I grew up in a sailing family. I learned by example from my dad, then by experimentation after that. Since our early boats had no engines (nor did they go in reverse!) I did not learn about docking except how to sail a tiny light boat up to a dock and turn into the wind. Not much use for our 32,000 pound 45’ boat! Ever since I had been docking by winging it – and sometimes winging the bow pulpit. I successfully docked in most situations, but it was always nerve-wracking.
Finally I have had an opportunity to change that. I took my first ever ASA class here in San Francisco and learned techniques I would not have thought of, plus got confidence by doing it myself. The Advanced Motoring & Docking class as taught by Tradewinds Sailing School in Richmond, CA is fabulous. At first I thought it seemed expensive at $325. However it’s a full day on the water and the in-person instruction was fabulous. There were just two of us in the class and we used a Jeanneau 43 for the day. I learned so much about controlling the boat in tight quarters WITHOUT jumping off the boat or doing other dangerous and unnecessary actions. Although they test on the ASA information, they also introduce their own methods which, I have to agree, seem far better than the traditional approaches.
I will share with you some of the information I learned, but of course my notes are only to pique your interest and maybe give you some hints for your own docking. I strongly recommend that if this interests you that you find a course yourself, but you might ask if their methods require jumping off the boat to catch lines when docking. Tradewinds methods have convinced me that this is a dangerous and unnecessary practice, despite being the most commonly seen. Tradewinds trains you to stay on the boat, keep the boat under control, and step off the boat to tie dock lines only when the excitement has ended, the boat is stopped, and it is safe to do so slowly.
Moving a boat under power has six elements that you have to balance or learn to work around. Wind and Current clearly can affect how the boat behaves. Prop Walk and Prop Wash are two ways that the boat’s motion is affected by the propeller action. And finally Momentum (how much way you have on) and Inertia (the tendency to keep moving in the direction you are already going, even when the engine is in neutral) are two more forces that can be used as tools to controlling the boat by power. These influences are probably familiar to you but we’ll run through them quickly.
Wind and Current
Current tends to affect the whole boat, making it move downstream in generally a straight line. It can also be hard to see until you suddenly realize you are going to miss the slip you were aiming for.
Wind tends to affect the bow most quickly, making it trickier to move the bow into the wind without it blowing off. But this means that reversing into a wind is often easier than powering forward into a head wind. Useful to realize that.
Momentum and Inertia
Momentum is the amount of force your boat has based on its speed and weight. Momentum is why you want to have control over speed – as they say you should approach the dock at the speed at which you are willing to hit it. Inertia is the tendency to stay moving a particular direction. Inertia will be essential in fighting prop walk – read on!
Prop Walk and Prop Wash
Prop Walk is the tendency for the boat to turn in a particular direction when reversing. Most boats have a right-hand turning propeller which forces the stern to the left when in reverse. Left-hand propellers would do the opposite. In the following paragraphs I will default to a right-hand turning propeller but I will try to remember to put notes in parentheses e.g. (LH: steer left) for those with left-hand drive props.
How do you know whether you have a right-hand or left-hand drive? If you have tried to reverse you may have noticed that it curled off to one direction or another. But if you have a new boat then you can check this at the dock when tied off securely. Put the engine in forward with moderate throttle. On one side of the boat or another, just aft of amidships, you will see agitated water. The other side of the boat will be calmer. This agitated water is the result of Prop Wash as the propeller blasts water off the keel. For a boat propeller that turns to the right, clockwise, (when viewed from astern) the prop wash will appear on the starboard side (and your boat will reverse to the left). If you see the turbulence on your port side you have a left-hand drive, your boat will reverse to starboard, and will need to follow the (LH: xxx) instructions.
Whichever direction of Prop Walk your boat has, transitions to neutral will allow the boat to keep moving backwards without continuing to turn. Short bursts in reverse will apply more power to keep moving backwards, but once you get way on again, pop into neutral to counteract the turning.
Going into neutral allows the boat to stop exhibiting prop walk while still moving in the direction you were going the moment you slipped out of reverse.
Use Minimum Motions
Big motions get you in trouble on a boat. Tiny adjustments are often enough and easy to counteract if you went the wrong direction. A 6” turn of the wheel is plenty – do a little and watch. Likewise just changing gears is often enough, you may not need to throttle up to change the motion of your boat. Change gears first, then throttle up slowly if you still need the power. Occasionally you will need to give a burst of throttle, but it still does not need to be a large change, just quick.
Note: If you have a throttle and a gear shift (my boat has a single handle for both functions) then don’t forget: Forward – Neutral – Reverse – never go straight from Forward to Reverse, always pause in Neutral to avoid transmission damage.
Remember A Boat Doesn’t Drive Like a Car
My very first cruising boat was a homemade beauty that had some, shall we say, peculiarities. One of these was that the steering system was from a car. The steering wheel was a smallish car steering wheel and it was hooked up backwards – you turned left to go right – sort of like a tiller. Boy did I get confused when trying to back up! I assume you don’t have this issue on your boat. However notice that this entire article assume you have wheel steering. For tillers a right rudder is effected by turning the tiller LEFT, whereas a steering wheel (usually) is turned right to effect a right rudder.
In some ways a boat DOES turn like a car: When you are going forward (assuming sufficient speed) and turn the wheel to the right your boat starts a right turn in a gentle arc. If you were to reverse (assuming sufficient speed) it would follow that same arc in reverse (until you slow enough for prop walk to affect your boat’s motion).
Whether going astern (with sufficient speed) or ahead the boat tends to travel along an arc. The left image above shows the path when the rudder / wheel is turned left and the right image shows the path with right rudder / wheel.
However, unlike a car, a boat turns about a pivot point aft of the main. So when the bow moves to the right in a turn, the stern is swinging out to the left.
If you’re turning a boat your stern can hit a pillar which the bow cleared just fine – check your stern and turn when it is safe for the stern to swing out.
Also be aware of Advance which is much greater in a boat than in a car. Advance is the distance before the opening that you need to start your turn (when entering forwards). Our instructor told us that for the 43’ boat we were sailing that we needed to start the turn into the slip about 62’ out – about 3 of our marina’s 21’-wide slips before the slip we were going into. Remember that the helmsman determines when to start turning so the advance distance is properly the horizontal distance from the helm station to the center of the slip you are going to.
Other sources say to turn when the opening is 30 degrees off the direction of your boat. Try these methods until you are comfortable turning into your home slip and you can estimate a similar distance or angle when going into an unfamiliar marina.
Note that these docking techniques are different than most of us are taught in two ways:
- no one jumps off the boat until the boat is stopped next to the dock
- you do not throw lines to people on the dock, instead you stay in control until stopped then step off the boat
This may be heresy to you and other captains you sail with, but it is much safer for both your crew and your boat.
Some Techniques to Practice
If you think of docking as being done 75% in neutral you won’t be far off. Neutral has the great advantage of taming prop walk and utilizing momentum effectively. Of course you have to use forward and reverse to get anywhere, but think of forward and reverse as momentary “correctors” that just increase your momentum or change your direction.
In some of these maneuvers you will want to have a “loop” prepared to help control the boat when you arrive. An aft spring loop will be a mooring line secured at your aft cleat and your waist (midships) cleat with enough slack to nearly touch the water. It will be used when heading forwards along a dock.
A forward spring loop is similar – a mooring line secured at your bow cleat and your waist (midships) cleat with enough slack to nearly touch the water. It will be used when backing onto a dock. In both cases you want there to be enough slack that the crew can pick up the slack in two hands and toss it over a cleat on the dock when the boat is nearly stopped and in good control close to the dock. The boat will back down (forward spring loop) or move up (aft spring loop) and get sucked into the dock with no need to use (unreliable) bystanders or dangerous leaps to shore from a moving boat. See more detail in Parallel Approaches below.
Back-and-Fill or Standing Turn
A standing turn, changing direction or “spinning” in place, also called Back-and-Fill is a useful technique. You can practice this is an open area, or for best results, in an empty mooring field where you can really mark your starting position. For a RH Drive boat you will put your wheel all the way to the right (LH: Left wheel) and lean against it to hold it in place – you will not be turning the wheel again until you’re done. Go forward and proceed slowly on your turn. When you are starting to move away from your starting position, go into reverse, where you will be helped by prop walk as well as the rudder angle. Once you start to go backwards rather than just turning, shift back into forward and continue alternating forwards and reverse until your boat is facing the new direction. Straighten your wheel to proceed.
The Standing Turn or Back-and-Fill. The dark line out the back represents the rudder/wheel position and the pink arrow indicates direction of travel. By alternately reversing and going forward you can turn your boat in place.
Where do you use this?
- preparatory to backing into your slip
- turning in a fairway when you are headed the wrong direction (oh – the fuel dock is over THERE!)
- any time you need to turn the boat around and have limited space to do it
- showing off for your friends
Perpendicular Forward Approach
Say you are approaching the fuel dock. It is directly in front of you. You are going to need to turn to come parallel to it. How close do you get before turning? A rule of thumb is approach until the bow of your boat appears to be at the same level as the dock you are approaching. This is a rough guide, but much easier than trying to guesstimate when you are, say 62’ away. Then once you are parallel to the dock proceed as for Parallel Forward Approach below.
Parallel Forward Approach
This is probably the most common way to approach a pump-out or fuel dock when there is plenty of room to do so. When you can approach from either side equally then plan to approach port side to the dock (LH: starboard side to the dock) so you can use prop walk in getting off if needed. Prepare an aft spring loop on the port side (LH: starboard side) as described above. Approach slowly in forward gear from a ways out, turn 30 degrees to the dock until you judge you are getting close, then straighten the wheel. You should be in neutral by now. Make adjustments (reverse if you’re going too fast, forward if you’ve lost way) and slow down until you are stopped or nearly stopped a few feet away from the dock. Ask the crew to toss the aft spring loop onto a cleat. Then pop into forward with very low throttle and turn the wheel away from the dock. The boat will be sucked into the dock and held there so that crew can safely and slowly disembark. If you need to do a lengthy fuel up or need to take your boat out of gear for another reason then the crew can secure the boat normally with mooring lines. Otherwise you can just stay in gear while you pump out.
Aft Spring Loop – Forward Gear – Turn away from dock
Parallel Backwards Approach
This approach is very similar to above but you will be backing in and using a forward spring loop. The preference is also to land on the port side (LH: starboard side) In this method but you can approach with either side to the dock in good conditions (little wind or current). Once the spring is deployed, pop into a gentle reverse, and you will be sucked into the dock and against the spring line.
Forward Spring Loop – Reverse Gear – Rudder not significant
You can also use this method if you are going in forward but the only cleat is ahead. Then you can use the forward spring but change into reverse and go backwards to secure yourself against the dock.
Wind on your bow is destabilizing – the bow can blow down and it is difficult to control the boat. However moving your stern into the wind is actually easier – the bow tends NOT to blow off when the stern is into the wind. You do have to contend with prop walk, but you have been given ways to deal with that.
So if you are approaching your slip on a very windy day these are the easiest ways to approach:
- back in if the wind is coming out of your slip
- go in forwards if the wind is blowing into the slip
Especially if others are watching! Why make it harder?
Backing in with wind ahead
But if you do need to back up with the wind from forward and your bow is tending to blow off, it gets confusing knowing which direction to turn. Rather than try to wrestle through the logic, just turn in the direction you DON’T want the bow to go.
If backing up and the bow starts to fall off to starboard, turn starboard. If it starts to fall off to port, turn to port. Little turns, a few inches.
Why does this work? Remember that when in reverse the stern turns to the right when the wheel is right, which means the bow turns to left.
Backing Out of the Slip – Basic
The most basic idea about leaving the slip is to plan for where you want to end up. You always want to end up on the windward side of the center line down the fairway heading towards the exit. For those with a fairway exit opposite the direction their prop walk takes them, well, you may need to back down the fairway and you should become comfortable with this. You can also use spring lines or warps to get your boat turned opposite the prop walk direction, but that is beyond the scope of this article.
Wind Coming out of the slip
The wind will assist getting out of the slip but you need to take a fairly tight turn so that you stay on the windward side of the slip and don’t blow down on the boats across the fairway. You may need a spring line on the outer leeward side of the slip to help you turn.
Wind Blowing into the slip
When the wind is blowing into the slip it’s essential to reverse a little more forcefully to get out of the slip, but you can take a wider turn so as to end up on the other side of the fairway. You will need to make sure you can get your bow around so that you don’t get blown back down onto the pilings around your slip. So as soon as you are out of the slip and are crossing the center line of the fairway forcefully turn the wheel towards the wind, shift into forward and give it plenty of throttle to get that bow moving.
I hope these notes give you a few more ways to think about docking. I haven’t talked much about using lines to further control your entry to or departure from a slip – that’s the Advanced Advanced Class! Likewise maneuvering around other boats on the docks you are approaching. But in good conditions and without other boats around these methods will work with no additional measures. So practice these docking techniques until you are confident entering and departing your slip in good conditions, and you can approach the fuel dock with confidence. Good Luck and Be Calm.