How to Dock a Boat



Your sailboat is your home, and your best friend. You wouldn't want someone to run over and slap your best friend, would you? Keep in mind, the other boat owners in the marina feel the same way. If you are a lucky enough marina sailor to have a sleek...

Your sailboat is your home, and your best friend. You wouldn't want someone to run over and slap your best friend, would you? Keep in mind, the other boat owners in the marina feel the same way. If you are a lucky enough marina sailor to have a sleek flat bottom boat with a dagger keel that turns on a dime, this guide is not for you. You don't normally realize how terribly dangerous those beautifully low-slung ocean boats, those deep displacement cutters, yawls (rhymes with LOLs) and ocean boats are in a tight marina.

For the rest of you, the people for whom the mooring bell tolls, this is for you. Your boat may track beautifully in a following sea, she may hold her course for days at a time with nothing but a fat seagull sitting on the tiller, but when you arrive in the marina, you are faced with the sudden terrible realization that your boat is ill-suited for the tactic other sailors call 'turning'.

Adding some wind, maybe a current from a tide or a river, and depth perception loss from a day of medicinal rum, and you are in for a hilarious (to others) bit of disaster (for you.) Fear not, brave mariner, you aren't alone. Many of us older salts have done our fair share of warping, leaping, bumping, and high-speed 'rafting' with other boats, and while we may laugh through our manly beards and cable-knit sweater at your flailing, dangerous ways, please understand, we laugh because we're mostly bored, with nothing better to do than grow beards and remark on each others daily choice of cable-knit. Someone like you provides the necessary comic relief that we need, and crave. You also help keep our insurance premiums high, which is good for the economy, and ulcer development.

When one of your crew helpfully encourages your approach, keep in mind that this was the same person who recently broke your mast and lost the rudder, and who is, despite the air of authority and confidence they have about them, only a teenager with nary a bit of actual real world experience. Besides, coming in at the speed you are, you are bound to leave some helpful passerby hanging from the bowsprit as they try to keep your boat from climbing the dock like a randy elephant in the throes of sudden, abject passion. It is much better to slow down a bit, so long as you remember the following "Never go slower than you can steer, or faster than you can stop." I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to calculate how much is necessary, but remember this and remember it well, boats do not stop moving. This is why we have to tie them down, after all.

As expected, your first move, is the wrong one. You remembered all the admonishments you have heard over the years, and worse yet, you listened to them. You are coming into the marina too slowly. You were doing great, at first, as you came around the breakwater with a fine bow wave, but then, you noticed there were a few hundred million dollars worth of boats lying in wait in the marina, and you decided to take her out of gear for a while. You thought it would help you better assess the situation, and plan a better approach, but you forgot one thing:

The wind and tide didn't follow your game plan. They don't care how well you understand or have planned for this evolution, and they may (at their whim) decide to blow harder or flow stronger. Meanwhile, you drift.

First and foremost, let's get some useful definitions out of the way, so we can communicate more effectively. Go ahead and leave her out of gear for a bit longer, the damage is done. Pay attention now. When the wind (or current) blows you onto a shore, we call that the 'windward' shore. The shore the wind (or current) is coming from, is called the 'leeward' shore. No we don't know why that is, the original meaning is lost in the depths of time and if you try and tell us why it is, we're just going to stuff our fingers in our ear and scream 'LALALA' — to us, it's named the 'Leeward' shore rather than the 'Lee' shore, because Lee was a very nice person and loaned us his slip for the summer. Whether or not we like it, the other shore is full of big expensive yachts, any one of which would cost more than our entire family will ever make in a lifetime, and so the 'Windward' shore is bad. Boats smash to bits on that shore.

So, while you're drifting along, losing steerage, identify quickly — where is the windward shore in this marina? Where is the leeward shore? Look at it this way, given the wind and current, where is safety, and where is disaster? If safety is in the direction of your assigned slip — well my friend, this guide is not for you. This guide is for the other person, the person drifting ever slower and slower, as they lose steerage and are well and truly heading up the roiling brown waters of a disaster, sans paddle, as it were.

Okay, there's still plenty of time here, let's take account of our situation. Do you have your fenders out? All of them? If not... why not? Do you think Neptune the Unmerciful is going to allow you to smugly attach that boat where you wish? Clearly, you are not very familiar with the Ways of the Sea. Holler if need be, but get your crew scrambling on the double-quick for the rest of the fenders, and put them all over the place.

Next, do you have your dock lines all laid out, untangled, not wrapped around your leg and / or other gear on board? All of your lines? Remember, the only way your boat is guaranteed to go, is the way you don't want it to go. So be prepared to tie it to whatever you can. Are your crew standing by, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to leap at a moments notice for the dock?

If so, tell them to simmer down, and do so in a tone that they can hear over the wheezing aspirations of that ill-tuned one-lung diesel that is yammering for mercy under your feet. They may not understand, so be sure to include as many hand signals and neck-slashing gestures as appropriate. There's only two types of people in this world. Those who leap from boats and get horrible injuries leaving the boat to crash unchecked into an insurance company fantasy (probably involving hot oil, rippling muscles, and endless zeros) and those who leap from boats and somehow only end up dropping their dockline and swimming while the boat crashes unchecked into an insurance company's aforementioned sick fantasy. Do what you can, to convince your crew, to be neither of those types, but instead to be a steely-eyed deckhand with nerves of steel, a cool-headed, ruthless handler of dock lines, a minion that listens.

Did they hear you? Do you trust them? You are pretty much in their hands now, so let us regain focus and composure, and plan our attack here. Your slip is about halfway between bankruptcy and fleeing for the hills under the cover of darkness to change your name and live a new life, and as one might expect, there's a mighty brisk wind blowing into it, with a stiff current to boot.

Speaking of boot, are your crew wearing shoes this time, or are they going to run a 6" splinter between their little pink toes like last time? Better double check to make sure. Are you wearing shoes? Another quick glance ought to tell the truth of it.

Once you're back from putting on shoes, let's make sure the crew understands their role. They are not going to leap, check. They are not going to get on the dock and then hold the rope, waiting for a 26,000 pound boat to hurl them face-first into the nasty brine that passes for 'water' in this so called 'marina'. We actually want them around for a while longer, preferably without amoebic dysentery, so let's make sure they take a smart turn on the dock cleat, and use the cleat to stop the boat, rather than their face, knee, or other exposed body part.

They're a smart crew, all quivering with fear and that delightful look of terror lighting up their eyes, so now is a good time to put her in gear, and plan that approach! You have lost every bit of steerage way by now, so you should plan to get some of that back, as rapidly as possible. Water flowing across that beautiful barn door rudder hanging off the back of your boat needs time to become acquainted with your boat, and as your boat turns within roughly one degree of latitude, you should start your turn early, as soon as you are able.

How soon? Well, now... you're the Captain. You have eyes on the situation, and all I am doing here is writing something incredibly useful and entertaining. How can I know? The only advice I can share is 'early enough'.

You turned too late, didn't you. I knew you would, and actually the rest of us on the dock, resplendent in mighty beards and cable-knit, we all knew it. Unfortunately for your insurance company, the people on board that beautiful yacht that is about to become a test subject for your impromptu destructive hull material stress test, well... they didn't quite realize it. Don't act all hurt, we were laughing as hard as we could, and if they couldn't hear us scream and shout with joy, you have only the yammering screams of your iron genoa to blame.

Luckily, for you, your crew is probably used to this, and they've smoothly transitioned themselves from the side of hopeful thinking, to the side of the boat that awaits reality and the future, which you still persist on thinking of as the 'wrong side'. That sort of thinking is what keeps you from learning the lessons Lord Neptune keeps trying to teach you, but that's okay. It's damned entertaining for the rest of us.

Don't give up, whatever you do. Carefully ease your transmission into neutral, wait for a heartbeat or two, and then slide it into reverse. With the wind abaft, and the current helping you towards disaster, you need to find a way to slow down, to drag out the disaster in slow motion, so you can replay it later over and over, as you sob yourself to sleep on the bed of the truck smuggling you out of the country.

Don't just throw it in reverse, despite your ever-mounting panic and quite real terror, don't do it. Your poor engine is doing everything it can, and it's liable to just up and die on you, or, get stuck in reverse — now wouldn't that be fun. Take your time, and be gentle, give the old girl the kind consideration and respect she deserves, and ease her into reverse.

Once in reverse, feed her a little bit of power, just enough to get some water flowing over the prop. Before you commit yourself to a frenzy sea-trial blast of your engine to max throttle (*with no limits, by damn, you are the Captain after all) — - take a brief moment to think about the prop-walk of your vessel. What direction will she go? Will she turn to port, or starboard? Will she turn at all?

You aren't a total fool, of course, and long before you found yourself in stitches reading about some other wet-behind-the-ears grommet who we will for the nonce refer to as 'not you', you spent time in clear skies and calm water checking to see what direction your boat moves when you put her in reverse. Now, is not the right time to be experimenting. If you have forgotten, dash down to the logbook and check the margin, where you thoughtfully wrote a note about the direction the prop walks, so you would never, ever forget.

You forgot, didn't you. I knew it, from the way you hauled the tiller first one way then the other, your crew screaming and diving and sticking out their little pink toes to fend off a disaster that seems all too true — but, luckily, you have the fenders out everywhere, dock lines out everywhere, and because you threatened them with decapitation or fates worse than, your crew are still aboard and not swimming or screaming on about a broken leg.

The fates are smiling on you, my friend. Today, is your lucky day. Those fenders will squish appropriately, preventing terrible things from happening to your bank account. Your crew will smartly tie the line that controls the boat the best, be it from the bow, amidships, or even the stern line. Whichever line holds the boat best, is the one they will almost certainly tie (then double tie, add a bowline, and probably a granny knot with a triple twist just to be sure!)

Once everyone stops screaming and blaming you for their heart attack, stroke, seizure, and / or future nightmares, it's time to calmly assert yourself, ask them to run the other docklines up and around to the correct finger, then take a wrap on the cleat and pass it back to you. Because you're a master at this ocean-going nonsense, you take a smart turn or three on the primary winch, and haul your boat in under control, even with a gale blowing you away.

No matter what we may think, as we chuckle and think about a time in our lives when we didn't know absolutely everything there was to know about boats, you are a smart, conscientious, and careful person. You have done everything you can to maximize your safety, the safety of your crew, and the safety of your boat. You are at this point, a salty dog.


 ©2016 Dain White, All Rights Reserved.

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