My Boat Won't Back (in a straight or controlled line)
Over the last few years, I've seen lots of posts with this or similar complaint. And, I've watched people struggle at backing into slips, even when the boat will back fairly well. Some boat designs may not back well, but I would like to suggest a slightly different technique which might make you happier with your boat.
I may be suggesting something that will not work, but try it and maybe it will.
When I was negotiating to buy my boat (Catalina 320), I went to a boat show to see a competitive boat. The Catalina dealer had single handed a new Catalina 42 into a tricky docking arrangement at the show docks. I inquired how he was able to do it. He said that it was easy. The trick to controlling in reverse is to get the boat going. Once you get sufficient speed in reverse, the boat responds to the rudder in going backwards. just like it does going forward. It looks neat to drive in just past your slip in the traditional manner, turn away, then throw engine in reverse and back into the slip. To do this consistently, you have to know your boat well, adjust for wind, current and other variables. But you don't have to do it this way (at least not on my boat and the C42). Nearly all boats have prop walk...it has to do with the geometry of the prop, the surrounding boat and discharge stream of water (if the discharge is up and against the boat, and forward, then you get significant walk --- you get prop walk going forward, but the discharge is more into the rudder and away from the boat, and you just don't notice it as much because you correct for it with the rudder).
The dealer said, don't worry about prop walk. Well away from the dock, put the boat in reverse, increase power gradually, and get the boat moving in reverse. Gradually increase throttle and speed so that eventually the rudder takes over and controls the boat direction inspite of the prop walk. Keep the speed above this level, and just drive the boat in reverse. The dealer said that he just stood in front of the wheel and drove the zig zag course necessary to get into his slip. This is the technique that I use now. It looks a little strange because I will back down a long fairway and simply drive down, and turn into the slip going backwards. If you have a line handler forward, you can dock without even touching the pilings. If there is a crosswind sufficiently high, or going downwind, I have had to abandon this techique on occasion and dock bow first, but otherwise, it makes docking really easy. Once you start into the slip, lock the wheel brake down to prevent damage to the rudder (it can slam into the stocks if not restrained). You lock it down just enough to hold the rudder, but so you can still override the brake to control the rudder in docking. My C320 is a wing keel and is really quite maneuverable, so I'm sure that it's easier for me, but I believe many of you who say your boat won't back, it may be because you haven't tried this technique. If you try it in open water, you'll not damage anything and you'll learn if it is possible. And if your boat really won't back using this technique, then learn the back and fill technique that power boats (with small rudders) typically use. In regards to locking the wheel/rudder with brake, don't do this until you are nearly in your slip, because you loose rudder/wheel sensitivity and can't respond to wind shifts well unless you have the sensitivity. Also, many boats (mine anyway) will lay beam to the wind if you just let it go. Before you start trying to back, put the boat in this position relative to the wind. If you try to head into the wind, like you would if you are dropping your sails, the wind, the boat's natural tendency to fall off beam to wind, and prop walk will conspire to spin you around and out of control. Putting the boat in the position where it naturally wants to go, minimizes this tendency. If the boat is going too fast when you approach your slip, simply shift momentarily into forward to check your speed, but not long enough to stop the backward movement and rudder control. Also, you can shift alternately in and out of gear to control your speed. And going backwards first, if you need to abort, shift into forward and hit the trottle. You'll be surprised how well you can get out of a messed up approach. And if you do miss the approach, don't try to correct. It's going to get screwed up. Abort, go out and start again. Good luck.