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Boat Docking

Questions and Answers

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Reader’s Questions

Boat Docking Practice

Question: Keith's new, large, twin-engine boat is proving difficult to handle in close quarters. He asks if there are any “drills” he can do to improve his docking skills.

Answer: A short answer is this: pick a buoy or facsimile, and pilot your boat around it in figures-of-eight (assuming deep water on all sides). Try it going ahead and astern, fast and slow, changing direction half way around, and at different angles to the wind and current. Try it using just rudder control, and then using the twin screw effect. See if your rudders and twins can be used together, or whether it's best just to center the rudders and work the throttles alone. Try it when it's calm and when it's windy.

You can chew up several afternoons and a lot of fuel quite easily doing this, having fun, although garnering strange looks from passers-by, and you'll quite likely advance your skills one or two season's worth of the hit-and-miss method.

Active Water

Question: Peter asks about a problem approaching a dock with a small boat in very "active water", under windy conditions.

Answer: The short answer is that this dock is too exposed to waves. Find somewhere else to tie up the boat! (And, even on a calmer day, you wouldn't want to leave a vessel there unattended — the weather could change while you're away, or wakes from other boats could cause trouble.)

However, let's say that you must leave your boat tied up at this very wavy location. Remember these things:

  1. know how to handle your boat. I won't go into all of the niceties here, but if ever you had to be able to position the vessel accurately, this is the time.
  2. use only long lines. Once you do get the boat secured, allow it to continue to move. Long lines will keep it where you want it, and without straining and snapping unnecessarily on the deck hardware.
  3. use mooring whips.These hold the boat (which still has to be tied up properly) away from the dock, allowing it to pitch, roll and heave with the waves. However, in most circumstances, whips require advance purchase and installation, and should be matched to the particular boat, so if they're not already there, they're not!
  4. anchor off. If it wouldn't interfere with other boat traffic, put out an anchor, to hold the boat away from the dock. The boat can then be tied (loosely) to the dock using standard lines, or Mediterranean style, if you prefer.
Varying Current

Question: John recently had trouble bringing his trawler into a haulout slip because his stern was still in a flowing current, while his bow had entered "still" water between piers.

Answer: This is a common situation; there is nothing static about it! The helmsman had better keep the boat moving; keep steering and keep thinking! You'll want to get through the transition zone, between current and no current, as quickly as practical, without being reckless. The main thing is that "forewarned is forearmed" — knowing in advance about this changing current affords the skipper a much better opportunity to cope with it.

From Boat Docking:

“The forces of the current and of the wind may be additive or subtractive. Furthermore, both can change drastically as one nears shore, necessitating a complete change of steering technique during the approach to a dock or mooring. You often just have to figure this out as you go along, especially in an unfamiliar location. Pay close attention, and be prepared to change your tactics, as Nature changes hers.”

More Variation

Another question: Jeff is trying to come alongside in his 21-footer, in a strong cross-current which pushes him away from a small, short dock. He can't come in too fast or he'll run ashore. He finds the stern swinging out as he tries to complete his maneuver.

Answer: I don't mean to sound supercilious if I say read the whole book, then read it again. A third reading should be about right. This common problem can be very complicated, and you may need every bit of skill and knowledge to make it work. But here are a few pearls: make an angled approach, use the boat's momentum (which doesn't necessarily require a high speed), and adjust for the variation of the current just as the boat slides beside the dock.

The first thing often is to lose all preconceptions about how this should go. I often see boaters persisting with a certain method, scratching their heads or berating their crew because what's happening doesn't make sense to them. A more productive approach is to concede that something isn't working, and to try to figure out why, or at least to try something different. The angled approach, the use of momentum, the little "throw" that you'll certainly have to make at this dock at the last moment, the feel for your vessel which you acquire with lots and lots of helm-time (and acquire faster if you can avoid feeling frustrated, even though it often means much experimentation and many failures) -- all of these are discussed in some detail in Boat Docking.

In this particular case, I think it worth emphasizing that it sounds as if the current is being partly blocked by the dock -- hence the swing of the stern when the bow enters still water. The skipper may be "crabbing" in, quite appropriately under the circumstances, but then the bow enters the "current shadow" of the dock. At this point, if no correction is made to the steering, the stern is in the current and the bow is not (or less so), so the boat pivots. It is amazing how quickly this nice, controlled approach can disintegrate. What the helmsman sees is that suddenly his boat is pointing at the dock, and it takes steely nerves, the first few times, until you convince yourself that you can go through with the maneuver without crashing, by staying in forward gear and turning the steering wheel away from the dock -- turning downstream, in effect, but pushing the stern in towards the dock, straightening your steering out as the stern follows the bow into still water.

How much throttle and steering to use can only be deduced on the scene, but I will guarantee you that the control inputs will become smaller and smoother with the passage of time. The line you follow in to the dock may need to be a little more downstream than you would think -- parallel to an imaginary line extending from the dock -- so that the final turn does not, in fact, cause a collision of the bow with the dock. Taking this concept further leads to the angled approach, which would almost certainly be preferable here, if the space for it is available.

(I'm just getting warmed up, but I had better stop or I'll have to reiterate the whole book.)

Trading Up

Question: Chuck writes in with an interesting and common dilemma: “I'm comfortable in my 18 footer around the docks, and am about to trade up to a 30 foot planing cruiser. The salesman says I will be able to single hand it, no problem, but of course he always docks it during our sea trials, and then he depends heavily on marina staff on the docks - I only get to do the open water stuff. If I can handle the one boat, will I necessarily be able to handle the other?”

Answer: No. Being able to control the smaller boat is good (it won't hurt!), but the "feel" of the bigger boat, in close quarters, is very different, even though the general principles are the same. It's a big leap, and there are many boaters who trade up, and then go out boating much less often largely because docking is so difficult. The big problem is wind — it oftens sends a larger cruiser careening sideways across the water, where a smaller boat in the same conditions is more maneuverable, and has relatively more open water around it in which to correct for unanticipated course deviations! Also, the helmsman cannot reach the dock from the helm position of a large boat, so even when you do get the boat into position, getting it secured promptly (in heavy weather) requires at least a modicum of training and experience. All of this can be overcome, but it requires "helm time"; book learning (e.g. Boat Docking) doesn't hurt either!


Question: One reader asks about slow-speed "wandering" with his single I/O.

Answer: Constantly wandering off course is a common characteristic of planing hull boats. Most of them have no keel, or an insubstantial one, and in other ways too are not designed to "track" well at low speeds - doing so would compromise their planing-speed handling. Having twin, concentric propellers on coaxial shafts (e.g. Volvo's DuoProp™ or Mercruiser's Bravo 3™) is said to help. But for the rest of us, there is no cure - only control. The most common error is over-controlling - reacting too strongly. This is related to timing - some of the boat's "yawing" will self-correct, if left alone, and some won't. The part that "won't" needs to be caught early, allowing gentler correction, and this requires practice and experience.

Some boaters with trim tabs find better stability at low speeds if they lower them (i.e. the "bow down" position).

I still find, after all these years, that when going slowly, it takes a few minutes before I can really "feel" what the boat is about to do next, and so begin to pilot it not only more smoothly, but also less consciously!

Impossible turn

Question: The skipper of a twenty-five sailboat docks in very crowded conditions, and has to make a tighter turn to starboard, to tie up alongside on the starboard side, than he finds possible.

Answer: Don't attempt a maneuver you can't do! If your boat won't make the turn, don't try it. Now, having said this, there are several ways to make a boat turn more tightly than you might think it can. On is to reduce speed or even make a little sternway before using a brief but decisive shot of power, in forward gear with the helm hard over, to yaw the boat.

Even easier and more elegant, and what worked for this boater, was the use of a spring line. He was able to come alongside the end of his finger dock, forgetting about turning at all, and then take a long line or two ashore and work the boat manually, slowly and gently, into its slip. There are several variations on this, some using muscle power and some the engine, and they're all in Boat Docking!

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Boat Docking Questions

book How much directional stability does a boat have at slow speeds? (Sometimes, not much.) So, can its behaviour be at all understood or predicted (yes), or controlled? (Yes.)

What direction does a boat face when drifting in a wind?

What is the difference, in terms of boat handling, between "crabbing" in a cross-wind versus in a cross-current?

How strongly is wind "blanketed" by surrounding objects?

How does shallow water affect boat responsiveness?

How do the concepts of turning the boat and of swinging its ends relate, and why should you worry about it?

Why does the author put so much emphasis on understanding boat momentum? Isn't it a bit theoretical? Isn't it too technical? (It's critical to close quarters maneuvering, and the layman's explanations in this book are among some of the finest boat-handling writing ever done!)

Why is there no one optimal docking speed, and then how do you decide what speed to use in varying circumstances?

What is "asymmetrical propeller thrust"? Why do propellers "walk" sideways, and what can you do about it? Is it always undesirable? (No.)

What are the best ways to secure your boat to the dock? Are there other uses for dock lines than for keeping the boat from drifting away? (Yes.) How long, how big and how tight should your lines be?

Why does Boat Docking have a “Human Factors” chapter? Can I skip it? (Yes.) Should I? (No.) Wouldn't the technical, physical details of docking be what is most important? (All aspects are important.) Is the author really qualified on this sub-topic? (He says yes!)

teacher Is every imaginable docking described in the Docking Examples chapter? (No, that would be impossible, but 99% of dockings are explained, more than enough to impart all of the important principles which apply to any and all dockings.)

Will looking at other pages on this web site help me decide whether to pursue further buying Boat Docking? (Yes - see the menu above.)

Is docking the single most limiting factor in many, if not most, boaters’ enjoyment and use of their vessels? (Yes, that's why Boat Docking was written, and why you will so value owning it!)

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-this page updated 2011-01-14