Boat Line Tips
By David and Zora Aiken
Docking a boat isn't as easy as parking a car, something novice boat owners learn quickly; the helmsperson simply can't steer to a stopping point and hit the brakes. Traction is not a factor and there are outside influences the car driver never needs to consider, such as how the wind or current (or both) will alter speed or the intended direction of steering and what can be done to counteract those potentially contrary effects. Even constant repetition is no guarantee of success, as conditions are as varied as the weather.
While there's no substitute for good boat-handling techniques, there are ways to give the captain an assist. The boat owner who rents a marina slip on an annual basis can use several medium- and low-tech ideas that offer a distinct home port advantage, making it easier and safer to leave and return to the slip and taking some of the worry out of leaving the boat to fend for itself when you're gone.
For permanent marina tenants, dock lines are left in place to drop and pick up when departing and returning. Some slips have a full-length dock (catwalk) along one side or both, perpendicular to the main dock. Floating piers almost always are configured to provide finger piers. These are the easiest slips to enter, leaving the fewest opportunities for mishaps. More common where pilings and docks are fixed is the slip with only a short, narrow — sometimes shaped like a piece of pie — finger pier leading from the main dock on one side.
Another slip may have no finger pier at all. Boarding must then be done directly at the bow or stern, and there is almost no chance for crew to jump off in time for a tie-up assist. Guiding a boat into a slip requires some expertise and the procedure differs depending on whether the captain chooses to dock the boat with bow or stern to the main dock. Once positioned in the slip, lines must be tied in such a way that the boat is convenient to the dock for boarding at the usual location, but not so close that it risks bumping the dock.
When leaving the boat unattended, most boat owners adjust all dock lines for the purpose of keeping the boat as close to mid-slip as possible through all the tide and wind changes that occur when the boat is at rest. Here are some tips for less stressful close-quarters maneuvers.
Run a line the length of your slip on each side, from the outermost piling to the dock piling or cleat, to visually define the full width of the slip and to give you a clear picture that separates your slip from your neighbor's. On days when wind and current don't cooperate when backing in, the crew can grab these lines and encourage the boat into its proper alignment. The lines also help to keep the boat from getting pushed at an angle that might result in contact with the boat in the next slip. Polypropylene line is a good choice for this purpose as it floats, and it's cheap so you won't mind replacing it every few seasons when it degrades from UV exposure.
If the slip has pilings forward and aft, the slip width is easy to define and mark. If the bow lines are ordinarily secured to cleats on the dock rather than to pilings, it may be necessary to tie the line around one of the deck planks or place an additional cleat on the dock, if the marina allows this.
When the boat is tied in a slip, it moves around with every wind shift and wake roll; abrupt jerks are common when the line is pulled as far as it can go. To minimize the jerking and the accompanying wear on lines and cleats, attach a line snubber to each dock line. Snubbers are made of a material capable of stretching enough to absorb the shock of a quick stop. With the familiar black rubber ones, the dock line feeds through an eye on one end of the snubber, then wraps around the snubber a few times before leading through the eye at the other end.
TideMinders and TideSlides are helpful additions to dock line assists, definitely a "wish I'd thought of that" idea that allows dock lines to move up or down the pilings as the boat floats with the tide. With either system, there's no need to guess how much slack to leave in a line to accommodate tidal range; the boat can be tied closer to the dock without fear of it drifting too close.
TideMinders employs nine virtually indestructible balls that are threaded onto the line and secured with two figure-eight knots. As the tide changes, the balls roll up and down on the piling, eliminating the need to adjust lines and offering constant tension with built-in shock absorption. TideMinders is simple to install and requires no tools. Available in black, blue, and safety orange, they fit any size piling and protect lines up to one inch for docking larger boats.
To use TideSlides, a stainless-steel shaft attaches to a dock piling. A specially molded polymer block or cleat attaches to the stainless shaft. The dock line is tied between the TideSlide block and the appropriate cleat on the boat. As the boat floats up and down with the tidal changes, the slides (with lines attached) also move up and down the shaft, holding the same tension on the lines no matter what the state of the tide. One slider accommodates a bow or stern line and also a spring line.
Those who keep their boats in covered slips have created novel ways to leave bow lines when exiting the slip in order to have them handy upon return. The boathouse roof allows for suspending a bracket over the slip, ready for a boathook grab when the boat returns to the slip after a day on the water. In the photo one creative captain hung up a cutout of a traditional anchor shape.
Boats kept in a typical uncovered slip often leave bow lines on a hook or bracket attached to the dock at the front of the slip, not quite as convenient as an overhead hanging bracket, but ready for a boathook grab. Placing lines this way not only keeps them reachable, it also keeps them awayfrom feet that might trip over them, and out of the water where they could foul the running gear.
The same type of hook that holds bowlines on the dock is useful for all docking lines. Attach a hook fairly high on each dock piling, so all lines are kept high and dry and within boathook-grabbing range. Buy no-maintenance hooks made of PVC or make them out of wood or StarBoard.
If the boat doesn't have midship cleats, it would be smart to add them. They simplify the tie-up procedure, whether the boat is at home port or away. Midship cleats allow a much better lead for spring lines. They also allow the use of a shorter line, for more control, less wandering of the boat, and less risk of crew tripping over an unnecessarily long line.
On the subject of cleats, some boats have only a single cleat forward for securing bow lines; if that's the case on your boat, make the necessary changes so each bow line has its own cleat. The double-cleat arrangement also proves practical use for those times when you want to use two anchors.
David and Zora Aiken have been liveaboards for more than 20 years and are authors of Good Boatkeeping and Cruising: The Basics. This article first appeared in Mad Mariner's DIY Boat Owner Magazine.
— Published: August/September 2011
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Another relatively new product to help grab dock lines safely from a moving boat is the Landing Loop, a lightweight, three-part, telescoping aluminum pole that works much like a boat hook. The pole extends from 45 inches to approximately 11 feet, and locks in place with the twist. The aluminum pole does not wobble or flex when extended. A sturdy Y-shaped metal head locks onto the pole and accommodates standard dock lines from a half-inch to threequarter- inch in diameter. The specially designed tips of the Landing Loop hold the dock line in a wide loop so that the line can be hooked over a cleat or piling while the boat is still 10 feet or so from the dock. It collapses for easy storage and also works with any size or type of boat.
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