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A Graceful Entrance

Like all beautiful things, a nimble docking maneuver requires a lot of practice
Docking can be incredibly challenging in certain marinas and conditions; practice will help your crew prepare.

Docking can be incredibly challenging in certain marinas and conditions; practice will help your crew prepare.

A few years ago, I cleared in at a western Caribbean island with the help of two 18-year-old female deckhands. The port captain directed us to dock on the windward side of a concrete quay, in the row where they placed all the foreign yachts. I did as I was instructed, against my better judgment. After leaving the customs dock, we stood off, prepared the deck and had a discussion to ensure the execution of what we knew was going to be a tight fit.

Our boat was a heavy, 60-foot, single-screw ketch with a long bowsprit. As we approached the narrow channel, we could barely see our slip in a long line of 30-plus yachts secured alongside. We proceeded bow-in, with an after spring line in hand and ready to throw, led from a midship chock. When the slip appeared, I took the motion off the boat.

The gal with the spring line was right on the money, since she’d been schooled on how to mindfully prepare and toss a coil that had to be placed on the first toss. The dock attendant put the eye on a cleat behind us, took the slack out, gave the line a single turn on a midship cleat and nodded “OK.” With our boat positioned a few feet from each vessel ahead and astern, we put tension on the after spring line. I then put the helm away from the dock and throttled ahead, gently and steadily. The boat quietly crept sideways into the slip.

We minded the length of the spring while monitoring our distance off fore and aft, until we were comfortably in position and laying on our fenders. This type of no-fuss line handling with the engine certainly beats manhandling the weight of a boat. It’s an example of working smart, not strong.

Not long after we tied up, the wind started to honk. This was not the place to be in a blow, pinned against concrete. The port captain bluntly rejected our plea to move to another slip. Finally, with the wind building, he reluctantly agreed but refused to help us.

By this time, the wind had increased to 30 knots on the outboard beam—too much to spring ourselves out. We spied a bent pipe mounted in concrete and sticking out of the grass on the windward side of the canal. We launched our inflatable, and both girls set across the canal with two long dock lines. They dropped the eyes over the pipe, and led one line to our bow and the other to the stern—two beautiful breast lines to windward. That might have sufficed, except we were not allowed to block the canal with our lines.

The port captain planted himself on the dock with his arms folded across his chest as we took the slack out of the breast lines. One led to a bow chock and the other to a self-tailing winch just abaft the helm. We released all the lines in the slip while I held our position with the engine. Using the rudder and a bump on the throttle to nudge the bow and stern alternately toward the wind, we took slack out of the lines. A foot at a time, we coaxed the boat to windward.

As the force of the wind increased, both girls worked on the bow line—one placing her weight outboard on the line, and the other taking up slack when she jumped off. I cranked the winch behind me. We alternated bow and stern, inching our tonnage to windward.

As we worked, the crews on the other boats appeared on deck, slack-jawed, watching the test of wills between the port captain and the women. In slow motion, we maneuvered off the dock and into the windward side of the canal. Then, we cast off the lines clear of the prop as I throttled up in reverse, madly motoring clear of the gawking boats to leeward. We then sprung ourselves alongside in another unused canal, where the wind comfortably blew us off instead of onto the dock.

All fast, we walked back to the fleet alongside the first canal to retrieve our lines and witnessed every single boat heeled over and struggling to keep their flattened fenders in place. That’s where we earned the nickname “The
Unmanned Vessel,” three women applying common-sense seamanship.

Docking is one of the most important seamanship skills, particularly with a single-screw boat. The pride you experience after executing a nimble maneuver in challenging conditions is pure joy. But like all beautiful things, it doesn’t just happen all by itself. These tips can help you dock with grace.

Know the basics. The essentials come first. If your deckhands don’t already know how to coil and reliably heave a line to the dock, then have them practice until they do. Make sure your crew knows commands such as “surge” (slack a line suddenly, but in a controlled manner), “take up” (pull slack out of line) and “hold” (keep the line as is without making it fast). Emphasize the need to keep lines clear of the propeller, and ensure the deckhands comprehend the safety hazards of loading (the strain on a line), pinch points (places where a body part might get caught) and the recoil area (where a line could spring back if it parts).

Check the lines. Dock lines and their usage are properly named according to where they are made fast on the boat, and which direction they run ashore. Most of us speak casually about bow lines, stern lines and spring lines. Technically, a bow or stern line can lead ahead (forward spring), aft (aft spring) or athwartships at a right angle (breast line). If you are lucky, your boat will have midship chocks. In this case, the midship spring lines are named according to which direction they lead on the shore: forward or aft. The ideal minimum for most boats is a bow and stern line, a forward spring and an after spring line. A line “on a bight” is one made fast to the boat, run around a dock piling or cleat, and then brought back to the boat; it’s useful when there is no assistance ashore or when you’re short-handed. Slip one end, pull it back to the boat and you’re clear.

Plan maneuvers. A boat’s weight, depth, windage, pivot point, propulsion and horsepower all contribute to handling characteristics, so get to know the particulars of your vessel. Do you have an inboard engine with a right-hand propeller? Most single-screw recreational boats do, meaning the stern will tend initially to starboard in forward gear and to port in reverse. Also, get to know the abilities of your crew. Once you understand how these factors all work on your boat, they become predictable traits, so remember to practice. When getting on or off the dock, plan your maneuvers in advance. Consider the direction of the wind and current, and use these factors to your advantage. Make a strategy and have a brief meeting with your crew so everyone knows what the goal is. Set the lines in place in advance.

Communicate clearly. At the helm, issue clear orders to each person to create coordinated teamwork, rather than allowing individuals to act independently. Be aware that some events require swift, bold and adaptive maneuvers. This is where practice and calm judgment will really pay off most. If your planned docking attempt proves untenable, then back off and regroup for a second approach. Ignore onlookers and unsolicited advice. Have confidence in your decisions and instincts.

Use wind and current. When you do have the choice, dock with the wind and current on the bow. This gives you maximum control because you can use the throttle to maintain position or advance. You can angle the bow across the wind and current, letting it set you to port or starboard without gaining headway. A purposeful bump of the throttle against the rudder will bring the bow back into the wind and stop the vessel’s set. The same goes for getting off the dock. Position the bow so the current and wind get between the dock and your vessel; that will wedge you right off the dock.

Side-tie docking. It can be effortless with the wind on the outboard beam if you slowly approach the slip, take your way off and allow the natural forces to set you onto the dock. This is where well-placed fenders come into play. As long as there’s not too much wind, getting off the dock with wind on your outboard beam can be accomplished by powering ahead against an aft-leading spring line from the bow with the helm toward the dock. This will kick the stern away from the dock, making room to back away. Remember to have a forward fender at the ready and/or someone on the dock to fend the bow off. If you’d prefer to kick the bow out, power astern against a forward-leading spring line from the stern, adjusting the rudder as needed.

Side-tie docking with the wind andcurrent on the inboard beam is more challenging. The solution here, as in the anecdote above, is powering against an aft leading spring line with the helm away from the dock.

Bow-in approach. When docking in a bow-in slip with natural forces on either beam, stop outside, then allow room for the wind and current to set you into position. Have your crew ready to place the windward dock lines first.

We all have docking triumphs and failures. In the long run, the more experience you have, the better you’ll get. My hat is off to seasoned boaters who dock without fanfare and keep their wits about them when circumstances are difficult. The phrase “Nice job, skipper,” is more than just a compliment. It’s an acknowledgment of good seamanship. And of practice. 

This article was originally published in the August 2022 issue.

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