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Docking strategies

Sep 28, 2011
<p>Be careful not to dock your boat like this.</p>

Be careful not to dock your boat like this.

“You’re only as good as your last docking.” Dianne Harris-Glennon skipper; of the schooner Pioneer; New York City; 1980s.

Boat docking is still one of the most difficult aspects of boat handling. Especially on a sailboat when the boat is usually underpowered and the windage of the sails and masts affect the procedure. Many newer sailboats now come equipped with bow thrusters, and older models can be retrofitted, thus eliminating much of the anxiety created by the docking process. Although the use of bow thrusters eliminates many problems they can also engender a false sense of confidence that can have the skipper thinking he is more capable than he really is. This can create a whole other series of embarrassing moments!

Let us assume though that the sailor must rely on seamanship and boat handling skills in order to execute a successful docking. The best of the sailing captains when approaching a dock maintain a wait-and-see attitude. They are oblivious to the gawkers on the dock and survey the situation before committing. My old friend Ken Hamilton, who for many years maneuvered the 131-foot schooner Harvey Gamage in and out of spaces that looked way too small, always maintained that attitude. Gamage is a large schooner; with a jib-boom long enough to sweep a dock clean. Capt. Hamilton never rushed the process. He was very deliberate; phlegmatic is a better term to describe his actions which is why he probably never did any damage to the boats he was in charge of. He would approach a dock and lay off just a bit, keeping enough way on the vessel to have her under control. Perhaps forward idle, almost having the boat stop in place so he could assess the wind and tide conditions. His whole point was to see what the boat wanted to do. Every boat is different and because of the size and underbody configuration they will take to the sea and wind differently. The worst thing one could do is force the boat to do something that it didn’t want to do.

Sometimes a bow line is already on the dock and the boat is just having a hard time coming closer to the dock. Those are the times when it is best to give up the line and make another approach. Another point is to always have an exit strategy at hand. This is why it is sometimes preferable to back into a slip than going in bow first. Backing in presents a different set of problems, but a general good rule of thumb is to remember that most sailing boats will back into the wind. This of course is a complete generalization and how well a vessel backs is dependent upon many factors that are outside the scope of this newsletter.

Another important point that Capt. Hamilton emphasized was the use of the spring lines. The spring lines — named from the quarter of the boat that they are affixed to, either the after spring, or the forward spring — are lines that can be much more helpful than the bow or stern lines. Sailors either have forgotten how to use these lines or never learned in the first place. Using a stern spring line is a very helpful way of bringing the vessel closer to the dock while keeping the stern from drifting off.


Sailors often lament about docking in wind or current, but these forces can be used to great advantage. When going into the wind or the current, the boat is naturally slowed down and the skipper thus has more control. Whenever a big wind is blowing, instead of being intimidated, use it to your advantage. If you can, put the bow into the wind, and see if a spring line (forward spring line) can be put across. The skipper can tell the folks on the dock to move the line aft on the dock so that, if necessary, the vessel can be sprung back and kept in control. So even if the wind is blowing the boat off the dock, the spring line will give control over the situation.

The docking situation at South Street, in New York City, on that tidal estuary known as the East River, was particularly intimidating — more though for the current than the wind. On both the flood and the ebb, the water could rush in the river at up to four or five knots. Add to that the big ship traffic with the resultant wakes and you have the mix of the perfect nightmare. The late Mike Kortchmar and Don Taub were great ship handlers who would perform effortlessly, maneuvering the jib-boomed schooner onto the float without getting into any trouble. They were experts in using the current to control the docking; stemming the tide with whatever was required from engine speed.

There is much information written about docking procedures including a little book by David Owen Bell titled Dockmanship that is quite informative, published by Cornell Maritime Press.

The best method, of course, of learning how to dock is just to do it. Practice.