Are you a new boat owner? Speak to any newbie about the biggest challenge they have with boating, and they’re likely to tell you that it’s docking their vessel. Sure, it’s all fun when we’re out on the water. As long as you play it safe and stick to the safety rules, you’re going to have a good time.
However, when the day is over, it’s time to take the boat back to the slips. All of a sudden, boating takes a new turn. The last thing you want to do is ruin the joy of the weekend with a boating accident as you’re docking.
Plenty of things can go wrong when you dock the boat, and if you’re not paying extra careful attention to what you’re doing, you could damage the dock and your boat, costing thousands of dollars in repairs.
While practicing docking is the best way to build the skill, you need a docking strategy to ensure that you have something to practice. Taking a systematic approach to docking your boat is the best way to ensure you get consistent, accident-free results with the task.
This guide to how to dock a boat unpacks everything you need to ensure you get a successful docking experience and a pleasant end to your day trip.
- Top Tips for Docking Your Boat
- What is the Spring Line?
- What is the Bow Line?
- Backing Down
- Follow with Your Bow Line
- Boat Docking Example
- How to Dock a Boat – Quick Checklist
Top Tips for Docking Your Boat
Successfully docking your boat is all about following the right procedure to approaching the dock and bringing the vessel into the slip without damaging the sides of the hull or the dock. We recommend new boat owners follow these tips when docking their boat for the first time.
Take it slow on your first time docking your boat. The process should take a little longer than expected, rather than end up wasting time delivering the boat to the repair shop.
Relax on the Approach
When you’re approaching the dock, take a deep breath, focus your attention on the task, and stay calm. Panicking won’t do anything to solve the problem, and it’s the worst response to have when you’re about to dock.
Panicking will inspire panic in your passengers, and they may decide to jump ship, injuring themselves. Staying in the boat is always the safest option, even if you’re at risk of a hard landing.
Don’t scream at the crew or dockhands; it’s not going to make a difference to them other than to make you look like an authoritarian jerk. Good communication between the crew and dockhands is essential during the docking process.
Bring Down the Throttle
Back off the throttle when you enter the harbor or marina and start moving the boat into a drifting motion, relying more on the wind and current than the power of the motor.
Keep the RPMs on the engine well below the 1,000-rpm mark during the docking process and when entering the marina. Going slow is the biggest tip we can give you.
When you take a relaxed approach to docking, you have more time to respond to the situation if something starts going wrong. Moving into the dock at too fast a speed result in damage to the pier and the boat, and you could end up paying a huge amount of money for repairs.
Prep the Lines and Fenders
Before getting to the dock, have your boat prepped with lines and fenders, ready for the water. Ensure that you’re aware of where the fenders are hanging off the side of the boat. The fenders should provide the hull-sides with the necessary protection from contact with the dock.
Most fenders will hover just above the waterline, and you’ll need between two to three fenders on each side of the boat for the best protection against body damage. You’ll also need a stern line, bowline, and one or two spring lines.
Toss the Line
Unless you’re an experienced captain, it’s a good idea to have the deckhands avoid the practice of providing the bow line first. Bow lines don’t offer you much utility in the early stages of the docking process.
If the boat is in a current or facing the wind, then the dockhands won’t be able to control the vessel using the bowline alone. Instead, you’ll need a spring line that you can hedge forward on or back down.
What is the Spring Line?
The spring line assists with the backward and forward movement of the boat during the docking process. It reduces the chances of the boat banging against the dock as you start to tie it off. The spring line gets you closer to the dock, reducing the play in the line and the distance of the boat to the dock for a secure docking result.
Most dockhands are well aware of how to use a spring line when docking a boat. However, it’s a good idea for captains to learn the process in case there is a rare occasion where you have to guide them through it.
After handing off or tossing off the spring line, the dockhand will wrap the line around a cleat to bring the boat closer to the dock and minimize banging on the sides of the vessel. It’s important that the dockhands don’t lock off the line.
They need to secure the line for a successful docking experience, so it is easy to remove and provides you with the most amount of control possible.
What is the Bow Line?
The bowline is the rope tied to the bow (front) of the boat. You can use the bowline to tow the boat or provide additional support for docking the vessel.
However, new boat owners need to realize that they should not lead the docking process using the bowline.
Backing down is a similar process. You’ll need to provide a forward spring line that allows you to back down on it. Turn the steering wheel of the boat hard to port and then back down after the spring line locks off or secures to the dock.
If you have a vessel with twin screws, back down using the starboard engine only, cutting the wheel hard to port. After completing these tasks, you’ll find that the vessel slowly starts to turn toward the dock.
Follow with Your Bow Line
After you get close enough to the dock, the deckhand provides the bowline to the dockhand. The dockhand locks down the bowline to the dock.
However, they don’t use enough force to complete the task, the stern kicks out, creating further issues with the docking process.
Boat Docking Example
If you’re tying the boat up on the starboard side, and there is a strong win forcing the boat away from the dock, hand the spring line to the dockhand and use a wrap-around cleat to move the spring line forward. Turn the when to starboard, and keep the motor in the forward drive position.
If your boat has twin motors, use the port engine and turn off the starboard engine while turning the steering wheel hard to starboard.
The boat will start to inch towards the dock. Pass the stern line to the dockhand and bring it in tightly. Exchange the stern line for the cross-stern when you finish securing the boat to the dock.
With all three lines secure, you can get the dockhands to tighten the bow and adjust the spring lines where required.
Docking Your Boat in a Slip
Docking in slips at marinas is the most commonplace for boat owners to leave their boat or take a break on land for a while. Before you dock in the slip, we recommend that you have your fender bumpers and docking lines ready.
Start the docking procedure by slowing your speed and checking your surroundings for hazards. Pay attention to the water, the conditions, the current, and the wind. Remember to take it slow when approaching the dock. Going too fast will end with disaster, involving damage to your vessel.
Position the boat to prepare to back into the slip. Center the wheel before you start backing in and slowly reverse into the slip.
Keep your passengers seated during the docking process so they can’t block your view of your surroundings. Having people walking around the deck may also unbalance the boat as you’re backing in, causing an accident.
As you get close to the dock, reverse the throttle quickly with a single burst to kill the boat’s momentum. Tie it off to the pier using your stern and bowlines, and you’re ready to explore the marina.
How to Tie Your Boat to the Dock
With enough practice, you’ll find that docking your boat becomes a piece of cake. With enough experience, you’ll feel like you could do it blindfolded – but don’t do that.
After you’re familiar with the docking process, you’ll need to learn how to tie your boat off to the dock. First, you’ll need to ensure you have the right equipment on hand. Docking or mooring lines are essential for securing the boat to the pier.
There are several different types of docking lines, including the stern, bow, breast, and spring lines. Most docking situations only call for the use of the stern and bowlines. You’ll also need to ensure that you have “fenders” for the sides of the boat. The fenders prevent the sides of the boat from clashing with the dock and damaging your paintwork.
When you’re tying off the boat, you’ll usually find cleats or pilings on the dock, allowing for securing marine lines. The cleats are the smaller, t-shaped steel equipment attached to the pier. You’ll also find similar cleats on the sides of the boat for tying it off to the dock.
Pilings are the wooden or steel posts on docks. You’ll usually see these posts on piers. It’s better to tie off the boat using cleats rather than pilings. Pilings are generally more challenging for new boat owners, and cleats are far more forgiving on your inexperience.
You’ll use one of three common knots when tying off the lines. The cleat hitch, clove hitch, and bowline knot are the most common knots used for tying off. Check out some tutorials on YouTube o learn how to tie these knots.
Bonus Boat Docking Tips
If the wind is strong, it might be a better idea to back in instead of going bow-in to the dock. You’ll need to keep your eye on the process and make fine adjustments frequently for a successful docking experience.
Ensure you have the fenders in the correct position before docking the boat. Fenders make a huge difference, and they’ll save the paintwork from disaster. Ball fenders can save new boat owners thousands of dollars in costly repairs to their vessels every year.
Many new boats come with a stern or bow thrusters. These thrusters are helpful in the docking process, making the fine adjustments required for a successful docking procedure.
How to Dock a Boat – Quick Checklist
Docking a boat is the most stressful part of the boating experience for new owners. It’s stressful and nerve-wracking, but you’ll get better at it with practice. Learning how to dock a boat isn’t rocket science, but the biggest tip we can give you is to monitor the environmental conditions when approaching the dock.
Noting the wind, wind speed, and water conditions is the most crucial aspect of the docking process and managing your speed when navigating the marina or harbor.
Other than that, you can use this brief checklist for a successful docking experience with your vessel.
- Prep your docking lines and attach the fenders.
- Line up your approach to the dock and survey the landing area for hazards.
- Judge the wind and the current around the pier.
- Take your time with the docking procedure, and don’t rush things.
- Don’t approach the dock at speed over where you’re willing to make contact.
- Navigate the vessel to the slip or turn the bat to come alongside the pier.
- Tie the boat off using the docking lines, cleats, pilings, or poles.