How Not To Dock Your Boat.

We see a lot out here. A lot of bad docking maneuvers and a lot of bad anchoring. We don’t have any more experience than they do, but we try to do it right. I’m not talking about anchoring today, that’s a whole nother post. Today is docking.

Of the cruisers out here, I’m the best at docking that I’ve seen. That’s not as arrogant as it sounds–the bar isn’t set very high. They don’t know what to do or what not to do.

Typical docking goes like this. Ram the dock with the bow at a 45 degree angle at 3-5 knots, thus tossing the person on the bow and the bow line onto the dock. Big crunch. Everybody yells. The guy laying on the dock regains consciousness and ties the bow line to a cleat as the stern drifts into the next boat. Everybody yells, everybody runs, and there’s another crunch. The bowline guy stumbles down the dock yelling “Trow the line! Trow the line!” Somebody throws the line but it’s too short and it lands in the water. Now the skipper yells and runs to the side of the boat to try to get the line out of the water before it fouls the prop. It’s not pretty. That is not how to do it.

The most important part of docking happened, or in this case didn’t happen, a long time ago. Practice. You have to find an empty dock somewhere near where you keep your boat and you have to practice. Gently. When there’s nobody around (no witnesses) and when it doesn’t count. Learn to get your boat near the dock. Learn to turn your boat when you’re going slow. Learn what effect the wind has on your boat. Learn what your prop walk does when you’re in reverse. Learn what the tide does.  After that, try to gently touch your boat to the dock. Don’t even tie up, just touch the dock with your boat. Go slow. Relax. Practice.

The second most important part of docking happens before you approach the dock. It’s in your head. The boat, the wind, the dock, those aren’t your main problems, your head is.

I took a race car course a long time ago. One of the first exercises was on the skid pad. The skid pad was 500′ x 500′. It was 250,000 square feet of slick wet concrete. There was a single yellow line across the center, perpendicular to my path, with an orange traffic cone in the middle. The instructor’s directions were quite simple. Slide the car sideways across the line, anywhere. DON’T HIT THE CONE. Very simple. There were two hundred and fifty feet on either side of the cone. It didn’t matter where you passed the line. Half of the people hit the cone. Why? They had so much room. Why hit the cone? As it turns out, hitting the cone was the lesson. You see, they were concentrating, even obsessing on not hitting the cone. That’s all they were thinking about and all they were looking at and they drove their cars right into the cone. You have to concentrate on where you want to go, not on where you don’t want to go. Put your eyes where you want the boat. Visualize the boat moving into that spot. Plan for that happening. Make it happen.

The third most important part is to slow down and to relax. Moving a boat across the water is a slow process. When we’re sailing far, we plan on making 4- 5 knots. That’s jogging speed. It doesn’t matter if you get to the dock right now or three minutes from now, so slow down. A clock does not begin ticking from the minute that you decide to dock. The boat has not begun to sink. There is no urgency except in your head. Before you try to dock, let the boat drift. Even stop it if you can and just feel the wind and the current. Relax. How will this wind and this current move your boat? You should know in a minute because it’s doing it now. How can you use this to your advantage? Relax. Wave to somebody on the dock as though you have all the time in the world. Smile. Relax.

The fourth most important part is to use your disadvantages and make them advantages. The wind blows our bow down really badly. I use that. If it’s blowing off of the dock towards the side of me, I come in at a sharper angle to the dock and let the wind turn my bow as I slow. If it’s blowing us towards the dock, I come in parallel and let it blow the bow over as I move the stern over with the prop & rudder. Our boat has horrible horrible prop walk to starboard when it’s in reverse. I use this to make me look like a pro. If I have to turn the boat around sharply I always turn to port. That way when I put it in reverse it pulls the stern around, completing my circle rather than ruining it. I can turn this 45′ LOA boat all the way around in 50 feet. I also use that prop walk when docking. I always try to get a  starboard tie slip. That way, as I come up to the dock at an angle, when the bow gets close I put it in reverse and the stern pulls over into the dock and we touch the dock going sideways, gently.

No running, no yelling, no crunching. You can do this well. You just need to practice, get your head right, relax, and use your boat’s properties to your advantage.

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2 Comments Comments For This Post I'd Love to Hear Yours!

  1. paul says:

    Hi Steve–terrifically written post! How I wish I had known all that when I first started fishing. You taught me a new term: “prop walk”. Cool. I guess my old fishing boat handled like yours–put it in reverse & the back end (stern?) pulled to the right (starboard?) Anywho…I DID picture me trying to dock a boat, a million times in my head. This was always accompanied by an intense headache & extreme anxiety. Some days, instead of pulling up to the pier at Avila with a couple boxes of fish, I’d chicken out & row the poor creatures across 400-500 yards of tough NW wind waves (30 knots–white caps–rowing an 8 foot coffin from one anchor chain to the next–gasping for air at each one–very damned dangerous). That’s how scared I was to dock my boat. Eventually I sort of got the hang of it, didn’t destroy much public property–but I always felt scared & stupid. Kinda’ like an airplane: everything’s just fine when you’re in the air; the problems arise as plane meets ground. Wish you had been there! Paul
    p.s.–this may be a physical aberration of sorts: I really don’t like backing up my old Chevy Blazer either.

  2. Steve says:

    Just put a swivel seat in your Blazer so you can turn around when you back it up!

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