The Particulars of Rafting Up - SailNet Community

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Old 06-09-2003
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The Particulars of Rafting Up


When dock space is in short supply, knowing how to raft up properly can come in handy.
You're making your way down the Intracoastal Waterway as the sun is getting lower and all the markers are starting to look the same. The last two anchorages you were hoping to berth in were full, leaving you and your crew mulling over the delicate question of just where you'll park the boat for the night. If you're like most cruisers, you'd rather not part with hard-earned bucks to secure a slip in a marina, but planting your keel in the mud in the dark doesn't sound so hot either. Puttering slowly by a funky, one-dock marina, you spy someone working on a boat.

"Any slips open here?" you call out hopefully.

"No, but just pull up alongside if you want," the man on the dock calls back. Right away he's solved your immediate dilemma, but left you with another one—how to raft up without damaging your or your host's vessel?

For cruising sailors, perhaps no other close-quarter situation requires more boat handling, fendering, docking, and knot-tying expertise, along with tactful, creative thinking than rafting up. Raft ups are governed by the law of physics that says two things can't occupy the same space at the same time, and the law of the insurance adjuster, which states that the closer two vessels come together the greater the potential for damage to each. But inevitably, there are some situations that require rafting up—squeezing into a full marina, for example, or gathering with friends' boats, or transiting locks. So don't be intimidated; rafting up is indeed possible. Here are a couple of things you should keep in mind to help ensure that no one's gelcoat will bear unsightly mementos after you've slipped the lines and parted ways.


Rafting up is best done with vessels that are similar in size. The boat on the left above is sitting slightly ahead of the one on the right so that their rigs won't tangle should the weather deteriorate or an errant wake run through the anchorage.
Picking Your Spot   
Rafting up is best done in sheltered waters, in the lee of the prevailing wind, and out of the way of harmful boat wakes. Think millpond. The best approach, if possible, is to raft up to a boat that is already securely anchored. If you're the raftor (the boat joining a stationary vessel), come to a stop along side the boat—roughly bow to bow—and heave both bow and stern lines so that you can draw the boats together in the most controlled fashion. (You can run spring lines immediately after the others are secured.) This will allow all parties involved to fine-tune and tweak the boat placement as the boats come together, adjusting lines and fenders as necessary. This approach will also minimize the chance that an over eager crew will put his or her finger or toe in between the two boats at the wrong time. Remember, boats are heavy, and bringing them together slowly is always the best approach.

Of course one of the keys to a successful raft up is to recognize the differences between the two boats involved, paying careful attention to what is happening overhead. Be sure to stagger both boats so that the rigs (mast, spreaders, etc.) can't make contact should the boats start rocking from wakes or waves. And if there's to be a third or fourth boat joining the raft up, make sure that the rigs of those vessels are staggered as well. (Ideally the largest boat in a multi-boat raft up will occupy the center position, with its anchor firmly set.)

Fenders and Lines    In any raft up, fenders are likely to get a good workout, and usually, the more protection each party can put over the side, the better. Of course placement is critical. With the boats staggered, you want to make sure that the majority of your fenders are used along the larger boat's central section. You'll also want to deploy one or two safety fenders fore and aft of where the others are concentrated just in case a large boat decides to cruise through your anchorage at full speed. Veteran cruisers know that these incidents happen, but little can be done after you first sight a small tsunami making its way toward your raft up, so plan in advance for exactly such an event.


When rafting up alongside larger vessels, it's best to use oversized fenders.

Lines likewise need to be run fairly and should be attached to stout end points. Cleats and winches are acceptable, while most stanchions are better left out of the equation. Because these lines will be under strong loads, you should use only knots that have proven themselves through maritime history, and leave the creative macramé for tying down luggage to the roof rack of your car. To make life easier for stepping from cockpit to cockpit, make sure the spring line from the stern of your boat is led forward of the beam on the boat you're rafting up to. Once you tighten this, is will bring the cockpits closer together and leave both bows pointed out just slightly.

Anchoring Etiquette    Generally speaking, it's better to have the smaller boat raft up to a larger one that is already anchored. A smaller boat is likely to be more maneuverable than a larger boat and easier to pull alongside and the larger boat will most often have the larger ground tackle. The larger boat should set its ground tackle with more scope than it would if it were simply anchoring alone.

"The larger boat should set its ground tackle with more scope than it would if it were simply anchoring alone. "

There are an infinite variety of situations that may call for bow and stern anchors, or even a kedge. The mothership in the raft up may have an anchor out to an iceberg or one that's wrapped around a palm tree. Nonetheless, the crew of each vessel in the raft up should be ready to cast off quickly should there be a change in the weather or other alteration to the conditions in the anchorage. Every anchorage is subject to a number of variables, so it's best to keep an eye not only on weather conditions, but the strength and state of the current, the tide, and the activities of other boats in the vicinity, and act accordingly. If you're rafted up in a marina on an outside dock, for instance, and the current is pinning you to your host, you may want to consider setting an anchor amidships, if there's room, to keep you from squishing the fenders into oblivion.

Now, if your boat is the mothership and everyone else is rafting up to you, this is no time for a lowly lunch hook. Set you biggest anchor, and set it well. If the raft up that you're involved in is approaching Guinness Book of World Record proportions, the boats on the end should each run out an anchor at a 45-degree angle and all the keels should be kept parallel. In large volume raft ups, try to keep a coherent and consistent system among all the boats, with all the lines run in the same way. If all the participants tie up in the same way, it allows a quick escape should the need arise.


The social benefits of a raft up are obvious, but sailors should keep in mind that a certain degree of privacy is sacrificed in the process.

Weather Watch
Apart from raft ups made necessary by transiting locks and over-crowded marinas, most raft ups are more the product of celebration than utility. But just because you and your crew haven't seen s/v So and So since the Battle of Trafalgar, that doesn't give you an excuse to tune out the weather. Indeed, there are probably few better times to pay extra attention to the weather than when tied alongside another boat, especially if you're going to be rafted up for more than a couple of hours. Make a mental note somewhere in your cranium that the shorter the duration of the raft up, the less likely you'll be awoken by several thousand pounds of lead, fiberglass, and aluminum clashing.

Common Courtesies    Space aboard most any boat is always an issue, particularly personal space. So even if you've been best friends with the boat owner since third grade (and doubly so if it's someone you just met), make sure you respect the privacy of the boat you're rafted up to. Most owners would rather you tip toe through their boat's cockpit than stomp over the v-berth on the way home from the local watering hole. If the boat is a center cockpit design, it may be better to walk around the stern to get to your vessel. You'll have to use your own sense of judgment in these situations, but it sue wouldn't hurt to ask the owner of the boat you're rafted up to beforehand what he or she prefers.

In the best of all possible worlds, a raft up is usually a temporary event, done in good weather and benign conditions. Done well it can offer you the chance to check out boat differences and similarities up close and personal, or allow you to get reacquainted with old friends or make new ones. Done poorly it can leave you and your boat smarting from dings in the topsides, or worse yet rigging damage. But by keeping in mind a few simple steps, coupled with some common sense, you can ensure that rafting up is a positive experience, allowing you and other sailors to broaden your cruising horizons.

The Right Tools

Even if you only raft up with other vessels once in a while, it pays to have properly sized and shaped fenders, and the right kind of docklines for the task.

For rafting up with larger vessels, you might want to consider having a set of at least two slightly larger spherical fenders, Cylindrical fenders are certainly fine, and if you opt for this route, make sure you get the ones that are 12 inches in diameter.

For rafting your dinghy alongside, you'll of course want smaller fenders. Six-inch diameter cylindrical fenders are ideal for this application.

Regarding docklines, it always pays to have sturdy yet supple lines. For most applications, half-inch to three-quarter-inch Nylon doublebraided line with a built-in eye splice should do the job. However, if any of the boats in the raft up are particularly heavy, or there are more than three boats in the raft up, larger line is a good precaution.

For a look at specific lines and fenders, follow this link to SailNet's Store.




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