How to Dock a Sailboat

How to Dock a Boat | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Elizabeth O'Malley

June 15, 2022

Learning how to dock a boat might be the hardest thing for a sailor to do, but it's all about planning, preparation, and practice. Relax, you got this!

When docking, you’ll want to have all lines prepared, have a plan for your approach to the dock, assess the current and wind direction and speed, proceed slowly, and let the wind and water do most of the work. You can gently correct as you go. When alongside the dock, secure the boat properly.

That’s docking from a 30,000’ view, but there’s a heck of a lot of nuance to safe and successful docking. Getting yourself (and crew) mentally prepared for docking and making sure that your boat is properly equipped for a hassle-free, incident-free docking experience are key aspects of safe, stress-free docking. Knowing the ropes (when it comes to docking) means more than just handling lines; it’s a mental game paired with the physical setup of the boat and assessment of the environment in which you’re docking.

Over the years, I have gained more confidence when it comes to docking and I attribute it to one thing: a lot of practice. For people with a ton of boating moxie and bravado, I’m probably a bit of a docking dork. I am very, very cautious and extra diligent in my preparation for docking situations. In the end, it’s what makes me feel slightly confident that I can handle the situation safely and, dare I say, serenely for the benefit of my family and friends. Over the years, I’ve seen so many stressed out docking scenarios play out from husbands screaming at wives and children, first-timers-on-a-boat stepping off with hands or heads shaking swearing never to get on a boat again, broken arms and horribly scarred, barnacle-blasted legs. It just isn’t something that I’m going to take lightly and, on that note, let’s talk about the mental game I suggest for docking.


Table of contents

Mental Preparation for Docking a Boat

My father, a former Navy fighter pilot, says that landing on an aircraft carrier is better termed a “controlled crash.” I feel that the same phrase applies to docking a boat. He shares further that, in Vietnam, when flight analysts attached sensors to pilots’ bodies to assess stress levels, aviator stress peaked when it came time to land on the aircraft carrier. Yes, pilots experienced an even higher level of stress than when flying over enemy lines, taking fire from land-based artillery, and even during dog fighting with enemy jets. Aircraft carrier landings were the scariest part of flying in Vietnam. I feel docking is quite similar.

Every time, and I mean every time, that I know I am going to have to take the boat to a dock, my stress level starts to ramp up with each approaching moment. Truly, I dread it. From my concern for my crew/s safety (and my own) to my concern for the boat itself to, yes, I admit it, concern for my delicate ego, I very much dislike the idea of docking (and will drop anchor as an alternative quite often!). But if you own a boat, there’s really no getting around having to dock now and then, so a while ago I took it upon myself to “master” docking. And while I’m still no master, my stress level doesn’t ramp up as it did before because of the mental confidence I’ve gained from studying, preparing, and practicing boat docking.

I contend that the best mental preparation is to have a healthy appreciation for the dangers involved with docking and respect those dangers accordingly. This is not a situation in which you want to “wing it.” To go confidently into a docking scenario, whether as captain or crew, first take note that this is a highly “situational awareness” event that requires focus and decisiveness. It’s not the time to be working on anything else but the task at hand. By its very own nature, docking requires multi-tasking ability so push all extraneous considerations besides docking out of your head. Stay on task!

As you’ll hear my say about other boating situations that are especially wrought with hazards (i.e. galley cooking on a gimbal stove), practicing – over and over in ideal conditions is the best confidence builder and leads to the sort of zen calm that is highly suited for boat docking. Again, a flying analogy: Commercial pilots are tested repeatedly each year on what to do in emergency situations. They memorize and practice checklist after checklist for myriad emergency situations which are most often take off and landing scenarios. Properly trained pilots (and by properly trained, I mean going to repeated simulator classes whereby emergencies are played out for pilots to learn to almost go into “auto pilot” mode in a highly stressful situation) are the best pilots. Properly trained sailors are most likely going to be the best dockers on the water.

So, you’ve acknowledged just how important it is to become proficient and confident about docking and you’re ready and willing to do the training, practicing as often as you can in varying conditions, what else do you need to do to prepare? I’d say know and fully prepare your docking equipment.

Key Terminology for Docking a Boat

There are some terms that go along with equipment and gear for docking a boat and I’m going to cover them briefly now:

  • Amidships: This is the middle point of your boat from bow to stern. This is an important area for docking as it relates to the placement of the spring line/spring loop.
  • Buoy: Buoy is another name for a fender or bumper -- and is used to refer to the ones that are round and not cylindrical.
  • Cleat: A cleat is a simple piece of hardware designed to secure a boat by wrapping a line around the cleat. Like fenders, they come in a huge array of sizes. Cleats are affixed to a boat in several places depending on the length of the boat. Typically, there is a fore and aft clean (on both starboard and port sides of the boat). There may also be amidship cleats, halfway down the side of the boat. Cleats are also located on the dock or pier so that boats can tie up alongside the fixed structure. I believe that, when docking, cleats are a sailor’s best friend.
  • Fender (or bumper): Fenders are used on recreational boats of all sizes and, accordingly, fenders vary in size from small (about 12 inches long) to very large (7 feet long). They are placed between the boat and the dock, pier, jetty, etc. to absorb the energy derived from the boat’s motion, keeping the boat from bumping into the stable, affixed object (dock, pier, jetty).
  • Prop walk: When a boat reverses, it will tend to turn one direction or the other. What direction it tends to turn is determined by whether the propeller spins to the right or left. Overwhelmingly, propellers spin to the right, which determines that the boat’s stern will go left in reverse. Prop wash is one way to determine if your boat’s propeller is typical (right turning) or atypical (left turning).
  • Prop wash: Prop wash is one thing that happens when a propeller is engaged. The moving propeller disturbs the water and pushes it a certain direction (depending on what direction the prop is spinning). On a boat, it’s possible to view the prop wash. For docking purposes, it’s important to know if your engine is a right hand or left-hand drive. And you can and should determine this (in advance) by looking at prop wash when you are at the dock: While tied to the dock, throttle the engine lightly to forward. Look into the water, on either side in the amidships area, and locate the agitated water. (Prop wash agitates on one side, so the other side should be calm.) If water on the starboard side is agitated, your propeller turns to the left. This means too that your boat reverses to the left. If water is agitated on the port side of the boat, the propeller turns to the right. A right-turning propeller, reverses to the right (starboard). Knowing and determining prop wash informs you of your propeller’s turning direction which is key information for docking.
  • Spring line/spring loop: Spring lines reduce the movement of the boat in fore and aft directions. While they originate from similar locations of the bow and stern line, they are different lines than the bow and stern lines. Spring lines run from the bow to the stern. The forward spring line runs from an aft cleat forward toward the amidships area of the boat. Conversely, the aft spring line runs aft – from the bow back towards the stern.

With these terms in hand, let’s now turn our attention to setting the stage for docking a boat. Let’s talk about the equipment and gear you need to have ready.

Equipment and Gear Preparation for Docking a Boat

In this section, we’re going to look at several specific items to properly put into place for a prepared docking plan. They include fender placement, line set up, and throttle sensitivity.

Fenders and Buoys

What a great invention is the boat fender! Saving so much wear and tear on a boat, the use of multiple fenders or buoys on a boat is something about which I am quite keen. I prefer at least three including a stern, bow, and amidships fender and, truly, I am extra partial to the use of a buoy rather than a fender. “Stand-o” which is the amount of space between the hull and the object to which the boat is tied increases with the use of a buoy versus a fender. This extra space, at least in my mind, translates to extra protection for your hull.

Buoys and fenders should be secured to the boat via either a cleat or the base of the railing’s stanchion (not the horizontal railing or the top of the vertical stanchion).

The location of the fenders/buoys (relative to the water and the dock) is crucial. When placing your fenders, pay attention to the height of the dock and place the fenders accordingly. Take into account whether or not the dock is floating or affixed. A fixed dock is best managed with a horizontal fender. Lastly, depending on whether you are tying your fender to a cleat on the boat or the railing stanchion, you will want to use a cleat hitch or a slip hitch to secure it.

Spring Lines or Spring Loops

A spring line, as noted earlier, runs from either end of the boat to the other. Aft spring lines run from the aft cleat to the amidships cleat and they should not be taut. Rather you want them hanging down to the point where the line almost touches the water. The forward spring line is secured at the bow cleat aft to the amidships cleat, again, hanging just above the waterline. The goal is to have enough line to be able to lift it up and lay it over the dock cleat once the boat is very nearly touching the dock and slowed almost to a stop. It is recommended that a spring line be the length of the boat.

When putting your spring lines in place prior to starting any docking activity be sure that the spring lines are on the outside of the railing and railing stanchions. As with all lines, make sure that your spring lines are in good shape – there’s going to be steady strain on them when you are using them to make a smooth docking maneuver.

Throttle Sensitivity

Being familiar with exactly how sensitive your throttle is really helps your control in the often tight maneuvering that occurs during docking. Take the time to see just how much it takes to move your boat with a touch of the throttle. Slight, minimum motions are the way to make adjustments to your boat’s position. Take note that even once in neutral the boat will continue to move in the most recent throttle position’s direction. Short, little bursts with the throttle are key, and using neutral between forward and reverse is also vital. This is both from a control perspective as well as damage to the transmission considerations.

We’ve covered a lot of material here! And we haven’t yet gotten into the actual nuts and bolts of the process of docking. Before we go to the next two considerations in how-to-dock (environmental assessment or situational awareness preparation and people preparation), I wanted to ensure you’re mentally prepped and equipment-savvy. Solid preparation in these two areas set you up nicely for the next areas of consideration. As you can tell, and likely know from some experience, docking is a complicated task, much harder, I believe than anchoring. Maybe it’s the challenge of positioning yourself to a fixed object – or, for me, the added pressure of all those eyes that could be watching. Whatever the case may be, by the end of this article, you’ll be better prepared and equipped to take on the daunting dynamics of docking.

Environmental Preparation for Docking a Boat

Taking a thorough assessment of a variety of conditions that are playing into the specific docking scenario you’re encountering is a vital step in executing a smooth docking of your boat.

First know about the built space. Is it a busy or tight marina or gas dock? Are the docks fixed or floating and at what height? This will affect the placement of our fenders for maximum protection. What condition are the docks in? Are they prepped with dock bumper strips or in bad shape and looking pretty iffy? Knowing what you’re dealing with in the physical environment can help you prepare yourself and crew by pointing out these areas of concern.

Second, take note of the immediate conditions relative to tide (high or low or slack), current (which direction is it running and is it a fast current or slow), and wind direction and speed. Even though you’re likely going to be under power, the wind is certainly going to play a role in your docking decision. WInd pushes boats and, if it’s blowing even a few knots, wind can swing your bow around pretty darn fast. Same goes for current and it can push the entire boat in one direction. The interplay of current vs wind is a dynamic for which you need to plan.

Crew Preparation for Docking a Boat

There’s nothing worse than being on a boat with a helmsman screaming things at you and other crew members as their stress level rises during docking. Do yourself and your crew a favor and remain calm. And communicate.

Before docking begins, take some time to walk your crew through what the plan is. Help them understand that the wind and current will impact the way the boat moves. Ensure it is very clear that they are not to wildly jump aboard the dock and try to catch the boat as it moves alongside the dock or slip. Make sure they understand the importance of keeping all limbs and digits inside the boat.

Maneuvering During Docking a Boat

The thing that has helped me the most with docking is to know and understand the help (or hindrance) that the wind and current play in the process. Truly, these two factors can account for probably 50 to 75% of the boat’s motions when the boat is going as slow as it should be going when docking.

Speed of the boat is a huge consideration and you should never be going at a speed faster than the speed you’re willing to hit the dock. In other words, slow down the speed of the boat well before you get to the docking zone.

With your engine in neutral at a slow speed, you should be able to quickly tell what the wind is doing and what the current is doing to the boat. Very, very small adjustments of forward and reverse (the other 50 to 25% beyond wind and current) are your friend when docking. Alternating between forward and reverse with mild wheel or tiller corrections, at a slow speed allows you to quickly see how the boat is responding to all the factors impacting it: current, wind, engine thrust, and wheel/tiller direction.

As you approach the dock or slip, several boat lengths out, begin your turn and remember you are going slowly. See how things are going and do not be shy or embarrassed about doing a fly-by of the dock to gain a better assessment of the environmental situation. Granted, this is much harder to do when going into a slip (either in forward or reverse) but if you sense the need to abort the docking mission and try again, do it. (Special note: Unlike cars, boats pivot and what a bow will clear a stern will hit. You’re going to have to be looking back and forth bow to stern constantly to monitor how the boat is pivoting and what the stern may encounter that the bow cleared.)

As your boat responds to the wind, current, engine direction and speed, and the direction of the wheel or tiller, and you are approaching the dock, you’ll have the comfort of knowing that your fenders/bumpers and spring line(s) are in place. Moving ever so slowly and watching wind and current interplay, as you’re heading into the wind, the boat will ideally glide gently up to the side of the dock at which time, you or your crew member can toss the spring line (that has plenty of slack in it) over a cleat and the line can then be pulled taut to bring the boat alongside the dock.

Whew! Your crew (or you) then steps on to the dock and secures the rest of the lines. Give yourself a quick pat on the back and know that because you did plenty of advance preparation, you were certainly in far greater control of the situation than winging it.

Because there’s just so darned much to cover when it comes to docking a boat, if I had to distill this article into a 60-second explanation to someone, I’d essentially say this:

  • Make sure your on-board equipment is squared away.
  • Decide how you will approach the dock, having already assessed the environment at the dock. Hello, current! Howdy, wind!
  • Don’t rush! Slow and steady is the key. Small movements and small throttle thrusts can do the job.
  • As you approach the dock, let nature’s forces (wind/current) manage most of the action and then gently correct with throttle and wheel.
  • Once alongside, ensure your boat is secured properly.

As I said earlier in this article, there is just no substitute for practice. I’ve made some boat and aviation comparisons, not any boat and automobile comparisons; however, there are two things that come to mind.

Docking a boat has similar (greater!?) stress than parallel parking. And the best way to learn to parallel park a car is, you guessed it, by practicing over and over again. So either get out there and do the practice early on just like you did when you had your learners permit. Also, most of us took driver’s education in school, and I highly encourage sailing folks to either attend a sailing course or watch as many videos as possible for a DIY version. In certain areas, you can find sailing courses that will dedicate an entire day (or more) to the ins and outs of docking. While I have not taken a docking-specific daylong sailing course, I wish I had. My two very good friends who have done courses like this (and they did separate ones with one on the east coast and one on the west coast) and their several hundred dollar investment is telling. They are hands down two of my most favorite people to sail with and to have aboard my own boat. Both courses were offered by ASA which usually gets very good reviews for their courses.

Docking is my least favorite part of sailing, except for the constant stream of dollars tossed into the hole in the water. Unlike the money pit though, I do think it’s possible to become much more confident and competent via practice and preparation. I wish you the very best in all of your docking scenarios!

How to Dock a Sailboat
Elizabeth O'Malley

Elizabeth O'Malley

Elizabeth has sailed Sunfish, Catalinas, Knarrs, and countless other boats. Forty years later, she finds herself back on the waters of Bogue Sound, where she lives and sails with her daughter, Morgan, and chocolate lab, Choco.

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