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post #1 of Old 08-16-2004 Thread Starter
Bruce Caldwell
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When Docking, Easy Does It

A careful eye for protruding hazards is a must when docking in unfamiliar places.
Below the high-water mark on the piling to leeward of Kirsten, two large rusty screws stuck out several inches. Right now Kirsten's hull was safe from these newly revealed hazards, but once I slipped the lines and began backing out, the wind would surely arrange a meeting between these screws and Kirsten's hull.

Fortunately, the wood was punky below the high-water mark and a pair of pliers easily removed the screws.

Now all that remained was to free the spring lines and back out of the slip without banging into the piling or scraping past the bowsprit of the boat in the next slip over. The 15-knot breeze made this seemingly simple task a very delicate operation.

An extra pair of hands helped immeasurably. John, a friendly liveaboard on a large motor yacht at the end of the slip, stood on the floating dock, gripped the forestay, and gave a hearty push that carried Kirsten safely past the piling and neighboring boat.

The push was a reminder of a hard-earned lesson that a little boost, not a lot of power, can finesse a sailboat out of just about any situation. This and other lessons in the sidebar may take firsthand experience to fully grasp, but some advance warning may help avoid serious harm.

Unlike powerboats, most sailboats cannot be muscled into tight spaces with the engine. Kirsten's hull bears the scars of the experiences that taught me this lesson. With a sailboat, easy does it. This means working with the wind and current, using momentum more than revolutions per minute, and good line handling.

Before I learned these lessons, entering my slip was like a panic fire drill. Trying to overcome the wind or current with engine power, I would invariably bang into the neighboring boat or the piling at the end of the finger pier and embed the wire bobstay into the wood of the dock. Today, I rev the engine in reverse to slow down my approach, put it in neutral, coast in, hop onto the dock with the bow and stern lines in hand, ease her into place, and tie up without fuss.

Leaving the slip was even worse. Crosswinds would have me slamming into forward and then reverse to escape the pilings and raised powerboat propellers on all sides, poking at boats and pilings with the boat pole, frantically looking around to see the next collision course. Today, I take stock of the wind and current, keep a grip on the bow line, push off from the dock, leap aboard, give a little juice to the engine in reverse, put it in neutral, back out until I'm clear of the slip and other boats, and then put the gear in forward and head down the channel. Sounds complicated, but it's so easy it still amazes me that I escape with so little trouble.

I used to think maneuvering Kirsten in reverse was simply not meant to happen. Then one day Vinny, the marina manager, took the helm to get Kirsten back to her slip after some work. My jaw dropped as he effortlessly drove her backward with inches to spare on either side, where great big bolts stuck out from pilings. Getting some way on in reverse and then putting the gear in neutral, he explained, makes it simple to steer while going backward because it eliminates the prop turbulence.

"Knowing how your boat will respond to wind and current takes some time, but it can be roughly calculated by thinking of how the boat's above-water and below-water profiles react to these two forces."

Wind and current can be neutralized by working with them, instead of against them. Knowing how your boat will respond to wind and current takes some time, but it can be roughly calculated by thinking of how the boat's above-water and below-water profiles react to these two forces. In Kirsten's case, the high bow and the mast set well forward mean that the wind will push the bow more than the stern. Her shallow forefoot and deep stern mean that the current will push her stern more than the bow.

A boat does not turn like a car, with the rear following the front wheels as they turn. A boat swings its stern out in one direction as much as the bow turns in the other direction. Bear this in mind and you can visualize how the boat will handle a maneuver before you carry it out.

Visualizing and then thinking the process through helps you execute docking and leaving a dock without banging or scraping into other boats. A little forethought helps avoid the general pandemonium that both amuses and panics fellow boat owners in the marina.

Mastering the art of docking at your own marina takes time, and you shouldn't expect to handle dockings at unfamiliar marinas effortlessly until you have plenty of experience to guide you. After all, if you're accustomed to tying up to cleats on a floating dock, how well can you expect to do when you're a transient at a marina and have to lasso four pilings with clove hitches and double half-hitches—and take the tidal range into account?

A variety of docking scenarios exists. Knowing how to tie up to something like this requires a through knowledge of knots and  line handling.
Accounting for tidal range can be done mathematically with great precision. But most of us are not going to brush up on Euclidean geometry in order to calculate the amount of slack to leave in a line to prevent the boat from bumping into pilings at high tide or pulling a cleat out of the deck at low tide.

When you have to tie up to pilings, start with the windward lines first to prevent the boat from banging into the leeward pilings. Now, with the boat secured for the moment, add enough slack to the lines to account for the tidal range. That done, you now know how much line to use when tying up to the leeward pilings. The windward lines will be taut, the leeward lines will be slack. If the leeward lines are taut, then you have not used enough line, and there's a good chance your boat will be heeled over at low tide.

One of the great joys of sailing is learning to work with the elements, instead of beating them into submission with overwhelming force. This applies to docking as well as sailing on the open water, and perhaps more so, because at the dock, your every move is on display to the public.

Docking Safely and Easily

  • Easy does it—work with the tidal currents and wind, visualizing what you will do before you do it, and use the throttle for starting or stopping momentum, not for brutal force.
  • Tie up to windward or up-current pilings first.
  • Prepare crew for your maneuvers by telling them in advance how you plan to enter or leave dock and what they will need to do.
  • Get lines, bumpers, and boat pole out of lockers and ready before they are needed.
  • If fending off is necessary, use the boat pole, not hands or feet.
  • When coming into an unfamiliar marina, radio ahead to ask for wind, current, tidal range information, and directions to your slip.
  • If tying up to a fixed dock with unprotected pilings, protect your hull with a wooden plank, with holes in each end for lines and long enough to lay across fore and aft fenders, or with a bumper strip fitted to the plank on the side facing the hull.
  • Warn crew to keep hands and feet on board until the boat is docked.
  • Keep extra docking lines, fenders, and chafing gear on board .

Just like a suburbanite who might need a big city passerby to help in parallel parking, don't be afraid to ask the marina or a dockside resident for a hand; just remember that boats don't turn like cars!


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