Backing into a slip is indeed an art form. But once you learn it you’ll be proud of it and your crew will be impressed.
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Here is a situation that comes up when needing to make a tight turn into the slip. During the turn, your boat gathers angular momentum. Meaning once it starts the turn it wants to continue the turn and it will ding you into the slip sides, and at a minimum, chip your gorgeous gel coat and develop gnarly scratches.
Watch the animation below.
The best way to experience this is to take the NauticEd Maneuvering Under Power course. It leads you through dozens of real exercises on the water so that you can gain experience perfectly maneuvering your boat.
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Another Maneuvering technique for your bag of tricks.
This is a great trick we learned in the Bahamas last week when doing our ICC license with Mark Thompson from Yachting Education. Mark has been instructing students for 30 years and has an enormous bag of tricks to teach. This one was cool. South of the dock was a shallow area and so we could not drive up to the dock in a normal fashion. Instead we “ferryed” the boat across the wind.
Play the animation now.
This is just the one of the many tricks we have put into our Maneuvering and Docking a Sailboat Under Power Course.
NauticEd Maneuvering Under Power Course
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Here’s the video
Here’s a couple of good docking stories and also see below for a great animation on how to dock a sailboat in a tight space in the marina.
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How to Successfully Dock a Sailboat
Yesterday I was out at the marina and decided to do a pump out of the holding tank. I was on the boat by myself. The pump out dock was at the south end of the marina on a tee head and the wind was blowing stiffly out of the north. This means that the boat would be pushed away from the dock so that docking by myself would be a challenge. A challenge in the sense that while it’s easy to get up next to the dock, getting off the boat and getting her tied up was the hard part. A plan was needed – see below for how this incident turned out.
In St. Lucia, the Caribbean, last year I witnessed the worst docking of my life performed by a self-proclaimed experienced sailor. A sailor that claimed he sailed from the channel from Martinique to St. Lucia every weekend bar two the previous year. Well maybe he was a good sailing sailor – but the worst docker of all time – and so that makes him a poor sailor. I mean a really bad one.
Here’s what happen in St. Lucia. This boat with 6 crew and the skipper was wanting to come up to the fuel dock. There was plenty of room – maybe 3 boat lengths. It was a similar situation whereby the wind was blowing off the dock. It’s hard to describe the tangle he put himself into but it involved having to push him away from hitting the two boats (one mine) at the dock. Everyone on the docked boats were pulling out fenders trying to stop this guy from banging everyone up. The guy had no plan and no idea what to do – proof was that none of the crew even had a line in their hand. When I asked him to organize a shore-line to toss to us, he himself left the helm and pulled an old doused tangled spinnaker halyard out of a bucket which was badly coiled and now full of knots in his panic. One crew member scrabbled around eventually and found a line tied it on with a knot I’d never seen before and tossed it. Unfortunately, it was only 6 feet long and barely made the dangle into the water.
On shore, we all grabbed our own supply of dock lines to toss. When we tossed them to the boat still about 20 feet out (which was as close as the skipper could get the boat to the dock without serious damage) the crew just hung on to the lines and expected to be able to hold the boat against the wind rather than cleating them down so that the lines could be cinched up.
You know, at NauticEd we are glad that people need training – that’s our business and we are good at it. But this guy was in serious need of training WITH A BOAT, was a self-proclaimed sailor and was crossing 30 mile channels with inexperienced crew in the ocean – you know that dangerous non-breathable media called water.
After the calamity, I walked over and offered my hand – expecting a few thanks at least for the help and directing an onshore crew to help. Instead, I got a talk about how he is the master of the area and felt like the docking was successful. Steam was pouring out of the other boat’s crews. I gave him my card and even an offer of a free Maneuvering Under Power course and I offered it in the nicest mild mannered way possible. I even used third party sales technique so that it would not be an affront to him personally like “You know it looks like your crew could use a few tips – look this course over for free and if it’s appropriate we can sort something out for them”. Till now I have never seen him sign into our system. This guy is going to continue to embarrass himself (albeit unknowingly) and endanger his boat his crew and others and there is going to be a lot of gel coat on harbor bottoms throughout the Caribbean. What went wrong? There was no plan!
So what does a good plan entail? It should involve a thorough preparation for the maneuver AND all other possible issues.
- Miles out from the harbor, when you have plenty of time, use the local marina guidebook to study the harbor. Study the layout, the depths throughout, the tide height, the entrance, the approach buoys (are you IALA-A or IALA-B), the docks. Where is the customs office, water dock, fuel dock, grocery store and restaurants etc? Learn the harbor masters VHF channel if it is offered.
- Discuss with the crew the needs for the boat and make a marina visitation plan – e.g. length of stay, who goes to the grocery store, who stays with the boat to help fuel-up water-up who takes out the trash yakety yak. Are we staying for lunch etc.
Side note: You are the facilitator of the crew having a good time on THEIR vacation – you are NOT the boat nazi with a need for an ego stroke. People follow a good leader and a good plan. See our Bareboat Charter Course on being a good leader.
- Call the harbor master on VHF and announce your desire and plans – e.g. Would like to check into customs, visit the fuel and water dock, then dock up for 3 hour stay. Listen to the harbor masters instructions.
- Often times you don’t have the luxury of a nice friendly harbor master to give easy instructions and you have to make it up. But at least you are armed with a previously studied layout of the harbor.
- Discuss a docking plan with the crew. This involves lines and fenders. It’s important to get lines tied on both sides of the boat as a contingency plan. The last thing you want is a line scramble at the last minute in a tight windy marina with a flustered crew who tend to tie bad knots whilst in a panic. Use long lines as dock lines – obvious, see below.
- Fenders – the crew needs to know the appropriate fender knot (usually a clove hitch). Before you get to the dock, you don’t know the height of the dock relative to the boat so the fenders will need to be adjusted before the final “kiss”. Or it’s even possible that they may need to be moved to the other side at the last minute. There should be at least one (or two) roving fender with a crew member assigned to manage it. A roving fender is a loose fender with a line to be used should there be close quarters, the fender can be used to protect both boats. BIG POINT – make sure all crew (including kids who are desperate at all times to help) that arms and legs are NOT to be used to push the boat away from other boats or docks. A boat-boat crunch is better that a boat-arm-boat crunch.
- Appoint crew members to each dock station, forward and aft. Ensure those crew members know how to coil and throw a line – obvious but not many people know how to properly and effectively do this. As a docking helms person, you cringe when you need that line ashore and you see it thrown poorly missing the mark. These skills are taught as a game whilst under sail out in the ocean.
- Appoint an able bodied person to step ashore and take the lines. Explain the order of tying off. They need to know that trying to hold the boat against the wind is not possible. If you’re coming in forwards then usually you want the forward line tied first to a dock cleat aft of the bow. This help stop the boat and can save you from exchanging $100 for gel coat repairs to the forward boat. Thus explain this carefully and clearly. “The first thing to do when you get off is to catch the forward line and get it cleated as fast as possible to the dock at a position backward from the bow of the boat to stop the boat moving forward. Then get the aft line cleated. Don’t worry too much about getting it prefect just get them cleated. We can all tighten them up later but the priority is to get the boat cleated.”
Each docking maneuver requires a different plan. For example a Mediterranean mooring requires the boat back up to the dock. Different wind directions and force require a different order of things. The important thing to do is have a plan and have the crew understand the plan.
In your minds eye, visualize the whole maneuver way prior to starting it when you have no distractions. Think about each crew members abilities, the wind, current, what could go wrong. Visualize the lines being thrown and everything. Try to predict any weaknesses through your visualization.
So what happened with my docking maneuver yesterday?
I’m going to admit it. My plan had a flaw in it, and I initially failed, but I survived. The flaw was that I did not have long enough dock-lines. Being by myself, I needed to get off the boat with both forward and aft dock lines in hand so that I could control both ends of the boat at the same time.
Here’s how it worked the second time – successfully. Away from the dock I cleated a long forward line and brought it back (outside of everything) to the cockpit. I cleated a long aft line and coiled it next to the forward line. I motored the boat at 45 degrees towards the dock at a place at where I wanted the stern to end up. About 5 feet out, I turned the boat sideways to the dock and engaged reverse to stop the boat. This bought the boat side to the dock nicely but I still had the wind to contend with blowing me away from the dock. The reason for the 45 degree point is that you get some dock-ways momentum which gets your final position closer to the dock. If you come in flat and parallel to the dock, by the time you get to your stopping position, you’ll always be too far away to step off because of the wind. After stopping, moving quickly, I stepped out of the cockpit with both forward and aft lines in hand. I stepped off the boat and went forward to cleat the front of the boat. The long aft line allowed me to keep the aft line in hand whilst I quickly cleated the forward line. By this time the stern had blown away a little but not much. I ran back and cleated the aft. I was able to just pull the stern around. Had the wind been higher or the boat bigger I would have been able to use a spring technique shown in the animation to bring in the stern with the engine. That’s why I put on the forward line first.
Pretty simple you might say but I wanted to point out that having a plan makes success. My first pretty poorly planned maneuver failed me. It came from having the luxury of a crew, once one variable changed the viable planned became a failure. I’d failed to visualize the whole maneuver. I’d not visualized how I would prevent the stern of the boat being blown downwind.
Docking is where ALL the damage happens. Become an excellent docker. Our Maneuvering Under Power course is probably the best course in the world on teaching how to effectively dock a boat.
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Here’s an animation of how to bring the boat into a side-to dock with wind blowing you off the dock and tight quarters.
Docking a boat on to an end-tie or tee head with a strong wind blowing you off requires some knowledge on how to do it and it’s one of those things that you SHOULD practice for WHEN the time comes.
Trying to just sidle up along side like you might do in a no wind condition or where wind is blowing you on to the dock is just not going to work.
Fortunately, there are some simple ways of doing it.
(1) Motoring forward up to the tee head directly into the wind.
Have dock lines prepared and cleated to the forward and aft dock side of the boat.
NOTE: Make sure that the dock lines are run outwards underneath the life lines first then back onboard over the top of the line lines. This ensures that when the line is deployed, it will be clear of the life lines. Since this is usually a crew member doing this, it pays to physically show the crew member when you are out away from the marina if you’re not sure they will do it correctly. Running them inboard and over the lifelines can create a huge havoc at the wrong and crucial time.
Approach the tee head near perpendicular but at an angle so that it makes it as simple as possible for the crew member to step off the boat as far forward as possible. As you reach the tee head the crew member will have to step off the boat and onto the dock. This requires a little dexterity on the crew member’s behalf and good throttle work on your behalf to not hit the dock yet get the crew member close enough with out jumping. Since you’re headed directly almost into wind, you’ll have afforded some time with the bow at the dock so that the crew member can take their time carefully stepping off the boat and onto the dock.
The crew member now cleats the dock line to the dock cleat in the direction of where the aft of the boat will sit using about ¼ of the boat length of line between the two cleats.
Now comes your part. Turn the wheel all the way to the stops to the non-dockside side of the boat (tiller to dockside side) and engage forward gear. This creates a sideways force on the rudder and will push the stern of the boat to the dock. Adjust the throttle to over come the windage force on the boat.
DOCKING A SAILBOAT INTO THE WIND
(2) Motoring in reverse up to the tee head directly into the wind.
This method works especially well when the boat has a swim platform and walk through transom.
As above, have dock lines prepared. Then back up to the tee head.
NOTE: You’ll learn in the NauticEd Maneuvering a Sailboat Under Power online sailing course that a boat’s stern facing the wind is an extremely stable position and you will not get bullied around by the wind. You’ll also learn that backing into the wind is extremely easy. If you haven’t already, take the NauticEd Maneuvering a Sailboat Under Power online sailing course.
The crew member steps off the boat holding the aft dock line when the stern is close enough and cleats the dock line to a dock cleat that lies in a direction more aft of the boat in its final resting position. Again about ¼ of the boat length of dock line should be allowed between the aft cleat and dock cleat.
Turn the wheel all the way to the stops towards the dock (tiller pointing away) and engage forward. This will swing the bow of the boat in towards the dock against the wind. Another crew member can toss the forward dock line to the crew member on the dock to aid. Or if the 1st crew member is able they should take a long forward dock line with them when they stepped off the boat originally.
DOCKING A SAILBOAT INTO THE WIND
Either of these methods can get you docked safely. And, practiced, a day skipper could do all the above solo.
Practice both of these a few times and when the real moment comes, you’ll be looking like a pro. Rather than a…
This docking a sailing boat tip was written by Grant Headifen , Director of NauticEd. NauticEd offers an excellent Maneuvering a Sailboat Under Power online sailing course as well as many courses on how to sail a boat.
Here’s a question from a student regarding docking a sailboat after they took the Maneuvering Under Power Sailing Course
I have a question in reference to the maneuvering under power:
Under the excersice end ties #3, wind from behind, once you have backed the boat to the dock and secured the stern spring line, should the wheel be turned toward the dock and throttle into forward to bring the bow to the dock?
You’re absolutely correct.
Here is a vector force diagram to match. Actually, as you can see, you could do it with out turning the wheel to the dock but the resultant torque (turning moment) would be reduced. Turning the rudder creates extra turning moment. It doesn’t really matter which direction the wind is coming from with this method. Altho if the wind was high and blowing you off the dock. I would do the front spring first, then drive forward with the wheel turned away from the dock.
Docking a Sailboat
A recent discussion with a student regarding Maneuvering a Sailboat Under Power is repeated here.
On 7/2/09 11:55 AM, matthew k…. wrote:
I do have a question about the Maneuvering Under Power course – the course is set up for a vessel with a wheel-I have a tiller on my little full keel wooden boat -can you clarify for me how the reverse works with a tiller-it is backwards from a wheel is it not?
My specific issue is when I am backing out of my slip-especially with a few people on the boat-I am not able to get the bow to come to starboard. My prop walk is to starboard so I am hard over on the tiller to port. The frustrating thing is it is very inconsistent-of course it never works when there are people around or on the boat. The only thing I can think of is the added weight of extra passengers alters how Juna responds-the trick is I have not figured out how to compensate for this-any ideas or suggestions??
Thanks again for your help-
Yes either way, the boat when starting from a standstill, will always want to take the stern to port so applying tiller to port – wheel to starboard is the same action to try to counteract the propwalk. Try using less throttle – this reduces the effect of propwalk. Also try not putting the tiller all the way over to port. If the tiller is all the way over then the rudder may act more like a bulldozer blade pushing water straight back rather than a rudder diverting water to port and boat to starboard. Of course this requires backwards motion to gain this effect.
After you take the course you will be confident enough and inclined to back your boat into the slip. This will eliminate the issue because you’ll start out in forward.
Thanks – I’ll drop this discussion up on the blog site as it is useful.
Cool tips-back Juna into the slip!!!-well that might take a while but I’ll keep that as a goal!-
Thanks for the vote of confidence and the tips-here’s a little shot of Juna on a glorious day last fall in Puget Sound. She was built in 1939 in Blanchard boat works in Seattle and designed by Ben Seaborn-she’s such a cool little boat-feel free to post on the blog if you like-I’ll dive into the course full speed and let you know when I can back Juna into her home in Edmonds!
Well that concludes the series on how to leave the slip or an end tie in every different wind condition in a sailboat. You learned how to use a spring line to get clear of other boats and you learned how to maneuver the boat with, against and sideways to the wind in the marina.
The really tricky part as with getting the plane safely on the ground when flying is getting your boat back into the slip with out any scratches on your boat or any one elses. We’re going to leave all the secrets of this up to the Maneuvering a sailboat under Power clinic and the Skipper course. Needless to say that there are tips in there that wil save the cost of the course over and over and make you look good in front of all the people in the marina when docking.
Please enjoy the Skipper Course or the Maneuvering a sailboat under power online sailing instruction courses.
In the previous blog we dealt with end ties. Now we get onto the more common configurations of boats in a slip.
(5) Wind coming into the slip channel. Your boat is stern to.
Wind from behind
This is best handled by steering out of the slip and then immediately down wind. Back out of the slip channel and well into the main channel before engaging forward.
(6) Wind blowing into the slip channel. Your boat is bow to.
wind from behind
Simply back out of the slip into the slip channel and then into the main channel. You may need a bow line to the windward dock to prevent the bow blowing downwind as you engage reverse.
(7) Wind blowing out of the slip channel. Your boat is bow to.
wind from ahead
Back out into the wind and then engage forward. Watch for traffic as you enter the main channel.
(8) Wind blowing out of the slip channel and your boat is stern to.
wind from behind
Simply drive the boat out to the main channel.
(9) Wind blows across the docks and your boat is stern to.
wind from a beam
Again, simply drive the boat out to the main channel.
(10) Wind blows across the dock and your boat is bow to.
wind from abeam
Simply reverse the boat out of the slip, into the slip channel and then into the main channel. If the wind is light you may elect to turn the boat in the slip channel and come out in forward. However if the wind is strong, it’s safer to follow the above diagram.
Other wind/current configurations are solved using variations of the above techniques.
Most wheels have a center marker such as decorative knot or tape that indicates the centered position.
Post a lookout to make certain there are no other boats either in front or to your sides that may pose a potential collision condition. Courtesy and patience are always signs of a skilled and thoughtful helms person.
Controlling departure speed is important, you must have enough speed to steer, but no more than necessary in case you need to stop and/or maneuver in order to negotiate a turn.
Once in an open area of water you can proceed to start, unfurling sails. See NauticEd’s Module 7 in the Skipper Course or Register for the Maneuvering a Sailboat Under Power Clinic.
This is the continued series on how to leave the dock in a sailboat
(3) Wind pushing into the dock and current from behind.
Leaving the dock
You can use exactly the same method as described in (2) above.
(4) Wind pushing you onto the dock and current coming from forward.
leaving the dock
If the wind is light you can usually get away with just pushing the front of the boat out. But significant wind may prevent this from happening.
- Once you are confident of your plan, appoint a crew member to use a fender at the rear of the boat to prevent the boat from touching the dock.
- Release and stow the dock lines but leave one spring line from the dock near the center of the boat attached to the rear of the boat.
- The spring line should be arranged so that it is attached to the rear cleat, runs freely around the dock cleat and returns back to the appointed crew member. In this manner the crew member can release the line and retrieve it by letting it slip around the dock cleat. ENSURE that there are no knots in the line to get caught on the dock cleat as it runs through.
- Keep the wheel centered and engage reverse gear.
- This will have the effect of pulling the front of the boat away from the dock.
- Once the boat has turned out from the dock, engage forward gear and have your crew member release and retrieve the spring line. Remember the rear of the boat will swing back towards the dock if you turn the wheel. Ensure the boat has swung out enough so that you can motor straight out.
- Continue maneuvering out to be completely clear before turning.
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This is the first in a series of blogs on how to leave a slip or end tie. Some combinations of wind and current can get complicated and some are easy. The first shown below is the easiest. Stay tuned to this series and we’ll show all.
For all scenarios – Prior to push off:
- Start engine and ensure it is adequately warmed.
- Ensure everything is stowed
- No dock lines are in the water to tangle the prop.
- Center the wheel.
- Guests that do not have assigned jobs should be seated.
- Give clear instructions to each crew member on their coming tasks.
- Assess the wind and current direction at the slip so you can be prepared to keep control of the vessel under the prevailing conditions.
The following diagrams show you how to use wind and current to your advantage.
(1) Wind pushing you away from the dock
Leaving and end tie
This is the simplest scenario
- (A) Once you are confidently ready, release and stow docklines, then allow the wind to push the boat clear of other obstacles.
- (B) Engage the gear lever
- (C) Use enough power to overcome the effects from the wind. Head out to enjoy the day.
(2) Wind coming from behind
leaving an end tie wind from behind
This is a little more tricky. If you try to go out forwards the wind could potentially push you into other boats. Additionally as you turn the wheel to head out, the rear of the boat will swing around towards the dock and other boats. therefore it is recommended that you reverse out using a spring line.
- (A) Once you are confident of your plan,
- appoint a crew member to use a fender at the front of the boat to prevent the boat from touching the dock.
- Release and stow the dock lines but leave one spring line from the dock near the center of the boat attached to the front of the boat.
- The spring line should be arranged so that it is attached to the forward cleat, runs freely around the dock cleat and returns back to the appointed crew member. In this manner the crew member can release the line and retrieve it by letting it slip around the dock cleat. ENSURE that there are no knots in the line to get caught on the dock cleat as it runs through.
- Turn the wheel towards the dock and engage forward gear.
- This will have the effect of pushing the rear of the boat away from the dock.
- (B) Once the boat has turned out from the dock, engage reverse and have your forward crew member release and retrieve the spring line.
- (C) Continue backing out to be completely clear before engaging forward gear. Remember the rear of the boat will swing back towards the dock once you engage forward and turn the wheel to windward, so ensure there is plenty of room.