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Approaching the dock

Oct 2, 2014

Diagram courtesy Pacific Seacraft

For six months of the year I run a boat, spending a great deal of time at the dock. While there, I have the opportunity to see how others — both power-boaters and sailors — dock their boats. Sad to say that of every 10 boaters tying up, perhaps 2 percent have any clue as to what they’re doing. There is no joy in this observation, as I am often called to assist some hapless boater.  

Problems arise because most boaters only practice their docking skills while they are docking. My old friend, Eben Whitcomb, suggested to me years ago when I got a new boat that I should go out early in the morning when the docks were empty of rubberneckers to practice “touch and go,” which meant just pulling away from the dock, heading out a bit and then learning what the boat would do. After much practice I came up with the solution that allows me to dock my 30-foot boat in any condition. This makes me look like a genius, but it is the result of hours of nothing more than practice. 

Sailors understand the wind — power-boaters, less so. And they have no concept that their vessels have windage. When docking, they hardly ever take that into account, thinking they can just power into a dock higgledy-piggledy without taking wind or current into consideration. When learning how to dock the schooner Harvey Gamage, my friend Capt. Ken Hamilton explained his technique, which has been of great value for many years. “Slow down,” he would say. “And lay off the dock in forward idle or neutral. See what the wind and current are doing, then decide what action to take.”
Here are the things that are important:
1. Know whether you have a right-handed or left-handed screw. If right-handed, then going in reverse will bring the port side into the dock. A good thing to know: the boat will always reverse to port. 

2. Forget the bowline. How many times have we seen boaters approach the dock with an offshore breeze and toss over their bowline, and then have their stern pushed out? I am a great believer in the spring line as the most important line in the docking evolution. Run from a forward cleat, it can be tossed on the dock and secured aft. It is thus made fast and the skipper can bring the vessel forward and aft, hardening up on the line the closer he comes to the dock. This one line will secure the boat and will bring the boat into the dock. Then the bow and stern lines can be affixed. Of course, every situation is different and there are times the vessel has to be brought into the dock stern-to.

The fuel dock in St. Maarten has a continuous offshore wind funneling between two high peaks. There is little room for making a mistake, and going bow-in leaves no options. The first time I docked there aboard the Gamage, Capt. Hamilton suggested I go stern-in and lay along portside, too. I was nervous as hell, but he was correct. The vessel backed into the wind and left me a way out should I have to abort the docking.

Another thing to remember is that the current is your friend. When I used to dock the schooner Pioneer, the most experienced captains taught me how to stem the current so that I could stay in place while maintaining control of the vessel. 

So, to recap, come in slowly and be patient. See what the current and wind are doing. Sometimes you may have to bring the bow into the wind, run a spring line aft on the dock and bring the ship around. Know which way your propeller turns so you can use that to your advantage. Use one spring line to secure the vessel. Make that the first line thrown. Forget about all the people watching. Don’t yell at your wife or husband. And if you can do it, leave yourself a way out so you can try again. 

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Oct 2, 2014 05:27 pm
 Posted by  stuurman

Readers of O.N. should know how to dock their boat properly if they read my article on docking that Mr. Queeney was nice enough to publish in the March-April 2002 issue. Quite some time ago, but the basics haven't changed.

Don Dykstra, Houston, TX

Oct 2, 2014 06:02 pm
 Posted by  John

You are spot on about the wind but it's worth noting that any vessel with a cut away forefoot (I have a 1945 design S$S modelled on the NY32) will have the bow blow off more than you'd normally expect. This means the bow line is the second line to be secured after the spring, given a touch of reverse will always pull the stern in when docking to port.

I usually have a hand step on to the dock with the spring with the bow line having been run aft outside of everything back to his position, such that he can take it and go forward to the appropriate dock cleat before the bow starts to blow off.
John Court, The Sovereign Islands, Qld

Oct 2, 2014 07:24 pm
 Posted by  krillroye

Having owned and operated large Alaskan based fishing boats for a career, this is axiomatic to me, but I too rarely see pleasure boaters set the after bow spring first. Continue to hold the boat in forward gear with opposite rudder, then set the forward quarter spring. If one gets them both good and tight (unless around pilings which require ability to go up and down with tide) there is never any surging forward and back, and this absence of dynamic loading prevents damage to line or hardware. Then leisurely set the bow and stern breast lines, ideally running them to the dock and back to the boat which permits letting go from on deck. The next topic for discussion is the ONE correct way to cleat the line---a FULL ROUND TURN before any figure eight's. Like the turns on a sheet winch or capstan, it is the round turn that must take the loading. The figure eights only tail the line, just as on a winch.

Oct 2, 2014 07:48 pm
 Posted by  Yacht VALHALLA

And leaving the dock or pier can be done without drama if you use the spring line correctly. For example, when laying alongside a pier with boats fore and aft and not much maneuvering room. Put fenders near the forward cleat that has the aft spring line, go ahead with steerage away from the pier while the forward spring and breast lines are let go then, still in forward steer into the pier. (When laying portside to the pier, first steer to the right then steer to the left) The stern will now move away from the pier and when it is clear of the boat behind you it is time to reverse and let go the spring line. This is especially useful if the wind is holding you against the pier. And the reverse of this procedure can be used to get into that tight spot as well.
Terry Sargent, Yacht VALHALLA

Oct 2, 2014 08:38 pm
 Posted by  Robert K.

Take course offered by Maryland school of Sailing. 2 days of docking practice. It is fantastic and very, very good.

Oct 2, 2014 10:57 pm
 Posted by  Geoffrey K.

I'm not a cruiser or voyager, nor even experienced. On my second charter I was a bit worried and asked for a 1 hour lesson on docking. The instructor taught me the way krillroye describes above. We dock starboard to pier. Midship line has eye at both ends and is proper length for aft stern line. Come in slow, mate steps off the boat and drops loop/eye of the aft spring line on the cleat at the end of the dock, coasting forward motion tensions the line and brings the boat to the dock, (though sometimes after a bit of dancing) forward idle and rudder to port brings mate the stern line, rudder to starboard brings her the bow line. All done calmly, no running. The position of the midships cleat is crucial. Several inches movement can make the process unpredictable. Mine is track mounted. It should be near the pivot point of the keel.

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