One can either dock bow first or stern first. Bow first is generally the easiest in properly placing the boat into the slip. It works well with the springline concept (see the earlier post on springline). But, if you fumble that springline and don't get it on, you have limited chance to abort the landing...stand on the engine in reverse and hope it will work, but then sailboats generally have limited stopping power in reverse. So you may be bouncing off the dock or neighbor's boat.
Backing into the slip is more difficult, but not that much more if you do it properly. It's advantage is that you are at the helm at the stern of the boat. The outer pilings come to where you are when you are backing. You can reach out and place your lines on the piling as you enter. If you fumble, you can easily abort the docking, go back out, and try again. If it comes to an abort case, you will want the best maneuvering, control, and power situation. This is what you have going forward.
A word of caution, however, if you are docking in high wind, especially gusty and crosswinds, bow first will, in my opinion, be the preferred method since your major issue in such conditions will be successfully getting the boat into the slip in the first place. Also, high, gusty winds can require backing at higher speeds and can sometimes grab the boat and spin it around out of control. You have to make your decision as to whether you can safely control the boat in reverse before you enter the fairway. Once in the fairway is a poor place to learn that you can't control the boat in reverse, because you have little or no room to recover control over the boat. Sometimes it's a bit difficult to know for sure that one will have control in reverse. But the solution is easy. Run a test outside the fairway. Start backing well outside the fairway and see how much control you have. If you have control, simply continue backing down the fairway and drive the boat in reverse (just like when going forward) between the outer pilings into the slip. If you are having to back relatively fast down the fairway, generally your rudder will be amidships or nearly so, so just before you start your turn into the slip, put the engine in forward and give it a little power to check and reduce your speed. Go back to neutral, start the turn. Use the boat's tendency to propwalk to one side as a fine tuning adjustment to your rudder control in reverse by momentarily putting engine in gear or taking it out of gear. If you misjudge and brush the piling, you have lots of power in forward to stop the boat, or if necessary, to abort the landing if it's that bad.
Unless the conditions are bad, and generally, I prefer backing in as mentioned above. With partial finger piers, it also facilitates boarding.
If you have a fin keel boat with a reasonably large rudder (typical of sailboats), your boat will probably back just fine. You just have to experiment to see how to do it. Most people drive down the fairway in forward, stop the boat at their slip (stopping just achieved a no control state, since control exists only with significant water flow past the rudder). Then, they put the rudder over, shift to reverse. The boat starts to prop walk to one side and the wind or current pushes them out of alignment with the slip. Thus, they conclude that their boat won't back. To really know if your boat will back, take it out into open water. Put it into reverse and see what happens. Frequently, the gearing in the transmission is such that you really have to stand on engine rpm to get the same rotation at the prop, and since the prop is tailored to for forward, it is less efficient in reverse. Your boat will go to the side initially, maybe a lot, but eventually it will also begin to move somewhat backwards, then more and more as water flow past the rudder increases. Eventually, the water forces on the rudder will overcome the tendency for the stern to walk to the side. While these issues are being resolved, keep the rudder admidships so it does not act as a brake in the beginning. Once the boat is moving in reverse, you can use the rudder.
One additional note. On wheel equipped boats, you have a wheel brake. Use this to prevent the rudder from slamming into the stops when backing into your slip. Just when you start your turn into the slip, tighten down on the brake sufficiently that it will hold the rudder in postion so you can take your hands off the wheel to deal with lines, but not so tight that you can't override the brake to make rudder adjustments in entering the slip. Don't tighten the brake until you reach the slip becauses it desensitizes the rudder feel, which you need to help you compensate for wind gusts or direction change. On tiller boats, a tiller tamer probably will do the same function as the wheel brake.
Last edited by NCC320; 06-07-2011 at 11:37 AM.