Skip to main content

Sea Savvy – Boat handling: a hands-on tactic

From picking up a mooring to dealing with wakes, the best place to hone your skills is on the water

From picking up a mooring to dealing with wakes, the best place to hone your skills is on the water

You don’t have to be out there battling savage seas to run into problems trying to control a boat.

Sometimes I get into trouble just trying to step off the dock and onto a boat that I thought was under control. I’ve learned to say, “Oh, I just dropped my wallet,” as I disappear beneath the water.


A boat can make you drop your wallet in many ways, but you’re more likely to come up with a few dollars left if you know some tactics for those everyday problems that are seldom discussed in the survival manuals.

For more boring mooring

The strange thing about New England mooring fields is that only the rich can afford them and only the poor can use them — or at least use them without humiliation. The problem for the rich folk isn’t in picking up the tab; it’s in picking up the pennant. This is because it seems that a lot of high brows have high bows.

We spent several summers anchored near the mooring fields in Newport, R.I. On the off weekends (when there wasn’t a music festival or a tropical storm or a 12 Meter race through the harbor) it was always fun to watch people try to pick up moorings. Even though I avoid moorings like the plague (unless some kind soul has pity and lets me borrow one), I’ve learned some helpful pointers from watching the circus.

Generally, the most successful skippers pick up moorings by the stern, and their tool of choice seems to be the propeller. This method involves a bow-on approach. I think the idea is that the mooring ball is actually a target to help you line up. If you can hit that ball dead on, you’re much more likely to successfully catch the pennant with a propeller. The benefit of this approach is that even if you hit the ball with a glancing blow you’ll probably still snag it with your stabilizer fins, resulting in the well known “side-to mooring hang.”

For those who insist on bow mooring, critical maneuvering skills are important to pick up the pennant and attach it to the bow. The first requisite is to send the mate forward with a boat hook. You can’t see most mooring balls from the wheels of many boats, so this is where the mate can really shine. For lack of a shorter term, I’ll call him (or her) the “mooring picker upper,” or MPU for short. The MPU gets to march to the bow for all to see as the skipper gets to hide up on the flybridge. The MPU also gets to tell the skipper exactly where to go — sometimes difficult without the use of the middle digit.

There are four very important ingredients, usually overlooked, that facilitate the operation. The first is a boat hook that is long enough and strong enough. There’s nothing much worse than missing the pennant while the entire fleet is watching unless it’s seeing your boat hook bend like a wet noodle as you try to pull up the line. The second is a very strong MPU. It takes a lot of muscle to haul the pennant up, get it through the chock, and secure it while the boat is blowing off the wind or the skipper has prematurely gone below to mix a drink, forgetting that he hasn’t shifted into neutral.

The third ingredient is good communication. Some use hand signals, but this is almost impossible when the MPU’s hands are full of boat hook and line. It’s even more impossible when he is leaning over the bow, hanging on for dear life while trying to snag the pennant, the only part of said MPU visible to the skipper being the part that the skipper most clearly resembles at the moment. For docking, anchoring and mooring, we find a small walkie-talkie headset to be indispensable. We do not use a voice-activated set because ambient noises cause it to clip words. It’s paid for itself many times over, and it enables an aggrieved party to tell the other exactly what’s on his mind. It also enables my wife to turn me off when she realizes she can handle the situation much better without my comments.

The fourth ingredient is a second boat hook, since the first usually goes in the drink when the skipper persists on plowing on or backing down despite all the signals from the MPU to stop the darn thing. It’s usually far better for the MPU to just grab another hook instead of clinging to the first while following it over, unless he is anxious to swim ashore and leave the skipper to handle things alone.

Adjusting dock lines

Some folks don’t want the hassle of picking up a mooring, so they head to a dock. We all know about the difficulties of docking. (See my Sea Savvy from the August 2005 issue or search the archives at — keyword: Sea Savvy.) Once you get there, you feel safe from the storms and spend the evening hours adjusting your attitude instead of your lines. Then a storm blows through in the night and traps the boat against the pilings or pier with high winds and choppy seas. Pushing off to shorten the windward dock lines requires adequate muscle power. Having coped with inadequate muscle power all of my life, I have a few pointers. To sum them up: Use your boat.

The bow thruster, if you have one, will add considerable muscle power. It probably won’t be enough to do the job alone, and you’ll have to be careful not to exceed the running time of the thruster motor, but it’ll give you quite a boost — perhaps enough to allow you to do the job by pulling in lines or pushing off pilings with your own muscle. If you also have a stern thruster, you’ve got even more help.

The anchor windlass also can be useful. It may have a load rating that’s less than what you need, but, again, it’ll at least help. It’s important when you use the windlass for this purpose to provide an adequate fairlead so the dock line doesn’t encounter excessive friction from chocks as it runs from the piling or cleat to the drum. A vertical windlass usually works better for this use, although I prefer a horizontal one for anchoring. If we have a really tough job we rig a heavy duty block, attached to a strong cleat, to lead the line to the windlass. Often it’s best to pull on an extra line running directly from the piling to the windlass. As the boat moves over, we take up the slack in the dock line running through the chock. Winches on sailboats also can help with this job if adequately sized.

If these tools aren’t adequate, the engine may do the trick, with the use of a spring line. For example, if you need to move the stern to starboard against the wind in order to get it off the dock, you can do so by thrusting against a hard port rudder if the spring is rigged from port midship or forward to a piling toward the stern. If you need to move the bow to starboard, a thrust against a starboard rudder with a spring rigged from the starboard bow or near midship to a piling midship or farther aft may move it over briefly.

Successful maneuvering against spring lines varies with boats and conditions. For example, you may not be able to move your bow to the side at all with the engine and a spring. We once had a large boat that responded poorly to this type of maneuvering tactic because of the distance from the rudder to the prop. The best location for securing spring lines and the best method for using them will depend on your boat and its handling characteristics. Practice and learn what works for you in calm, safe, daylight conditions.

Any spring line maneuver or other effort to move a boat off a dock in high winds can be dangerous. Falling overboard or getting pinned between the boat and a dock or piling is an obvious risk, but others include getting hands or fingers caught by lines or slipping on deck. Take every step with calm deliberation, planning and great care. Never risk your safety or that of others.

Wake ache

When we leave that mooring or dock, most of us are victimized at one time or another by wakes. I recall fondly (if not with complete accuracy as to every detail) the events of a fine spring morning on the Intracoastal Waterway in North Carolina. The fast trawler Make a Wake plowed up the Cape Fear River, cocked like a pig trying to climb out of a pit. The river was wide, but the captain was an up close and friendly guy who liked to pass every boat as closely as he could, I suppose to better watch his victims as they careened into the mountains and valleys. Skipper after skipper saluted him appropriately as his stern disappeared behind a mound of water, then grabbed the VHF mike to warn others of his approach.

We’d been listening to the reports behind us and were ready when our turn came. We first called Make a Wake on the VHF and told the skipper we’d slow to idle so he could slow down to avoid giving us a wake. No answer. We slowed anyway. He didn’t. We were off to the starboard side of the channel and gunned the engine full ahead as his stern passed, swinging the port bow into the sea. If the channel had been narrower or if another boat had been coming, we wouldn’t have been able to do this and would have violently rolled with the rest.

About a half-hour later the VHF crackled with obscenities and threats from … the captain of Make a Wake. He was yelling at another trawler, obviously a bit faster, that had done unto him what he had been doing unto others all morning. The skipper of the faster boat wasn’t impressed, until Make a Wake called the Coast Guard, the marine police and his lawyer. He informed the faster skipper that his computer had flown across the saloon, dragging the fax machine with it, the cappuccino machine had disgorged its contents onto the chart plotter, the radar display had torn from its mount and crashed through a wheelhouse window, and his back was in severe pain. Finally, their VHF threats faded from range as the two ravaged their way north.

There are various things to do to avoid being the victim of skippers like this. The first that comes to mind is the old rope trick of which I’ve heard others speak. It’s been said that some skippers throw over a long polypropylene rope so it’s floating in the water, ready to hopefully wrap the prop of the approaching bad guy. Obviously I’d never recommend anything like this. It’s a terrible thing to do, and it breaks various and sundry laws as well as conventions of proper conduct. I even recommend that it not be done. But here are a few things you can do.

Keep a watch all around. Listen to the VHF for the jerk reports. Be prepared. While we all rig differently for sheltered waters than for open waters, never assume that any water is going to be calm. Try to contact the approaching boat on the VHF or by horn. If they answer (and they usually don’t) ask for a slow pass and advise that you’ll slow to idle so they can do the same and get around you without giving you a wake. Try to arrange the passing event in waters broad enough to allow you to turn into the wake if needed.

Some boats do best going bow into the wake, while others take the wake best just abaft the bow. Often this is the only way you’ll be able to do it because you won’t have time or room for a 90-degree turn into the wake. Know first whether your boat will behave well with this tactic or whether it’ll behave better taking the wake on its stern or to either quarter.

Some boats suffer steering and stability problems with big waves from astern. Be careful not to create a safety or navigation issue with other boats in the vicinity. If you can’t turn toward the wake and if there is room, slow down to idle speed and turn away from the wake, or consider turning the rudder to meet the roll, with perhaps a brief power burst. With many boats this will stabilize the roll at least a little. Don’t do this in a manner that will result in an improper or unsafe change of course. Take care that your actions are consistent with the Rules of the Road.

Of course, I usually get caught in inlets when two or more large boats speed past, sending out converging wakes that leap into the air as they crash into each other. Usually the leaping part occurs right under my hull. When I get a thrill like this in my small boat I tell everyone to crouch down, then simply do what I can to keep from capsizing. In my 53-foot motorsailer I try to steer to the waves as mentioned above. Also, I always have at least my mainsail up, for its stabilizing effect. Power stabilizers also are helpful in these circumstances.

I never enter an inlet without preparing for a monster boat with a skipper with monstrous lack of consideration sneaking up on me with stern dug firmly into the water to throw the maximum wake. But I also try to stay to my side of the channel to give these guys plenty of room to pass and to hopefully allow me to turn into their wakes if it’s safe to do so.

If it’s not man-made waves to worry about, it’s storm-made waves. And lightning. And white-outs.

Picking your poison

Sitting there feeling my gut contort as I watch a black, anvil-shaped cloud monster racing my way isn’t my idea of a nice afternoon on the water. Then I turn on the VHF weather and hear: “Go indoors immediately. Go to your basement or into an interior closet.” So I’m thinking, Yeah, right, as I try to figure out what to do and how to get clobbered the least. Most people instinctively race to shore, which may be the safest course of action, though not necessarily. Boat handling involves much more than skeletal/muscle skills. It involves making good decisions considering all the issues.

Racing toward shore usually means you’re racing toward the storm, which is probably coming from land, toward the water. The storm may catch you in a river entrance or inlet full of other boats also racing for safety. It may catch you in an area with rocks on shore or fast-moving currents. The rain may reduce visibility to zero while the wind blows you toward danger. Sometimes it’s better to make preparations and take the storm in open water, if your boat and your seamanship skills are up to it. You can slowly motor into the wind with less fear of hitting something. Make your judgment call after you consider all relevant factors; don’t just instinctively bolt for shore.

If you are powering into a storm watch the seas and rain so that you always know the direction of the wind and waves. Note your compass bearing and distance from danger while you still have visibility. Chart plotters are great for this, but, in my opinion, it’s most important to primarily watch the sea and wind state so you can keep your bow into it. On Chez Nous, one of us is primarily responsible for boat handling, the other for watching the plotter and for other boats. In my experience, radar on most pleasure boats is seldom very helpful in hard rain.

I always worry about lightning, and this is a serious issue when you’re trying to decide if you should make it to a harbor or weather it in open water. My boats have been hit several times over the years. No, this has nothing to do with my lack of clean living. It’s just because I’ve been out on the water for so much time. At least that’s what I like to think. I have an instant, almost panicky urge to get to a dock or into a safe harbor when I know lightning is coming. I’ve tried to figure it out, and I think it’s because my instinct tells me that if the boat gets hit in there, at least I’ll be able to get off and walk away — maybe. But lightning is dangerous anywhere, including while you’re running down a dock toward the relative safety of a building or car. It’s one of the factors you have to consider, but there’s no clear answer such as running in or riding it out.

I’ve found that the best way to make a good decision is to avoid having to make one in the first place. With storms, the best thing to do is pay close attention to weather forecasts and the weather itself, and come in before anything develops. VHF weather is very helpful; check it frequently if there’s any question. Coast Guard weather securitees usually are broadcast after the local VHF weather channel has announced the warning. If the day is hazy you may not even see the clouds until they’re upon you. Remember, storms don’t always “come from” somewhere. Sometimes they form right over you. Some of the worst lightning we’ve experienced has been from this situation.

Know the flow

A fascinating challenge about boat handling is that we have to deal with moving air and moving water. Because of this, planning is an important aspect of good boat handling. Changing tides can cause currents that will turn smooth waters into dangerous rips in less than an hour. A few examples quickly come to mind. They include The Race at the eastern end of Long Island Sound, Hell Gate in the East River in New York City, the inlet at Fort Pierce, Fla., and many of the shallow inlets along the East Coast.

Bottom contour plays a major role in this. Anytime there’s a lot of water going into or out of a small channel, expect trouble. If there are boulders, ledges or other geological or man-made structures that deflect the current, expect such conditions as eddies, whirlpools and upwellings. These conditions may be severe enough to endanger smaller boats or make it difficult for them to get back in. Canoes, kayaks, rowboats and sailboats with small or no auxiliary engines are particularly vulnerable.

The best way to handle this is to not get caught, unless you want an excuse to stay out fishing all night. Know the area in which you’re boating. This includes topography, both above and under the water. Know the tidal patterns. Usually low and high tides occur about an hour later every day, but this is only a very general rule that can change with locality, winds, storms and moon phase. Remember that the times of high and low tides usually aren’t the same as the times that the tidal current stops and changes direction. And it’s that reversal of flow that can cause problems.

Slack tide, as a general rule, may last from a few minutes to a half-hour or more, and this time period may change depending on the moon, winds and other factors. The maximum tidal current usually is three hours after the turn of the current, but this can vary substantially. To add to the fun, the time of max flow will change as you go up or down a tributary. The tide reversal doesn’t happen to the entire river at the same time; it moves up the river from the ocean.

Delaware Bay offers a good example of the need for planning. The run from Cape May, N.J., to the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal is long and wide. It can get very rough, and currents can exceed 4 knots at times. Most pleasure boats want to avoid the uncomfortable chop caused when the tide runs against the wind. Displacement hulls want to avoid an adverse current, even if the water is flat calm. For example, if you’re in a displacement boat going from Cape May to the C&D, you’ll want to plan your trip so you’ll carry the incoming tide as you progress up the bay.

Adding wind to the mix

Wind plays a critical role in most aspects of boating, but when you mix it with water flow its impact can be much more severe. Wind against tide in a river or long bay often can be handled by staying closer to the shore from which the wind is angling. If you do this it’s critical to study charts carefully to avoid shoals and wrecks that may be alongside the deep water. It may be best to abort the trip.

If the tide is racing out an inlet and the wind is blowing waves onshore, it will be much rougher than if the tide was slack or running in. In some areas, standing waves may develop as a dangerous barrier to smaller boats going in or out. A strong ebbing current may leave a smooth inlet if there is no onshore wind and no swell caused by far off winds. Whenever we plan to enter an inlet, we think ahead about such factors as tidal flow and wind direction and speed.

Wind may affect the inlet you want to enter or the shore you want to cruise, even though it’s a flat calm day. One of the more dramatic examples of this occurs when winds from a storm, even far away, set up a large ground swell radiating out from the storm. As those swells reach the drop-off where ocean waters thousands of feet deep flow onto shallow banks, they trip and tumble over themselves, often causing dangerous breaking conditions. If this occurs while the tide is coursing out an inlet, the seas breaking in the inlet can be extremely dangerous. In the Bahamas they call this a “rage.” Once when we were in the Abacos a large island freighter with an experienced captain capsized in such conditions, with loss of life.

It’s important to know what’s going on not just around you but also far off, if it can affect your seas. It isn’t unusual for conditions to be fine in the morning but treacherous by afternoon, not because a storm has blown up locally but because the first swells from a faraway storm didn’t reach until then.

Good planning may result in simply not going when you want to go — or not negotiating the inlet when conditions are too rough. We’ve known wise skippers to stay out overnight or several nights to avoid bad inlet conditions. They were uncomfortable but safe. We’ve known others who’ve tried to “handle it” and ended up with broken backs, wrecked boats and, in some instances, loss of life.

Devil in the deviations

You’ll notice that I’ve used the terms “usually” and “generally” a lot. That’s because there are so many factors that can affect what we need to do when handling our boats that little can be said that is a given in all circumstances. Watch out for “general rules,” including the ones mentioned here. The devil is in the deviations. This is where seamanship comes in. Good boat handling requires good seamanship. This includes experience, ability, common sense, education, art and instinct. We can’t get it just from reading about it; it takes training and experience. So go out in your boat and enjoy the day. You’ll be picking up some more experience.

Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” at .