Docking a Sailboat Requires a Plan

Posted by Director of Education on February 23, 2015 under Bareboat Charter, Coastal Navigation, Crew, Maneuvering Under Power, Skipper | Comments are off for this article

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.

If you like this story please LIKE it on facebook and g+1 it. Thanks it really helps us grow and in this case helps prevent people from damaging theirs and other’s boats.

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.

Take the NauticEd Manevuering Under Power course now!

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.




How to Spring Off a Tee Head

Posted by Director of Education on November 19, 2013 under Bareboat Charter, Crew, Maneuvering Under Power, Skipper | Comments are off for this article

This is a follow up blog on last week’s How To Spring On To A Dock.

If you like it – please “like it” – thanks it really helps us grow.

Once you’ve jammed your self into a tight fuel dock, now how do you get out?

Pretty simple. Just back out – but use a forward spring line and prop wash on the rudder to lever the stern of the boat out. Once it is out far enough, center the rudder and engage reverse. Make sure you have fenders positioned properly.

This and countless other tips and exercises are embedded into the Maneuvering a Sailboat Under Power Course

How confident are you at maneuvering your boat in high winds when the wind and current aren’t playing nice? How much would a scratch cost on some one elses boat? How much is confidence and self esteem worth these days? Both answers are more than $39 I bet.

Register for the Maneuvering a Sailboat Under Power Course NOW!


NauticEd Maneuvering Under Power Course

Starting out in reverse has its issues

Posted by Grant Headifen on July 2, 2009 under Maneuvering Under Power, Skipper | Be the First to Comment

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:

Hi Grant

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.



HI Grant
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!
Thanks again

Shhhh be vewy vewy quiet – don’t tell the power boaters

Posted by Grant Headifen on May 24, 2009 under Maneuvering Under Power, Rules of Right of Way, Skipper | Be the First to Comment

Sailboats are much more maneuverable than power boats – but don’t spread the word because all the powerboaters will run to their congressmen to get the Navigation Rules changed. Currently power boats give way to sailboats and we want to keep it that way – right?

Now of course, just to clarify regarding the navigation rules – when a sailboat has its engines on – it is classified as a powerboat.

This blog topic came up as I was teaching a practical session of the Maneuvering Under Power Clinic. The student was amazed at the turning radius of the Beneteau 373 “Siyagruva” that I was teaching on. We were following the curriculum laid out in the Maneuvering a Sailboat Under Power Clinic. One of the first maneuvers is to put the boat through its paces – wheel hard over to port and engine set high at 2500 rpm. The Beneteau instantly responds with an extremely tight turn to port and heel to starboard due to the centrifugal force and the rig aloft. Then hard over to starboard. The student could not believe how tight the turns were and the speed at which the boat reacted. We had picked a no wake marker buoy at the exit of the cove to do our maneuvers around. And of course being a sailboat we also produced – no wake. This was amazing to the student. We used the buoy marker to get a reference point to see the tight turn radius. We then did several figure 8s in forward and reverse.

The crux of the turning  is that sailboats have a giant board under the water called the rudder. This board has soooo much area to it that the boat can’t help but submit to the forces imparted to it via the turned rudder. And especially when the propeller is shooting water over it. Conversely, power boats have very little rudder surface and rely on the speed of water from the prop over the small surface to provide the turning moment – or they turn the engine in the case of IPS’s or inboard/outboards or outboards. None of these can beat out the giant 4 foot (1.3m) long board of the rudder.

Maneuverability of a sailboat under power

Maneuverability of a sailboat under power

Under sail, the effect is the same. A giant rudder under the water  produces a huge turning force that can instantly turn the boat. Also remember that the force produced goes up with the square of the water velocity over the rudder. So at 4 knots you have 4 times the turning force at 2 knots or at 8 knots you have 16 times the turning force at two knots. This is almost by immaculate design because the faster you go the more damage you’ll cause if you hit something but at the same time you have the advantage of being able to turn faster.

And the cool thing is that we sailboaters hide this rudder below the water line where the power boaters can’t see it. So they still think that the navigation rules are fair because – we’re handicapped right? With only the wind to propel us. Poor sailors! Joking aside – the rules are just and fair as they are, but the point is that next time you’re out get a real feel for your boat’s maneuverability. Put her through the paces under power and sail – you’ll be thankful you understand your boats turning limits next time you need them.

And … the result of the teaching lesson with the student Patrick? Well he was backing the boat into the slip with a high cross wind with full confidence at the end of the lesson. Take the Maneuvering Under Power Clinic.

Docking continued

Posted by Grant Headifen on March 3, 2009 under Bareboat Charter, Crew, Maneuvering Under Power, Skipper | Be the First to Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Other Considerations

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.

More on Docking

Posted by Grant Headifen on February 28, 2009 under Bareboat Charter, Maneuvering Under Power, Skipper | Be the First to Comment

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

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

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.

If you liked this article, please Share it, Digg it or Tweet it below. It helps spread the word of NauticEd.

Momentum Discussion

Posted by Grant Headifen on February 19, 2009 under Maneuvering Under Power, Skipper | 2 Comments to Read

Here is an exercise that everyone should do. It’s taken from the Maneuvering a Sailboat Under Power clinic which gives 20 different exercises to be able to confidently maneuver a sailboat.

Exercise 1: Under power, and going down wind, move towards a marker or buoy and stop the boat with the buoy abeam of the boat. You’ll invariably overshoot. No problem though because you’re in deep water and nowhere near a marina.

Sailboat moving downwind under power

Sailboat moving downwind under power

What you learned: You overshot for two reasons the boat has a massive amount of momentum and the wind is pushing you from behind. To do it better next time, put the engine into reverse about 5 boat lengths back at about 1000 rpm. As the boat begins to slow, gauge whether you should increase the engine speed against the approaching speed of the buoy. Work the engine up to 2500 rpm and down to ensure you stop in the desired place. Most people make the mistake of putting the engine in reverse too late and then have to overpower the engine at the last minute.

Exercise 2: Repeat exercise 1 above but headed into wind.

What you learned: You still run the possibility of overshooting your mark largely again because of the momentum of the boat. The exact same principles apply. Use reverse with plenty of space and work the engine to gauge your approach.

Sailboat moving upwind under power

Sailboat moving upwind under power

The bottom line here is that the boat does not work very well in reverse. As another example – from stand still notice the acceleration of the boat in both forward and reverse. You’ll see that the boat takes off much faster in forward. Why, well that’s easy – because the propeller is mostly used in forward the shape of the prop is engineered to have its greatest efficiency in forward. The trade off is poor performance in reverse. However – enter the innovative reversing propeller. The following video shows a reversing propeller turning and then flipping it’s blades entirely around so that the blades always work in their most efficient mode.


This video is courtesy of MaxProp who manufacture the reversing prop. You can visit their website at

If you liked this article, please Share it, Digg it or Tweet it below. It helps spread the word of NauticEd.