The Art and Science of Fendering - SailNet Community
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The Art and Science of Fendering

How many fenders do you need to prepare for an oncoming hurricane? Well, for Sue and myself, the answer was 16. Actually the answer was, "As many as we could get."

Last summer when Serengeti was tied up at Titusville Municipal Marina, we had the pleasure of preparing for not one, not even two, but three hurricanes. All of which were tracking our way and could have scored a direct hit. We crocheted Serengeti away from the dock with 23 lines and deployed our six fenders. Wanting more protection, we then borrowed another six fenders from a friend who had decided to anchor out and wouldn't need his.

Once we had these 12 fenders tied snugly aside Serengeti, people started walking by on the dock and asked jokingly, "Do you need any more fenders?" When we jokingly responded, "Sure," we were surprised to find that our dockmates had spare fenders that they were willing to lend, even with an approaching hurricane, so we got four more.

If our fellow dockmates couldn't use all the fenders they had even for this impending storm, why were they saving them? We gladly took the loan of the extra fenders, but it certainly made us stop and think, 'Maybe people don't value just how much protection a fender can provide in certain circumstances.' If a fender is properly sized, and correctly deployed, damage to your boat or to neighboring craft can be greatly minimized. Basically, fenders can work miracles in protecting your boat and help in eliminating costly hull damage.

So, let's look at the many factors you need to consider to get the most out of your fenders.

Sizing Your Fenders   Many sailors choose fenders for their boat based upon what size will neatly fit into their deck lockers and still leave lots of room for rafts, scuba gear and a charcoal grill. These often anorexic-like fenders may serve their purpose at a protected marina with light winds and no swell conditions, but they won't cut it in the real world. Once you start traveling and find yourself on the end of a T-dock with lots of wake-throwing traffic going by, or rafted up with other boats during a thunderstorm, you'll be sorry you opted for the pee-wee sized protection.

We look at our fenders as the cheapest means we have for protecting our boat. In choosing the right size for your boat, check the manufacturer's guidelines below. If you want to sleep really well at night, opt for the next size up. We did.

Boat Size

20'- 30'

25'- 40'

40' - 60'

50' - 70'

Recommended Fender Size

6" x 15"

8" x 20"

10" x 26"

12" x 34"

Fender. sizing guidelines prepared from information supplied by Polyform U.S.
This table is appropriate for fenders that have a continuous hole through the middle of the fender.

(Polyform HTM, or Taylormade Big B)

Deploying Your Fenders   There are several things to consider when tying your fenders over the side of the boat. First, you'll need to know what height to hang them. If the dock is a floating one, then the fenders should be tied so that the bottom of the fender is just and inch or so above the water. In the case where the dock is a permanent one, the height will have to be adjusted accordingly, and if you have tides to consider, that is yet another factor to remember when setting the height to best protect your hull.

A clove hitch with slip knot release.

When approaching a dock, you want to have the fenders deployed well before your landing. To enable quick, last-minute adjustments, the knot used to tie these fenders onto the boat should be one that can be quickly released and retied in another location. We like to use a clove hitch with a slip-knot release. If you just can't get the knots right, there are many different "fender hangers" available on the market that allow you to adjust the height.

Although most of us attach our fenders to the top lifeline, certainly the easiest spot to reach, it is not the recommended method for several reasons. If you are expecting considerable boat movement at your slip, the long lead of the fender line can actually allow the fender to slip sideways and free itself of the area between your boat and the dock. It also puts unnecessary strain on your stanchions and lifelines. The best spot to tie your fenders is one that will discourage a "wandering fender" and provide a stable attachment point. A stanchion base works well, as does an outboard genoa track or standing rigging. At this point, a better knot to use is a round turn with two half hitches.

Fenderboards   In certain docking situations, a simple fender is not enough. This is when a fenderboard may be the answer. A fenderboard is a heavy board ( a 2" x 6" is common) usually four to six feet long. The board is suspended horizontally along the hull and is backed by two or more hanging fenders, or sometimes fitted with specially molded fenders that are permanently attached to the board. A fenderboard in use provides protection against a protruding object, such as a piling and allows the boat to move fore and aft freely while still protecting the hull from contact with the piling. Sometimes people try to hang their long fender horizontally, tying the line up to the boat coming out of both ends as a substitute for a fenderboard, but this is not nearly as effective.

Fenderboards are definitely the ticket when transiting locks or tying up in commercial areas where there's lots of grease and grunge from workboats. They take the dirt far better than your new white plastic fenders, or the pretty fuzzy covers you've put on.

Preparing to Dock   When approaching a dock, we always make sure that four fenders are ready. Three fenders are tied on in advance in the appropriate locations. One tied at maximum beam, and the forward fender tied far enough ahead so that the forward half of the hull does not make contact with the dock. Likewise with the aft fender. This leaves all hands free to tend to dock lines. A fourth fender we designate as our "roving fender". This is left unattached, but is easily accessible in the event a dock or piling may decide to jump out in front of us and ruin our perfect docking job.

If you've miscalculated the approach to the dock, it's a natural and very common tendency to try fending off to protect the boat by using your hands or your feet. This is a definite no-no, and the very reason we keep that roving fender handy. A finger can easily be severed or a bone broken when caught between a boat's hull and the dock. We personally know two sailors with fingers lost from fending off. So don't do it!

Fender Cleaning   Once your fenders have seen some active duty (or if you ever tie along an oozing creosote dock like we found once in the Cape Canaveral Barge Canal), you'll need to do some serious cleaning to restore them to their former glory. To remove light grime and dirt, wash the fender with a solution of soap and water. Add a small amount of abrasive cleanser to your brush or rag to help with the difficult spots, but don't overdo it. To remove more stubborn stains and deposits, try using mineral spirits or a commercially available vinyl cleaner. Avoid using acetone or lacquer thinners which contain ketone. These chemicals will simply dissolve the vinyl and leave a gooey residue; that is, if you're lucky enough not to have eaten a hole through your fender in the process.

Fender Covers   Boaters often go to great lengths to make their boat look sharp at the dock, where competition is the greatest. Color coordinated covers certainly help in this regard. On the practical side, fender covers can hide years of grunge that you're simply unable to remove by cleaning, plus they protect the material from ultraviolet radiation, which should lengthen the fender's life in everyday use. Some sailors claim also that soft, polar-fleece-like covers present a gentler surface against their hull. As the boat works back and forth on the fender at the dock, the soft material doesn't rub and abrade like an uncovered and sometimes grimy fender. These proponents apply covers even when the fender is new and just being placed into service. Regardless of whether you want to protect your beautiful hull or hide years of dirt and grunge, buying or making fender covers is a cheap and easy solution. Additionally, your boat will look great!

Identify Your Fenders   As fenders have been known to go "walkabout" for any number of reasons, it's important to have yours clearly marked with your boat name. It's the only way you'll get one back if it breaks loose, plus it deters those with sticky fingers. One poor man we met told us a story that's going to keep us watching our fenders in the future. He was in a secluded anchorage one evening, and when a smaller boat with a young couple on board motored in, he called them over to raft along side and join him for dinner. After a fun evening and well after darkness had set in, the young couple climbed back onto their boat, untied, and went off to anchor for the night.

Early the next morning, the man came up top, steaming cup of coffee in hand, to find the other boat had left already. Upon further inspection, and to his incredible dismay, he realized they had taken all of his large, expensive fenders, and left their own tiny ones in their place.

Storing Fenders    If your boat is like most sailboats, and especially if you're out cruising, cockpit lockers and deck storage areas are going to house enough other items that your fenders will no longer fit. It's not uncommon to see the stern rails of boats lined with fenders, nor is it uncommon to see them all stowed neatly away in the dinghy. On our last boat, Safari, we kept them tied securely around the mast pulpit, lying flat so that we could see over them from the cockpit. On Serengeti, we use a combination of the dinghy, which holds two or three of our very large fenders, and stow the remaining fenders in the cockpit locker. We have, on occasion, kept fenders in the guest cabin, but prefer to keep them out of the boat whenever possible. Fenders stored on deck or in dinghies should, of course, be tied securely to the boat. There are also commercially made stainless steel fender holders, that attach to the railing, providing a neat and effective option for storage.

Regardless of where you choose to store yours, make sure you do it shortly after leaving the dock, since it's considered very poor etiquette to leave your fenders deployed over the side.

Clever Docking Ideas

Sometimes boaters try to invent ways to avoid using fenders. We were walking down the dock one day and came upon a slip where the guy was obviously tired of misjudging his landings and crashing into the dock. He had devised a contraption with line and an old tire that would safely deliver his craft to the right spot every time. We walked away from that gizmo figuring we could get rich if we made up a bunch of these and marketed them as "The Docker Blocker."

Another time, we discovered a sailor so frustrated at hitting the corner of the dock every time he made his turn, that he finally attached a roller wheel fender. This funny little device protected his hull from the sharp corner, and as a bonus, he was able to use it to help pivot around that turn and move smoothly into his slip. A stationary fender on this corner would have protected his boat, but wouldn't roll with the vessel.

If you own your dock, or know you'll be renting the same slip for a long time (and it's OK with the owners), you can line the dock and dock poles with strips of commercially available plastic or vinyl cushioning material. It's a fairly expensive item, but could save your hull  should something happen and your regular fenders neglect to do their job.

Although we are always looking for ways to save money throughout our boating adventures,  buying the smaller and cheaper fenders will never be an option for us. We believe that when you buy appropriately sized fenders and use good judgement in deploying them, you'll keep the boat and crew happy, unscarred, and safe.

See more information on this product in the SailNet Store.

Sue & Larry is offline  
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