Tips on Docking Your Boat

Everyone has their own way of docking their particular boat…and as we all know, some work better than others! I have taught sailing and boat handling since 1979, and I have held a USCG 100-ton Master’s license since 1982. I don’t claim to know it all, but I’d like to offer some general tips that I teach my clients:

1. When leaving the dock, take your dock lines with you. Make sure they are either stowed or well secured, so as not to foul a prop, also known as a “high speed underwater winch”. In some cases, wrapping a stern line can rip the prop shaft loose, causing severe damage. When bringing the boat back to the slip, it is much safer to have the dock line attached to your boat, rather than trying to place the loops back on the boat. More about this on tip #5.

2. When getting ready to dock, just like landing an airplane, early planning and preparation usually results in a good landing. If your regular “crew” is not aboard, be selective in choosing capable line handlers. (Sometimes it is better for friends NOT to help, especially if they have been drinking!) Turn down the stereo & VHF. Noisy kids or guests should take the party down below and quiet down so the skipper can concentrate. If you have a “double” slip, position fenders just below the toe rail on your neighbor’s side, wherever the boat is most likely to touch their boat. If you have extra crew, position them so that they can “fend off” without endangering themselves. Instruct line handlers to step onto the dock only when they are absolutely sure they can make it. If short handed or single handing, drape the end of your bow line over the rail or lifelines, so that it can be grabbed from dockside and will not be tangled. Make sure the stern line or spring lines cannot accidentally fall into the water!

3. Boat handling in wind is fairly predictable. Check the wind direction and strength before entering the fairway. When docking a powerboat, I usually check the relative wind angle on the masthead wind vanes on the sailboats sitting in the slips. Think about which way it is going to push you as you make your approach, and your final turn. You may need to turn early or late to compensate. When the wind is light or calm, enjoy the luxury of a slow approach.

4. Once in the slip, wind or current may continue to help you or hinder you, depending upon the speed and direction. Figure out ahead of time what the boat is likely to do, once stopped, but not yet tied up. It might be a piece of cake, or a real challenge! Trying to dock on a single side-tie, (such as a fuel dock or “double” slip) with the wind blowing you away may require a faster approach, the use of more power, and expert line handling. In such cases, tossing lines to fellow boaters on the dock is necessary even for the best boat handlers…but be careful here of overzealous helpers.

5. Crew should step off with the dock line in hand, take a half-turn around the dock cleat, stand up, watch what the boat and skipper are doing, and take up slack when they can. Some people like the convenience of leaving their pre-set lines on the dock, and slipping them over the boat’s cleats when you come back. With this method, there is danger of serious injury to fingers by trying to loop dock lines onto the mooring cleats of a still-moving boat…don’t risk it! Alternately, you can mark you dock lines with paint, electrical or sail tape to mark the spot where the line meets the cleat…and do it the safe way.

6. Learn the proper cleating hitch. Not only does it demonstrate good seamanship, it can be impossible to uncleat a poorly cleated anchor line or dock line, under load, in an emergency.

7. Once the boat is secure, my 8 year old daughter enjoys helping out by “flemishing” the dock lines into a neat spiral.

8. Practice makes perfect. If dockings are uncomfortable, take some lessons with a qualified instructor-captain. You spent a lot on this toy…why not invest a little more to make docking the fun time to show off your skills, instead of the stressful part?