Tough Docking Made Easy

Handle brisk crosswinds and stiff currents with ease

4th August 2000.
By Chris Caswell

A friend, who shall remain nameless out of mercy, had the perfect slip for his small boat. He was new to boating and the slip, which he shared with another boat, faced directly into the prevailing wind, so he never had any problems docking even though he was relatively new to boating.

One day, however, he went out as a weather front moved through the area and, on returning, found that his normally benign slip was now in a brisk crosswind that wanted to blow him sideways into the flawless hull of his neighbor. With his palms clammy and his breathing suddenly difficult, my friend lined up as he usually did … and everything went wrong.

His crew, which normally had plenty of time to get the docklines on the dock cleats, found the boat leaving sideways at a rapid rate, marooning one on the dock and the other on the boat outside jumping distance. As an expensive contact with his neighbor seemed certain, my friend crashed the gearshift into reverse and, with engine roaring and spray flying, avoided sure disaster but became an object of interest to everyone in the marina. He did finally get back to his dock safely, but it was one of those episodes that still wakes him in the middle of the night with a cold sweat.

Once you’ve learned the basics of boat handling, you’re ready for graduate school: docking in crosswinds or contrary currents. If you’ve decided that you can’t possibly outwit Mother Nature, watch a tugboat skipper grease his 80-footer alongside a dock in spite of fearsome conditions. The big craft will slide in so deftly that it wouldn’t break an egg, and there’s none of the yelling or firedrills that you see on so many small boats. Of course, he’s been doing it for years, but you can quickly take advantage of his hard-earned techniques.

The first step in difficult docking situations is to size up exactly what Mother Nature has in store for you. By using flags or pennants on other boats or on shore, you can see which way the wind is blowing (and how hard). You’ll learn to look at trees, at smoke or dust, and even at birds to see if they are having difficulty landing. For current, you’ll be checking objects that are fixed in the water, such as pilings, moorings or navigation buoys that will show the telltale signs of current in the wakes that form on the down-current side.

As you “learn” your boat, you’ll discover that wind and current act differently on each boat. Wind, for example, affects the part of the boat with the most “sail area” or windage, usually the cabin and flying bridge. Because they are in the aft section of the hull, you’ll find that wind tends to push the stern sideways more than the low bow. Current also tends to affect the deeper aft section of a boat since it has more to “grab” than the relatively shallow bow.

Once you’ve assessed the docking situation, you need to brief your crew completely on what you expect of them, since they’ll need to secure the boat quickly. In calm conditions, they can take their time in getting the docklines cleated securely but, in crosswinds or currents, any delay can allow the boat to drift away from the pier or into other boats. Make sure they don’t endanger themselves by making any heroic leaps from the boat (like my friend, you can always back away and make another approach) but emphasize that time is of the essence.

Using a flatter approach than normal, simply stop your boat directly opposite your planned mooring spot and let the wind push you into place. If the wind is particularly strong, it may push either the bow or stern with more speed, so be prepared to use your engines to correct any movement out of position. Remember that the goal is to gently contact the pier and, if you stop too far away from the pier, the wind will provide enough speed to result in a thump when you hit the pier. If the wind is extremely strong, you may want to approach the pier nearly head on. Put the bow line ashore while using reverse to keep from hitting the dock, and then let the wind push your stern into position. In each case, have a full set of fenders rigged, because the wind is going to grind your boat against the pier and you’ll need plenty of protection.

When the wind or current is pushing you away from the dock and it seems like Mother Nature doesn’t want you to ever reach shore you’ll need to approach at a steeper angle than usual to keep from being blown away from the pier. Turn the boat parallel to the pier at the last minute and use reverse and hard left rudder (in a port side landing) to both stop the boat and pull the stern alongside. Remember that you have only a brief time to get the dock lines ashore before you’ll be pushed away from the pier, so have your crew act quickly.

It’s a sailor’s nightmare when you have to tie up to a pier with a crosswind or current pushing you toward another boat, which always seems to be completely varnished. If you don’t execute your docking with precision, you’ll drift into your expensive neighbor. Boats, unlike automobiles, steer from the back so your most important dock line is going to be at the bow. Once that is firmly cleated to the pier, you can use your engine to keep a distance from your neighbor while the other docklines are secured. Make your approach at a shallow angle to get the bow close to its final position, and get the bow line ashore. Depending upon how much space you have in front of you, you can then either steer hard away from the dock with forward power (to push the stern toward the dock) or steer toward the dock with reverse (to pull the stern into the dock). Each boat reacts differently, so use the method most likely to keep the stern from drifting down into your neighbor.

If the wind or current is ferocious, use a springline to keep control of the boat at all times. Approach the end of the pier and put a midship springline on the corner cleat or piling, using that as a turning point to spin the boat into the slip. By easing out the mid-ship line while the bow and stern lines are attached, you always maintain control of the boat. At worst, you can ease out ample slack on the spring line and, with the rudder turned hard away from the dock, you’ll always be snugly tucked alongside the pier until you can get the rest of your lines secured. Again, remember to use plenty of fenders to protect your hull.

Let me pass along one bit of final advice given to me by the veteran skipper of a tugboat who taught me a great deal about boathandling in tough situations. “Listen, kid,” he said gruffly, “always remember that boats can easily be repaired, but people can’t.”

The point is to never jeopardize your crew in an effort to prevent a bumpy landing or hitting another boat. Keep all arms and legs out from between boats, because you can always back out and try again. Insurance will take care of hull scratches, but your crew is more precious than topside paint.


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