BoatUS Cruising - Tom Neale's Cruising For You: Tom's Tips - Death Free Docking

Death Free Docking

  • Before docking try to find out if the dock hands know their job by talking with them on the VHF or cell phone. If the situation is tricky explain your intentions and concerns before coming in. Ask whether they have special advice. Check what they say against what you see and know in order to gauge their experience. Often dock hands are exceptionally skilled and can help the most experienced skipper. But you have the ultimate responsibility for operating your boat.

  • Insist that the dock person explain clearly the location of your slip. They’re often busy and give rapid directions which don’t make sense unless you’re already familiar with the marina. Make them repeat slowly until you get the picture. This is particularly important if you’re entering a marina with tight maneuvering space or there’s a lot of current or wind.

  • Find out, by asking or looking at the pilings, which way the current is running, if any. Insist that you be assigned a slip where you will be docking into the current, if possible.

  • As you approach a pier, check the pilings to see if there are any eddies that could affect your boat in a manner that is inconsistent from what you would have expected from current flow. Often an eddy will slam you sideways into a pier (or other boat). If you ask the dock person about eddies and the answer is “We don’t have any Eddies working here,”…. back off.

  • Try to judge what effect, if any, the wind will have. This will depend on various factors in addition to direction and velocity of wind. These include the windage of your boat, the extent of gusting, and the direction of the wind relative to the current.

  • Use the wind and current. Often, if you work with them instead of trying to out muscle them with your engine, your job will be much easier.

  • Learn how to use a spring line. It is seldom a good idea to secure a bow line first. Most boats will respond nicely to a spring line running from midships to a cleat astern on a pier or a piling. Proper use of rudder and engine can give you control of the boat and allow you to bring the boat into the dock safely, even if current and/or wind are working against you. Practice, to learn the behavioral characteristics of your boat and to increase your skills. Spring line maneuvering can involve a huge amount of stress on the line and cleats to which it is attached. Be sure the hardware, line, and method of securing used is more than adequate.

  • Before you throw a line to someone on the dock, make sure that he knows what to do with it. If he just “wraps” it around a cleat, it may slide off into the water and wrap around a prop. If he just walked out of a restaurant to see the boats, he may stand there just holding it. Learn how to throw a line, without hitting the recipients head. If you’re like me, you may have a hard time finding the cleat if you’ve just had your glasses knocked overboard.

  • If you need to, practice “docking” out in open water between fixed safe markers or with none at all. Floats that you may temporarily anchor usually aren’t a good idea because your prop or rudder may snag the anchor line.

  • Know the boat’s blind spots, if any, and ask your helper to keep a watch out for you in these sectors. For example, frequently the helms person can’t tell how close the bow pulpit or stern platform is to a structure. If you’re going to knock over a power pedestal, it’s preferable to not knock over the only one nearby that has the voltage configuration that your boat requires and the only working cable TV plug.

  • Bow and stern thrusters are great. But don’t substitute skillful use of the engine and rudder with thrusters. They are intended to supplement the main sources of maneuvering power—not replace them.

  • For many boats, a two way head set walkie talkie set is very helpful. It allows you and your helper to talk calmly without yelling. A voice activated mike in your headset is necessary. Try the set out before you buy. Some of these have a background noise threshold level that is set so high that the first several words of your transmission will be cut off. This can be dangerous.

  • Always wear shoes when docking. Bare feet or flip flops can cause big trouble when scampering past deck cleats or jumping to the dock.

  • Have a plan and discuss it with others aboard. All should understand that the plan may have to be aborted should conditions dictate.

  • Rig and secure lines to both sides of the boat, before you come in, even though you may plan to tie up only on one side. You never know what’s going to happen no matter how well you plan. I’ve learned with this method that, when I totally blow it, I can tell everyone watching that I really meant to come in on the other side.

  • It isn’t always a good idea to rig fenders prior to docking. If, for example, you have to slide along a piling, you might end up destroying the fender or whatever you’ve tied it to. If you’re coming alongside a floating dock with no pilings, the fender may be needed at your water line. Assess each situation individually. As a minimum, have them ready to go.

  • NEVER use human fenders. No boat is worth even a finger or a toe.

  • If you think the weather or current is going to be a problem, tell the dock master and anchor off until it gets better. If your current is caused by tidal flow he should know when slack water will occur.

  • Most of these steps apply to undocking as well as docking.

  • Don’t kill the engine until the boat is secure.

  • Don’t drop your ignition keys overboard unless you’ve been told that your credit card hasn’t cleared.


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Copyright 2004-2010 Tom Neale

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