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How to Dock a Boat in a Slip

by Will Charpentier
Large or small, they all end up docked somehow.

Large or small, they all end up docked somehow.

If it falls to you to dock a boat in a slip and you are successful, accomplishing the feat with a calm air and precise, crisp boat- and line-handling, you are a rarity. Among professional seafarers who sail on "the big water", docking is often accompanied by shouts, groans and bouts of confusion. The keys to docking a boat in a slip are explaining what you will do well beforehand and going slowly enough to stop before things get out of hand.

Power Boat, With a Companion

Explain to your companion, exactly what you will do. Show him where the mooring line is, point to the eye of the line that they will place over the cleat on the pier, and show him how to secure the line to the cleat on the boat. Explain that you want the line pulled reasonably tight, but that he shouldn't fret if the line dips toward the water a little because the motion of the boat will slacken the line slightly.

Reduce your vessel's speed to bare steerageway--very slow, but not so slow that your boat won't respond to the steering wheel--and move toward the pier at about a 45-degree angle. When your boat is one boat-length from the pier, shift into neutral.

Turn your boat away from the pier --called "shearing off"--just before the bow of touches the pier. Tell the person manning the mooring line to drop the eye of the line over the cleat on the pier and tie off to the cleat on the bow of the boat.

Take note of the direction of the now-secured line and its angle. If the line runs from the bow of the boat to the cleat on the pier at an angle of 45 degrees or more, turn your steering away from the pier and shift your motor ahead at very slow speed, moving the boat's stern into the pier.

Drop the eye of the stern line over a cleat on the pier and tie off to a cleat on deck.

Power Boat, Unaccompanied

Reduce your vessel's speed to bare steerageway--very slow, but not so slow that your boat won't respond to the steering wheel--and move toward the pier at about a 45-degree angle. When you're one boat-length from the pier, shift your motor into neutral.

Turn your boat away from the pier when you are half a boat-length from the pier and shift your motor into neutral. When the bow turns away from the pier at a 45-degree angle, center the steering and shift your motor into reverse enough to stop the boat.

Back the boat to the pier, shifting into neutral when you are half a boat-length from the pier. Turn your steering away from the pier just before the stern makes contact with the pier. Drop the eye of a stern mooring line over a cleat and let out an extra two or three feet of line before tying the line to the cleat on the boat deck. Turn your steering fully away from the pier and shift your motor ahead at very slow speed, moving the boat's bow into the pier as the stern line tightens.

Leave the motor in gear and the steering turned away from the pier. Move forward to the bow line. Drop the eye of the bow line over a cleat on the pier and tie off to a cleat on deck.

Tips

  • Go slow. The only thing going fast gets you is in trouble, faster.
  • Take note of the direction of the wind and any current that's present. If the wind is blowing you toward the pier, pull up parallel to the pier and let the wind blow you into place, using your engine to move you a bit ahead or a bit to the rear, only as needed. Once the wind has successfully docked you, tie your boat off and congratulate yourself on a job well done.
  • When in doubt, stop. Docking allows for an infinite number of "do-overs" unless you don't stop doing the wrong thing quickly enough.
  • Once you have a line connected between your boat and the pier, you're in good shape, even if there's six feet of slack.You can pull on a line, pull your bow or stern or both into the pier and re-tie the lines to remove the slack and make things neat. It's not graceful, but as they say in aviation, any landing you can walk away from is a good landing. Once your lines and your boat are completely adjusted, no one will ever know you didn't "put it in the hole" just like that.

Warnings

  • Warn your companion, if you have a companion, to stay seated until it's time for her to do her part. Tell her not to stand in the bow, trying to look like "a pro", for two reasons: a pro won't stand up until absolutely necessary; and you want to dock the boat and not play "man overboard".
  • If unaccompanied and deploying a mooring line to a pier yourself, don't lean out so far that you fall over the rail. If the cleat is more than an arm's length away, tie one end of the line to the cleat on your boat, hold the other end of the line in your hand and throw the middle of the line (the "bight" of the line) over the cleat on the pier. You can haul the boat closer to the pier by pulling the end in your hand. When the boat is next to the dock, simply tie off the line in your hand to a cleat on your boat.

References

  • "Chapman Piloting, Seamanship and Small Boat Handling"; E. Maloney; 1996

About the Author

Will Charpentier is a writer who specializes in boating and maritime subjects. A retired ship captain, Charpentier holds a doctorate in applied ocean science and engineering. He is also a certified marine technician and the author of a popular text on writing local history.

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