Boat Line Tips

By David and Zora Aiken
Published: August/September 2011

Experienced cruisers share their line on slipping a boat into its berth with stress-free grace.

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.

Photo of boat tied to a dock

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.

Photo of sturdy hooks attach to piling Sturdy hooks attach to any piling to keep lines dry and accessible.
Photo of TideMinders that protect lines from fouling and chafing During storms, tidal changes, or heavy boat traffic, TideMinders, above, protect lines from fouling and chafing. Left, run a line the full length of the slip to help guide the boat in on days when wind and current do not allow a smooth entry.

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.

Boundary Lines

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.

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How To Get Looped

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.

Photo of the Landing Loop


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