Skills | Boat Handling Techniques


Docking With Spring Lines

By Greg Jones
Published: February/March 2013

You don't need a bow thruster to gracefully bring your boat alongside or to leave the dock, you just need to master the use of spring lines.

Most boaters use spring lines when tied up to the dock to limit fore-and-aft movement, but that's not all they're good for. They can also be used to take much of the drama out of docking and to help you get into or out of a tight space with ease. Once you grasp the few principles involved, you'll be able to use the force of the prop to pivot the boat around the spring line. Even in contrary currents or with a wind blowing you onto the dock, it all comes down to balancing opposing forces.

Spring Line Basics

Spring lines run diagonally forward or aft from the boat at a shallow enough angle to limit the boat's fore-and-aft movement. Sounds simple enough, but spring-line terminology can be confusing. A forward spring line is tied to the dock forward of where it is tied to the boat; it stops the boat from moving aft. An aft spring line stops the boat from moving forward, and it's tied to a point on the dock aft of where the line is attached to the boat. Whatever cleat on the boat the spring line is attached to will become the pivot point for your maneuvers. Spring lines can be attached at the bow, at the stern, or in the middle of the boat, at the midship or spring cleats. The force of the prop against the spring line will cause the boat to rotate around that pivot point. Don't expect your first few attempts to go smoothly. Docking well does take practice. But the following tips could help you avoid some of the more common problems people run into when they first try getting on and leaving a dock using spring lines.

Check your cleats. Your boat's cleats need to be properly sized and securely attached. At a minimum you need four cleats, one on each side of the bow and stern. Midship cleats are very useful, especially on boats over 20 feet in length. If your boat lacks them, installing a pair (backed properly) is a simple upgrade.

Your spring lines should be as long as the boat, plus a few feet. They should be made of nylon, which stretches under tension to reduce shock loads, and large enough to grasp easily.

When leaving a dock, double the spring line back to the boat. When you're getting ready to cast off, take the spring line off the dock cleat and run it around the base of the cleat before bringing the bitter end back onboard. Cleat off the end or hand it to the crew member who'll be in charge of that line. When the time comes to release the line, no one needs to be on the dock. A crew member need only release the bitter end and pull the line aboard as quickly as possible.

Make prop walk work for you. Most boats have right-handed props (when looking at the propeller from the stern, it spins clockwise in forward, counterclockwise in reverse), which "walk" the stern of the boat to port in reverse. Prop walk can be used to help get off the dock, particularly when springing the stern out first.

When you apply throttle, do it gently. Wait until the spring line is taut before you apply enough throttle to begin the maneuver.

When you're coming alongside the dock, make sure the crew keeps clear and stays on the boat. To avoid serious damage to stray body parts, make sure that fenders are the only things that ever come between your boat and the dock. Heroic leaps, dockline in hand, may provide comic relief if all goes well, but they can also result in serious injury. All crew members should learn to accurately heave a line to someone on the dock and practice this skill until it becomes second nature.

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