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The Mechanics of Mooring

Most veteran sailors have witnessed a number of botched mooring attempts. If you're the one whose talents are on display, don't worry, getting this occasionally delicate maneuver wrong is almost always a character-building experience.
You're motoring your vessel through a small minefield of boats and mooring balls looking for a spot for the night. You're trying to ignore the audience that's having sundowners in the cockpits of neighboring boats when the mate on the bow begins gesticulating wildly with the boat hook, pointing it off to port. You spy the mooring ball. The audience perks up, waiting to see whether your next act will be nailing the maneuver flawlessly or providing their evening's entertainment with botched pick-up. What happens next is a function of how well you know your boat, your level of experience and skill, and, or course, a little luck.

Picking up a mooring can become an extreme test of your boat-handling skills, your patience, and your composure. It's really no different from docking your boat in a slip, or executing a man overboard drill. The idea is to get your boat to stop at a specified point on the water, safe and secure.

Moorings typically use a line or chain to connect a heavy anchor or object at the bottom to a floating mooring ball. What you ordinarily find extending off most mooring balls is a pennant, often times marked by a small float. This pennant is what you're intended to use to secure your boat to the mooring. Mooring your boat is ordinarily a convenient arrangement, and one that conserves space in an anchorage because more boats can fit into a smaller space with pre-set moorings than if they were anchored. Mooring anchors run the spectrum from several-hundred pound mushroom anchors to several helix screws driven into rock, to a slab of concrete with a hole or fitting cast in it, to a length of chain run through a sunken engine block.

In waters like these, visiting skippers and crew at least have the option of diving on an unfamiliar mooring to inspect its structural integrity.

Of course for visiting boats, using a mooring means putting no small amount of trust in unfamiliar ground tackle. Shackles, swivels, chain, pennants, and even the mooring anchor itself can dissolve in the marine environment over time because ultimately concrete corrodes, chain rusts, and lines chafe. If you pick up a mooring and notice dubious marks of wear and tear, you may well want to consider trying another one, or laying your own anchor and ground tackle in an alternate location—either one is better than having your boat end up on the rocks. But you won't really know what's holding your boat unless you dive down and check out an unfamiliar mooring, and that's not always possible in cold, murky, or deep waters.

On a recent trip through the Bahamas we had a chance to dive on a typical mooring arrangement for that area. The six-by-six-foot concrete block was gift-wrapped with a heavy hawser to which was connected a nylon rode that led to a mooring ball and floating polypropylene line. Next to the concrete block we found a six-by-six-foot indentation in the sand where the block had been before. It had obviously moved in a storm. The experience simply reiterated the lesson that moorings are not always the right solution for transient vessels when it comes to security.

With that little caveat out of the way, I do consider moorings to be convenient, especially after a long day of sailing and with a tired crew that's less than excited about putting out the anchor for the night. Moorings are also useful if you're only stopping for a few hours. We've found that these are used throughout the Caribbean—some are free and others aren't—especially in heavily trafficked areas where bareboat charter vessels operate. They're not only convenient, but using them makes good sense considering the protection that affords the sensitive coral environments that can be damaged by careless anchoring. Here are some basic pointers that can help next time you're faced with the task.

Approaching from the leeward end of the mooring field is almost always the safest way of choosing your mooring because it affords the best view of moorings and any potential traffic.

Making Your Approach    
It's important to approach a mooring field at slow speeds for a number of reasons. This is your chance to really tune into the local conditions and notice how the moored boats are pointed, or if the mooring you have in mind is too close to a channel or a shoreside obstruction. As you survey the available moorings, ask yourself is there is apt to be any current at play here. And are there any gusts coming off the land that could blow you off course at the final crucial step of taking the pennant aboard? Are the boats on the moorings relatively calm or are they ‘sailing' around on their moorings? Are there any boats anchored on the periphery of the mooring field? If so, are they on rode or chain, and could their swinging circle put them within the mooring field? These are just some of the factors to look out for when approaching a mooring field.

Line up your boat's course parallel to the boats already on moorings with your bow pointing at their transoms. Just as you want to avoid downwind or down-current dockings, this orientation will ensure that you pick up the mooring with your bow into the prevailing wind. This approach also provides the helmsman maximum visibility and helps prevent any ‘surprises' like unseen vessels or zooming dinghies from popping into view at the wrong moment. Most importantly, though, this approach ensures that you won't be running over any part of other moorings. It's critical to avoid the several feet of line that characteristically sit on the surface near a mooring. This line can present big problems should it get wrapped around the rudder, keel, or propeller.

Picking Your Target    Pick out your mooring and head slowly toward it from the lee side. But don't go so slowly that your boat loses its way and maneuverability. When you get close, usually a couple of boat lengths away, shift the engine into neutral and let the boat glide toward the mooring. Ideally, if you've judged the conditions right and know how long it takes for your boat to come to a stop, the boat will come to a stop right at the pennant or float. If it seems like you're approaching the mooring too slowly and are likely to end up short of it, you can use the engine to give you a slight boost forward. Conversely, should the speed demon in you have taken the controls, try a bit of reverse to slow the boat down, although you'll want to be aware of prop walk that could pull the stern of the boat one way, and move the bow the opposite. If that happens, it might potentially leave the pennant out of reach of the person on the bow.

Efficient communication between the person on the bow and the person on the helm is one of the vital components of a successful mooring maneuver.

Communication between the person on the bow and the person at the helm is crucial. We like to use hand signals for left, right, forward, reverse, and stop rather than intrude on the solitude of boaters moored nearby with frequent yells from bow to cockpit. We find that having the person on the bow use a boat hook to point at the pennant works well. The person the helm can easily follow his or her directions. When the bow of the boat gets close, the helmsman will no longer be able to see the mooring. The person on the bow will be the one making the play at this point and should be able to point the boat hook down into the water and retrieve the floating line, or be able to reach out and grab the float that the line is connected to and haul it aboard. Of course, if at any point it looks like your approach isn't going to work, it's best to abandon the effort, keep the boat moving, and swing around for another try.

Make Fast the Line    When the person on the bow picks the pennant up, he or she should make it fast and let the person on the helm know to put the engine in neutral if isn't already. The person on the bow should put the pennant on a cleat as quickly as possible to avoid any tug-of-war between the boat and the mooring. If the boat still has momentum, it can ride over the mooring buoy with the pennant attached which isn't the end of the world, but this action can leave the boat's topsides with a bit of a souvenir mark or scrape off bottom paint. Finally, when the pennant is aboard and the boat has stopped moving, don't just lay the spliced loop over a cleat. Instead, use another line and cleat it over the top of the loop. This will ensure that your boat will be where you left it and that you won't wake up in the middle of the night adrift elsewhere in the mooring field. Now, look, wave to your neighbors, and head back to the cockpit to watch the sunset.

As with most other sailing maneuvers, the key to picking up a mooring correctly is practice. The more time spent getting to know your own vessel and its handling characteristics, the more likely picking up a mooring will become second nature for everyone on board.

Suggested Reading:

Anchoring in Small Spaces by Tom Wood

Using Moorings by Dan Dickison

Sailing Etiquette by Mark Matthews

SailNet Store Section: Anchoring and Mooring Accessories



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