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Tips for Docking Your Boat

A wise and wizened Old Tar (you might have met him once, too) offered the wisest advice for captains about to bring their boat into a dock or a slip: Never approach the dock at a speed faster than you would if you planned to ram it.

Docking a boat is an art, not a science, and experience helps. And it’s different every time: the wind, the tide, the response of your crew are all variables that can’t be predicted. 

So the first tip for docking (well, the second, since slowing down to a barely moving speed is Tip # 1!) is to take a moment to prepare. Tell the crew to put down the libations, turn down the music and get ready. The lines should be coiled and ready: spring line and bow line; and the fenders dropped over the side and tied off. As captain, you must check to make sure they put the fenders out on the side of the boat that will be dock-side. And then get them in position to be ready to help, either for tossing the lines to someone on the dock, or to jump off with lines in hand when you bring the boat gently to the dock’s edge.

  1. Slow and steady wins the race.  Maneuvers when approaching a dock should be stop and start, even at the slow speed you want. Make small, slow adjustments by bumping your boat in and out of gear, forward and reverse. Avoid the panicked thrust of power–boats don’t have brakes, and once you speed up, it’s difficult to slow down again. 
  2. Have a plan and stick to it.  There’s almost always some yokel–standing on the dock, or watching from his own boat or sitting half-tanked in the marina bar–who is happy to shout out advice to you when you’re in the middle of your docking maneuvers. Best advice: ignore him.  You are in charge of your boat. Make your plan and do your best to carry it out.
  3. Have your crew prepped and ready.  Even in a small boat, you need some help in bringing your boat to dock. Someone needs to pass the lines to the dock (or take them there) while you are maneuvering the boat from the helm. So take command, tell your crew where to stand and what to do, stress safety (keeping hands and fingers out of danger) and issue orders clearly so everyone understands what to do next. (Helpful advice: Many times, the “crew” is also your family–spouse and/or children. If you don’t want to spend many nights sleeping in the den, do not go all Captain Ahab on them, even if the docking maneuver is difficult or challenging. “Clear and firm orders” does not mean screaming insults!)
  4. Spring line first.  Goal No. 1 is to get the spring line tied up first. This line, which is cleated to your boat midships, should be the first tossed or carried onto the dock. There, the line is wrapped around a cleat and brings the boat to a halt. Further maneuvers might be needed to bring the bow or stern dockward, but when the spring line is ashore, you’re more than halfway there. If you instead toss a bow line first, the stern may swing out of place.
  5. Use the wind.  Any kind of boat has lots of freeboard–the parts of the boat that extend above the waterline. When the wind is blowing–hard or gentle–your boat acts like a giant sail. This can be helpful–when you use the force of the wind to gently push your boat into a dock, or difficult–when the wind is trying to keep you away. Headwinds can help you keep the boat’s speed in control. Before attempting to dock, you need to judge the wind, speed and direction, to determine how it will affect your docking maneuvers.
  6. Don’t be afraid to go-round.  Experienced airline pilots, who have landed their jetlines hundreds of times in all conditions, know that every now and then, conditions are hinky enough to require the old touch-and-go…reapplying power to take to the air again, circle the airport and try again. Now and then, the same thing happens to boat captains. Despite the best of plans and preparation, sometimes conditions get troublesome enough that the only solution is to pull away from the dock, circle out and try it again. That yokel in the marina bar may laugh his heinie off, but it’s not his boat, is it? Pull away, line up and try again. And don’t feel embarrassed…it happens to all of us one time or another.

If you’re a new boater and would like some extra advice, please don’t hesitate to stop by our marina. Watching other captains is educational and we’re always ready to talk about docking strategies with you and, if time permits, maybe we can take you and your boat out for some practice!  In time, you can become that yokel in the bar yelling out advice to other captains (who hopefully will ignore you!).

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