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Old 06-24-2003
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Michelle Potter is on a distinguished road
Docking with Grace and Skill


When preparing to dock, communicate clearly with your crew and have them ready with docklines and fenders in the right locations.
If you're like most boat owners, you have probably suffered the embarrassment associated with a docking job gone wrong. And if so, you've probably learned that when done well, docking can be a quiet display of proper seamanship, teamwork, and talent. You also know that when done poorly, however, docking can become a contact sport. As long as the only boat that you damage is your own, either is acceptable, but a well-executed docking maneuver is much prefered by skippers, crews, and insurance claims adjusters alike.

Though it may sound surprising, docking is one of the more demanding maneuvers you can make aboard a sailboat. Therefore, if you're serious about perfecting your skills in this realm, you should invest in a sturdy boat hook, four long, spliced nylon bow and stern lines, and two long spring lines. Notice that long is the operative word here. I recommend nothing less than 20 feet for each dock line and at least 25 for spring lines. Of course the length of the docklines should be commensurate with the length of the boat you have. If you take care that no lines go overboard and risk fouling the propeller, longer lines really are better. Longer lines can make lassoing a piling easier, and they can be thrown farther, too. And once you've got a stern line wrapped around a piling and a bow line secured to shore, you're just about as good as docked. All you have to do is secure the vessel and then you can treat yourself and your crew to a well-earned libation.

If you're anticipating a stop in an unfamiliar harbor or marina, the countdown for a proper docking should go something like this: Thirty minutes before the marina is in sight, give the dock master a shout on the VHF. Check where your slip is and remember to ask whether your fenders should be tied on the port or starboard side.


Explicit instructions can be given to the crew from the helm, and it also helps to have VHF radio handy, like the one above, to talk with the dockmaster.
If you're working with a novice crew or a crew that hasn't sailed for a while, give them a 20-minute head start, so they have plenty of time to tie, re-tie, and double-check each other's long-forgotten knots. If you don't want the knotty issue of how to properly tie lines and fenders to rear its ugly head, invest in spliced dock lines and fender helpers as a gift to your crew, or splice them yourself. If you are working with a crew of old salts, however, regular lines should suffice. By the time you're down to 10 minutes to go before arriving at the dock, the crew should be standing by with lines in hand and fenders ready to deploy.

By powering slowly around almost any marina you'll get a good idea of the two basic arrangements available for docking. In most places, you'll either be able to park in a slip, or parallel park alongside the dock. Each can be tricky, so don't be deceived by appearances. And you'll want to be aware of any current activity that will affect your approach and any significant wind as well.

If you're wondering about the difference between backing or driving forward into a slip, here's the honest truth: Barring strong currents that mandate a tutorial on docking in reverse, backing into a slip is for sociable people. Backing is, of course, more difficult because not all boats track straight in reverse gear. But those sailors who back into slips usually don't mind the added challenge because they can easily host a dockside party in their cockpit once they have finished tying up the boat for the night.

"There are some things you should know about those people standing by on shore to assist you they may or may not know what they're doing."
Even if you've been out of radio contact with the dock master, you can usually tell where the marina crew wants you to dock because there is likely to be a group of people gathered near your intended slip or space. (If you're uncertain, just hail the dock master once again on the VHF and get a confirmation.) There are some things you should know about these people on shore: they may or may not know what they're doing. While having an extra hand on the dock can often take the edge off docking, having an overzealous would-be helper that jerks your bow into the dock and ruins your perfect approach is also a possibility. Let the docker beware.

As you eye the target from a distance, you should intuitively slow the boat down. If there's one guarantee about docking, it's the fact that, even if you have spent the last six hours cursing a day of becalming winds, the breeze will always pick up as soon as you are within range of the dock. For this reason, you should drive up to the dock as slowly as possible while still maintaining steerage. If you feel that you're coming in too quickly, throw your engine into reverse to slow your boat down. Don't worry if people shout, "Is your engine even on?" (Honestly, this has happened to us.) You can never dock too slowly and you can never hit the dock too gently.

As an added bonus, if you dock slowly enough, most of the dockside hangers on will tire of the action and retreat back to the bar, leaving you go to about your business in peace. Usually, though, a few bored souls will stick around with the earnest hope of hearing either a curse or the sound of something popping off the boat as you squeak by a piling. If you do break something while docking, you can count yourself lucky if some old salt shows sympathy and offers to buy you a cold one afterward while you ponder your ill luck. However, if you have your dock lines ready, a well-communicated plan, and you come in slowly enough, your boat should settle into its space without too much drama. If so, this will allow your crew to step off and secure the lines while you direct them regaring the respective tension of the lines and the position of the boat. The dockside experts will then drift off and leave you to savor your fine seamanship in peace.


When it comes to docking, overkill isn't a problem. Using bow and stern lines, and fore and aft spring lines, not to mention five fenders, the skipper of the boat has ensured that it's securely docked.

Now, if you arrive at a dock and find that you are clearly in over your head because of the logistics or the wind or current conditions at the time, slow down and give yourself a minute to assess the situation. Remember, you never want to come blasting into the dock under full power and you should never shout at your crew to take a flying leap at the dock. If you find yourself in this situation, just use your secret weapon—the dock master.

Dock masters can be wonderful people. They usually have a vast depth of local knowledge, and, if you ask politely, they will offer you a few hard-earned pearls of wisdom. A good dock master can talk you into almost any slip on a windy day. An excellent dock master will slip your bow line around a cleat at the dock and instruct you on how to work a two-knot current to your advantage. By preparing early, designating specific responsibilities to your crew, and availing yourself of the qualified help that's available ashore, you can keep the white-knuckle factor to a minimum, and dock your boat with confidence and grace on a regular basis. OK, now where is that post docking cocktail you mentioned?

Taking a Bight

When facing a dicey docking situation, rely on the following guidelines:

  • The best way to dock is to lie with boat's bow into the wind, and it's best to dock on the leeward side of the structure if at all possible.

  • Make sure your instructions and your intentions are clear and concise. ("Go" sounds just like "no," so use distinctive commands.)

  • Never allow a crew member to use a body part as a fender, and make sure that all fenders are tied at the right height for the dock that you're approaching.

  • If you or your crew casts a dockline ashore, make sure the person on shore knows to immediately take a bight with that line around something secure like a cleat or a piling and then stand by for instructions.




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