Despite over 500 hours of running Tenacity and Vigilant, we still occasionally struggle when pulling into a dock or slip.

As mentioned here a few years back, the Dreaded Four Piling (or two Piling) Back-In Slip is often the most challenging, but now that the crew has more experience, we’ve executed these rather well this season.

We did have two high drama events this year and both shared three things in common:

  1. Backing into a slip with a finger pier and an angled dock off the stern which was blind to the helm.

2. Marina dockhands who didn’t seem to know what they were doing!

Image result for dock hand

3. A strong breeze pushing Vigilant into peril.

A Better Way

Mrs. Horne and I hate drama, especially on the boat, and particularly in high stress situations. We’ve recently acquired a set of Sena wireless Bluetooth Headsets and going forward, we should at the very least be able to communicate as we approach the dock or slip.

Hearing each other is a good first step, but if we’re going to operate like a “well oiled machine,” we need a game plan!

A Docking Checklist

I’m suggesting the adoption of a Docking Checklist to minimize or hopefully even eliminate docking drama.

Know The Set-up As Soon A Possible

The Captain needs to contact the dockmaster and ascertain the docking particulars as soon as possible. Specifically, if a finger pier or dock is involved, ask if it’s a port or starboard tie. If it’s pilings, determine how many and instruct the crew to set 6 lines with springs port, starboard, and crisscrossing the stern.

Get Set and Take A Breath Before Approach

Before you get into tight quarters, the Captain must give the crew time to set lines and bumpers. Nothing creates drama like pulling the boat in while the crew is still running around setting the gear. The First Mate must clearly signal “ready” to the Captain so he/she knows when to proceed.

Know Your Exposure (Which Way the Wind is Blowing)

I look to everyone – Captain and Crew to determine the wind direction and severity. It’s really the key factor in avoiding drama at docking.

I suggest adopting a “level of risk” scale and making sure the crew understands it before we begin our landing…

Code Green – No wind and/or moderate winds pushing the boat toward the side dock. No dockside hazards – all docks and pilings bumpered. Under these circumstances, I can pretty much dock all by myself with the crew leisurely departing and cleating up the boat.

Code Yellow – When we have moderate wind pushing the boat toward or away from the dock things can get dicey. Although properly set fenders should protect the boat, it’s important to cleat a mid ship line snugly as soon as possible.

If the wind is pushing us away from the dock and a line isn’t cleated, we’re still not docked. As captain I feel like I’m in a danger zone. I need to pulse the thrusters to hold the boat to the pier, but not knowing what’s going on with all those lines lying around I’m worrying about sucking a line into the thruster. And if the wind is pushing the boat toward the dock, you want it snug ASAP to avoid bumping.

Code Red – Moderate to strong winds combined any and all exposed “hazards to Gelcoat” even when there’s not much wind. A few weeks we were in a light wind condition docking at the MBY gas dock. By the time it was too late, we noticed that the bumper strip had fallen off a piling, but the screws that once held the bumper were still protruding – Instant deep Gelcoat gashes.

The most obvious hazard is often a raw wood piling that may have a nail or screw exposed. I have had a few of these and repair cost is usually $500-$1,000.

The other piece of Gelcoat that’s totally exposed is the swim platform off the stern. It doesn’t have a stainless steel rub rail and it’s attached to the boat with through-hull bolts. If it were to smash a concrete pier with enough force, it could break loose and sink the boat!

More likely, it will get damaged as did Vigilant’s last season. I don’t even know when it happened, but I do know it cost almost $2,000 to repair.

And the Reddest of all Code Red docking situations occurs when I’m backing into a slip and the wind is pushing the swim platform toward a blind corner pier.

The Critical Role of the Dock Hand

In Code Yellow and particularly Code Red situations, the dock hand can make all the difference in the world. I wish I could say that all of the great marina’s we visit (and pay dearly for dockage) have first class dock hands, but they don’t.

Both of our high drama landings this season were exacerbated by inexperienced dock hands. Vigilant has a door next to the helm that opens to starboard and enables me to both observe the dock hand as well as give them instructions if necessary.

If we’re docking to port, I can’t really see what the dockhand is doing – worse yet, no one can hear me if I have a question, concern, or instruction – unless I yell at the top on my lungs – which sounds a lot like I’m screaming at some kid for making a mistake – not a good look.

As Mrs. Horne likes to remind me, those inexperienced dock hands are just teenagers trying to hold down a summer job and we have to be patient. I fully agree (in theory), but I must admit that I tend to forget that when I feel Vigilant is in peril!

I’m going to do my best to have patience with these kids in the future and really try to focus on avoiding potential peril in Code Yellow or Code Red conditions.

And to that end, here’s a few things I’m hoping both I and the crew can do going forward…

Cleat a Spring Line – Let’s start with “What’s a Spring Line.” It may mean different things to different people, but to me, a Spring Line is a line that’s connected to the boat and cleated to the dock with the appropriate length to prevent the boat from being pushed by the wind or current into peril.

When I’m backing into a dock with the wind pushing the swim deck toward peril, I need a spring line cleated tight enough to keep the stern from hitting the dock.

Similarly, if I’m pulling in between two boats on a straight dock and the wind is pushing me toward one of the two boats, I needed a cleated spring line as soon as possible to keep me from hitting the downwind boat.

Needless to say, if I’m docking and I see a dockhand just standing on the dock with the line in their hands – and not hooked on a cleat, then I assume they don’t really know what they’re doing.

Show Me the Distance To The Stern – In Vigilant, I can’t see the swim platform from the helm. As previously stated, this is the most exposed and fragile hull component on the boat and as such, I need to know how much distance I have until I risk damage.

An inexperienced dock hand probably doesn’t know I’m “flying blind” and thinks I’m driving a car with brakes and a back-up camera!

Mrs. Horne and I have agreed that going forward, she’ll look back to me and hold her hands apart to indicate how much space I have until I hit the dock. If our Sena headsets work, she can also just tell me “4 feet…3 feet…etc.”

As a side note, I really don’t worry about rub rails bumping wooden pilings. The rub rails on Vigilant are hardened stainless steel and the pilings just bounce off. However, I do worry about raw pilings until the swim deck has safely passed.

Cleating – I put this one third since even an improperly set cleat will generally hold for a few minutes and I always check every cleat personally as soon as I get on the dock. That said, I’m amazed at how many dock hands don’t know how to set a proper cleat.

I have included an excellent piece from BoatUS below on all the nuances of docking. I suggest you pass it along to anyone serving as a deck hand on your boat.

If you’re like me and you hate the drama of docking, please share this article with your crew and all your boating buddies!


From BoatUS…

Tying Up At The Dock

By Tim Murphy
Illustrations By Joe Comeau

Leaving your boat in a slip doesn’t have to leave your brain tied in knots — here’s how.

Close-up photo of a cleat hitch

Simple and neat, and tied to a cleat. A proper cleat hitch goes a long way toward tying up quickly and easily.

Tying up at a dock is one of those techniques that’s most elegant when it’s done simply. The trick is to get the fewest number of docklines serving the greatest number of functions. And doing that means paying attention to three things: Strong points, a good hitch, and the right combination of lines.

“Notice anything different?” the skipper bellowed. The houseboat’s rail — we’d tied our stern line to it — was now just a mangled pretzel of aluminum, thoroughly separated from the rest of the boat. The boat’s builder had secured the rail to the deck with nothing but short self-tapping screws. The lesson: Make sure all your lines are tied to a strong point — both on the boat and on the dock. Usually this is a cleat, but a strong point may be a ring or an eye; it may be a bollard or a bitt; it may be a piling. The important thing is that whatever you tie off to needs to be stronger than the loads coming from the docklines. A good cleat or other strong point will be bolted through the hull or decking, with robust fasteners finished off with a nut, fender washer, and backing plate on the underside to spread the load. The lifting or towing eyes on a runabout are good strong points.

The Cleat Hitch

Walk down any dock, and you’re bound to see a bad cleat hitch — either a tangled mess of excessive line or a series of insufficient loops that will slip apart under strain. Among charter fleets, the number of dinghies lost to bad cleat hitches is beyond counting.

Photo of tying a cleat hitch step 1
Photo of tying a cleat hitch step 2
Photo of tying a cleat hitch step 3
Photoof tying a cleat hitch step 4

The trick to a good cleat hitch is to keep it simple: Three turns around the cleat’s horns; no more, no less. Pass the line once completely around the cleat’s base (under the horns); next, make a figure-8 over the two horns; finally, turn the line under itself to make a half hitch.

Often you’ll see people layer on the turns, crossing and recrossing the cleat. Extra turns provide no extra holding strength. None. What’s worse, they may make it more difficult to untie if things start moving fast.

Docklines — Tying Up Alongside

Docklines limit a boat’s motion. That motion can be either in a fore-and-aft direction or a transverse direction — or a combination of the two. The key is to identify the fewest number of docklines that will limit the boat’s motion in every direction. Breast lines (lines that come off the boat at a right angle to it) limit how much the boat can move toward or away from the dock. Springlines (lines that run at a shallow angle along some portion of the length of the boat) limit how much the boat can move forward or backward. Bow lines and stern lines (lines from the bow forward to the dock or from the stern aft to the dock) may do some of each.

Docklines illustration with all possible lines

A glossary of all possible lines.

Figure A shows virtually all the possible docklines you could use — but hopefully not all at once! Docklines are named according to this convention: [direction from boat] [position on boat] [line’s function]. So, a “forward quarter spring” is a line that runs forward to the dock from the cleat at the boat’s stern quarter; it prevents the boat from moving astern. An “after spring” is a dockline that leads aft; it limits the boat’s forward motion.

Docklines illustration using a few lines as possible

But when tying up the goal is to use only the ones needed to safely secure the boat.

For a short stop alongside a dock, you should be able to tie up with just three lines (Figure B). Breast lines have a disadvantage in places with tidal ranges or even wakes from passing boats: being so short, they limit a boat’s vertical motion. Even stepping on the gunwale to get out of a small boat may strain a breast line. The best combination of docklines is typically at least one springline, plus a bow line and a stern line. If you run the bow line forward and the springline aft, you’ll limit the boat’s motion in both directions yet still allow for some motion up and down. Likewise, run the stern line aft from the side of the boat farthest from the dock. This will limit both transverse and forward motion. Place good fenders between the boat and the dock, then tension up the lines. For heavier weather and longer stays, add a second springline in the opposite direction of the first.

Docklines illustration tying up with only 4 lines

Docklines — Tying Up In A Slip

Tying up in a slip typically works best with four docklines: two bow lines, and two stern lines (Figure C). As for leaving room for the water to move up and down, the same caveats still apply. Try to avoid breast lines. Instead, run your bow lines forward a bit and cross your stern lines. This way, all the lines are working together to limit motion forward, aft, and side to side. If your boat is over 35 feet or you expect lots of wind or current, add a set of spring lines.