How to dock a boat safely
Learning how to dock a boat requires advanced planning. Before you even arrive at the dock, prepare your boat for docking and make sure your crew knows what to do. Planning ahead and communicating those plans with your crew will help you dock without incident.
Prepare the crew
Explain your docking plan prior to arrival. Let your crew know what to do and what conditions might be encountered while docking. Answering the following questions will help the crew determine how to react:
- From what direction will you be approaching the dock?
- What are the wind and current doing?
- Which dock lines should be passed or picked up first?
- In what sequence will you need assistance or lines secured?
- What will happen if a problem occurs?
An unexpected gust of wind or stronger-than-anticipated current will affect your approach and the completion of docking procedures. Even traffic in the marina or channel could change your docking plan. The crew should know what to do if that happens.
Establish communication procedures
Communication during docking should be worked out in advance and kept simple to avoid confusion or possible misunderstanding. In many situations, voice commands will be sufficient for directing the crew. However, less than optimal weather conditions, greater distance or an obstructed view could render them useless, so it’s a good idea to establish prearranged hand signals for use during docking.
You need to assess the wind and current conditions to help formulate your docking plan:
- Look at flags to estimate wind direction and speed.
- Look at current ripples around buoys and pilings to judge the current’s effects.
- Observe other boats moored in the harbor. Which way are they turned? Concentrate on boats like yours that are arrayed in different directions.
- Stop your boat briefly and observe what it does.
When the wind is coming head on (in the opposite direction of your boat’s movement), you can use it to help you dock and complete other slow-speed maneuvers. Use the wind to slow down your boat and gain better control when maneuvering.
Wind coming from astern acts against your boat, pushing it and increasing its speed. When performing slow-speed maneuvers, you need to anticipate how much acceleration the wind is adding and compensate by reducing power. When approaching docks, moorings or other boats, use reverse thrust to offset the pushing wind.
Prepare your vessel
Prepare your lines for docking well before you approach the dock. Attach the bow, stern and spring lines to the boat and coil them on the deck. Use center cleats, if your boat has them, to attach spring lines.
If your boat has lifelines, pass your docking lines outboard over the top of the lifelines, bring them inboard again under the lifelines and attach them to the boat’s cleats. This ensures that docking lines go directly from the boat cleat to the dock without touching the lifelines. Place fenders as needed and have boat hooks at the ready in case you need to fend off the dock or other boats.
Proper fender placement will prevent chafing damage to the hull while docking. Placement depends on your boat’s hull shape and the height of the dock or pier against which the boat will be tied. When returning to your slip, deploying fenders and fender boards should be easy. If you’ve already set them to the correct length, you’ll only need to reattach them to the stanchion, cleat or railing.
If you dock your boat against pier pilings, you may need a docking fender board or a long fender placed horizontally. Fender boards are also useful to protect the hull from rubbing against lock walls when transiting locks.
Knowing what to expect ahead of time prepares your crew so it can focus on the docking process, rather than searching for needed equipment.
Dockmasters usually let you know on which side to place your dock lines and fenders. If not, ask. Ideally, someone will be at the dock to assist you as you dock. If not, you need to be able to position the boat and deploy the dock lines yourself. Caution the crew not to jump onto the dock or try to hold or stop the boat with hands or legs. This can cause serious injuries.
Prepare to dock in tight quarters
Docking in narrow slips or between two boats requires preparation and planning to prevent damaging your boat and others. Using dock lines to pivot becomes more important when docking in tight quarters as the lines provide more control when moving at slow speeds. When necessary, they can prevent movement forward or astern.
Station crew members at critical locations fore and aft to fend off or handle dock lines. The crew should have boat hooks at the ready. They should be used with caution to prevent injury, and never braced against the body, which could force the boat hook into the handler’s body. Don’t use boat hooks to fend off when docking larger, heavier boats. Secure dock lines before beginning the maneuver.
When to abort or delay docking
Occasionally, problems develop during docking. Have a plan in case the docking attempt is unsuccessful. Look around to see if other boats are approaching or departing the marina or docking area. Are there any personal watercraft moving through the area? If you are entering a congested area with limited room to maneuver, move out of the way and let other boats pass or wait to enter the channel.
To learn more about docking and leaving a dock, take our Confidence in Docking and Undocking seminar.
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Learn to boat with confidence by taking the full Boat Handling course online from America’s Boating Club.