How To Back Into A Slip With A Single Engine Outboard Boat

By Lenny Rudow

Docking can be the most stressful part of the day. Here's how to negotiate it like a pro.

Backing into a slip illustration©2018 Mirto Art Studio

You've had a great day on the water, navigated safely back to the marina, and all that's left between you and a relaxing evening is backing your boat into the slip. For many boaters, this will be the most daunting part of the experience. That's a shame, because with some very basic knowledge and this simple set of parameters in mind, backing a single engine outboard boat into a slip should be a piece of cake.

In most marinas, these basics often will be all you need to know to get that single-engine outboard boat into the slip. But experiment with your boat, in safe conditions, to learn more about its handling characteristics. There will be times when mitigating factors arise. Usually, these will present themselves in the form of wind and current. (See "Compensating For Wind And Current" below)

Here's how it goes:

1. Ensure your lines are set, fenders are in place, and you've identified the influences of wind and/or current.

2. Trim your engine up (using the tilt-trim switch at the throttle) slightly, if on your boat the propwash slaps against the transom, so it goes under the boat when you reverse. Remember that most boats have a right-handed prop, and will back to port better than to starboard.

3. Approach the slip from one side, allowing plenty of room between your boat and other boats or obstructions, and position the boat so its pivot point — about two-thirds of the way forward of the transom when the boat is moving forward — is along the centerline of the slip.

4. Turn the engine all the way to port or all the way to starboard, as is appropriate to kick the boat around so the stern faces the slip, and apply forward power to initiate a turn. Then shift into neutral, spin the wheel the opposite way, and apply power in reverse to both slow headway and continue turning the boat. Continue applying power, alternately in forward and reverse, while cranking the wheel to port and starboard as appropriate, until the boat is in alignment with the slip.

5. Remember to apply power minimally so you don't start moving too quickly and lose control. You must also remember that you'll need to apply additional power — sometimes a fair amount — to overcome the effects of the wind and currents, especially when operating in reverse (when thrust is reduced as compared to operating in forward).

6. When the boat is parallel to the dock or finger pier, center the steering wheel and use a bit of forward or reverse as necessary to stop the boat's motion.

7. Once the boat's in the slip, you're ready to deploy the mooring lines. All that's left to do after that is unload the boat, enjoy a relaxing washdown, and look forward to your next trip out on the water.

Compensating For Wind And Current

While there's no one-size-fits-all answer as to how you can combat the effects of wind and current, the most important thing for you to recognize is that they exist in the first place. Before you even begin your approach to the dock, eyeball a flag or banner to see how hard it's flapping and in which direction. To get an indication of current, look for loose lines hanging in the water, water movement against pilings, or small bits of flotsam, like leaves and sticks, to determine which way and how fast the water is moving.

Once you've identified the influences of wind and/or current, you'll need to plan ahead for them. This is something of a judgment call, as every boat will be affected a bit differently by these factors. Just remember what we said about keeping the boat's forward pivot point along the centerline of the slip. Add a little extra power while the wheel is cut in the appropriate direction to keep it there, and you should be fine. If the boat drifts too far out of alignment, attempting a Hail Mary maneuver is usually not the best bet — when possible, motoring away from the slip and circling back around to make a fresh attempt is the better move. 

— Published: June/July 2018


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