and there weren’t other slips. His skill would have served him well but for the one small exception, which I’ll get to.

If there are no protruding boats in the alleyway and the pilings are appropriate, you can try laying along the pilings and warping in with a line from your bow (a variation of the technique previously discussed). It might not be possible if your boat has a keel that prevents this in a strong current. If you’re one of the lucky ones with twin screws, this maneuver, as is true with all of them, should be much easier.

If you want to go stern-first into an inside slip with the current running into it, consider what I call “crabbing” and “back sliding.” Enter the runway at an angle, bow into the current. Maintain enough speed and appropriate angle to the current to avoid being pushed into the pilings and boats down current as you move sideways at an angle into the runway (crabbing). Just as you approach the area up current of the slip, sharply turn the bow directly into the current. Decrease forward speed just enough so that the current is setting you backward, but not so much that you lose steering. Let the current drift you into the slip as you maintain control in forward gear, perhaps with occasional bursts of speed for kick to the rudder. This requires skill, luck and hopefully no eddies. When successful, bow humbly to all your fellow boaters watching and let them buy you a beer.


Wind alone can be bad enough; coupled with current, it can cause havoc. Any of the above tactics for current may help if wind also is a factor, but they may also need to be modified or not used at all, depending upon the circumstances. A discussion of more precise tactics is impractical here because wind direction and speed, to an extent far greater than that of current, is likely to be unstable. Usually the wind that is easiest to deal with blows out of the slip and you can steer into it. Stand off for awhile before docking to watch for the frequency and direction of gusts, and to see if it’s going to lie down. Try to pick a lull.

Landing gear malfunction

Now for the sailboat from Tortola. The skipper hadn’t performed a very important predocking task. Most of us don’t. Somewhere between Tortola and North Carolina, a small pin had vibrated free from the linkage connecting the shift lever to the transmission. The skipper slowed the boat and shifted into reverse to stop the boat. Thinking he was in reverse, he gunned the engine. The transmission was still in forward gear, and the boat rammed the pier even harder. A two-minute linkage inspection would have saved the day.

It’s usually easy to check linkages (throttle as well as transmission) in the engine space where vibration is most likely to cause a disconnect. I do this every day I run. Linkage may be more difficult to check at the steering station, but regular inspection is important. With outboards it’s generally dangerous to remove the cover while the engine is running and the boat is under way. But a routine check before you start out may reveal impending problems. At least test your reverse gear before you enter a marina.

There are other critical points, depending upon your boat. I also check my shaft coupling before I start the engine and while the boat is at rest. Even when coupling set screws are wired in place, it’s possible for vibration to work them just loose enough to send the shaft and prop flying into the rudder when you slam her into reverse.

Rope used for spring lines takes tremendous stress and should be relatively new, in good shape and supple. Your cleats should be built and installed to take the high loading. If you have an outboard, and if it’s like all the ones I’ve owned, it’ll probably cough and die as soon as you throttle back to reverse. Quality fuel filters and regular carburetor maintenance helps (except with mine).

The more you know about docking tactics and the more you practice, the more you’ll have fun all day without worrying about “puttin’ her away.” Take courses and read material on docking, such as that in “Chapman Piloting Seamanship and Small Boat Handling.” And if you see Chez Nous coming to your dock, look the other way. Better still, run the other way.

Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings, and lives aboard a Gulf-star 53 motorsailer.