How to Stop a Sailboat (Where & When You Want)

How to Stop a Sailboat| Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Capt Chris German

July 26, 2020

Sailing

For some reason, the subject of how to stop a sailboat is rarely, if ever, broached in sailing class. When one learns to ski, the first lesson you are taught is how to stop. When one learns to drive a car, one of the first things they teach you is where to find the brake. Why not for sailing?

Perhaps it is because we know there are no brakes on a boat and far too many people understand that screaming four letter words and throwing one’s body parts between the boat and the dock is how many think stopping a sailboat should work.

All kidding aside, that is in fact how it happens far too often, but oh were it not so.

My first big boat was a 26’ O’day Outlaw that my father and I lovingly restored and sailed back to the town dock from the yard 20 miles away in Norwalk, CT.

As we pulled into the slip, going full throttle against the current and wind of the river (and trying not to slam the boat into the rock pile directly adjacent to the slip), I managed to get the boat in to the slip, but relied on my step father to stop the boat with his legs dangling from the bow pulpit.

Of course that didn’t work and we t-boned the dock and chipped the newly waxed red gel coat that I had painstakingly polished with a soft shammy.

I should have seen that as a precursor because by the time I sold that boat it had more dings in that gel coat than a demolition derby pace car.

It would be well into my time as an instructor that I realized that to stop a boat, you had to first control your speed.

Speed kills in all manner of situations and if you go slow you will look like a pro. If you go fast you will look like an a...well you know.

By controlling your inertia, reserving your power and by direct proportion, your speed, you will position yourself to have much more successful landings.

Control of speed is the name of the game every time.

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Control Your Speed

But how does one control one’s speed when you are in a sailboat?

Use the wind.

Boats wont sail into the No go zone - directly up wind, so whenever possible point your boat into the wind to stop. Sure your sails will luff and make all kinds of noise, but if your sails are luffing that means they are not catching wind.

Besides that, if you want to put the brakes on hard, you can push your boom forward and back wind your main much easier if you're heading into the wind.

Anywhere other than directly into the wind and your boat will be slightly powered and you’ll have one hell of time stopping, while you’re stomping on the metaphorical gas pedal.

Finesse

So we know we can use the wind as a brake but how else can we stop a boat?

That is where the finesse comes in.

If you’re heading up wind, the difference between the no go zone and close hauled sailing is only 5 or 10 degrees. You can edge your boat down out of the no go zone and into close hauled all day to hold position.

If you have a question about that, just look at any high school or college sailboat race and you will see sailors who have mastered the skill of holding position on the starting line.

Watch what they do a few times and try it for yourself in open water with your boat before you try to dock your boat.

If you can hold position with your boat, you can stop your boat any time you want.

I also find it best to visualize where I want to stop the boat and tell my crew. It may sound obvious but if you don’t pick out a spot on the dock where you want to land and tell people, you will invariably make a tail hook landing as you blow by cleats and likely turn your landing into a four letter failure. Much like any success you have to visualize it first so your body and your crew knows what to expect.

This also works for anchoring, mooring landings and man overboard drills. If you can hold position with your boat you can stop your boat without any need for a motor. I’ve done it on every boat from Optis up to a 74’ schooner - it works.

If you are trying to dock any sailboat bigger than an Oday 26’, I highly recommend using a motor with the same strategies. Never down wind, slow look like a pro and pick your spot where you want to stop.

Here’s where we can go to the next level and use the motor with lines to help.

Using Your Motor To Stop

If you are motoring to the dock you still need to stop the boat before you hit the dock. It is not good to come into a dock at 6 knots whether under sail or motor - that’s just too fast to stop easily.

Lots of folks will say slam it in reverse if you are going fast and they can do whatever they want in their boat, but don’t do it in mine.

Slamming the boat in reverse wears the gears on the transmission badly and besides that the power kicks the stern out.

Pulling into the slip with a full astern propulsions is like riding a bull while it's still in the shoot. The boat bangs and bucks all over the place. Instead ease into your slip, head to wind and let the wind stop you.

If you have to give it a small goose of reverse when you get it into the spot you wanted it then so be it, but don’t rely on reverse to be your saving grace if you can avoid it.

Wind Setting You Off The Dock

Sometimes the wind is setting you off the dock. As much as you want to avoid it, the wind is on your beam occasionally and you can’t avoid being pushed off the dock.

In those cases you’ll still want to approach upwind with lots of control and very little speed, but once you get your bow line on the dock and secured, you can then back your boat down on it and the line will help you pivot your boat into the dock.

The same thing works with a stern line and forward propulsion but the idea is the line will allow you to swing the boat into the dock as needed.

You can employ a roving fender to cushion your landing as well just in case you're a little overzealous with the motor.

Dock Lines

That brings up the point of dock lines. Use lines that are appropriately big enough to hold your boat but not so big that they dont fit on your cleats.

A bow line and a stern line should be the length of your boat. Those are the lines that help hold your boat laterally to the dock.

Your spring lines should be one and half times your boat length and they will help your boat from moving longitudinally along the dock.

There are also breast lines which should only be needed when you are leaving your boat for a prolonged time or are expecting bad weather.

You can use your spring lines as braking lines as well. Especially if you're not going that fast.

Your bow spring (trimmed from the bow) can be run aft and will stop a boat that is moving forward a little too aggressively. Just make sure you put the line on the cleat and take a wrap.

There is not a human alive that can hold their own in a tug of war with a sailboat. Always put your lines on a cleat and not in your hand.

Don’t Go It Alone

Don’t go it alone. Whether you're coming into a dock or the mooring, teamwork is the name of the game. A well briefed crew member can be the difference between a crash landing and a thing of beauty.

When I sailed aboard the SV Roseway out of Boston, a well briefed crew was the rule. The captain would order a crew member over to the dock to catch lines and the rest of the crew manned the rails.

The system they worked with was a number system where the bow line was one, bow spring was two, stern spring was three and the stern line was four.

As the Captain would approach the dock he would order the crew to send whichever line he thought should go first, usually number two by saying, “send two!”

He said it loud enough so the person on the dock could hear and they would catch the line and put it on a cleat. The boat would have next to no movement when this happened and because the lines were long enough he could rely on the rest of the team to haul the boat in with the lines instead of powering the boat into the pier.

He stood by the helm obviously in case the motor was needed to get the boat on the dock and the docking usually went off without a hitch.

Hitches when you have a 141-foot boat are historically very bad so they did this by the book every time. If your boat is not a 141-foot schooner, even a little sailboat with a one man crew can benefit from this kind of system when docking.

They also used the dinghy as a tugboat when they needed it, which if you have one with a motor, you could too.

Mind Your Business

Whether you are docking a Blue Jay or a Beneteau, a laser or a lagoon, the skills required to stop a boat when and where you want it are the same. Practicing those skills away from critical eyes is probably best.

There is a bar overlooking the dock in the harbor in Oriental, NC. Rumor has it that when the drunks get going in the afternoon, they make up number signs and rate each boater as they come in.

No doubt the scores diminish as the day wears on and people learn that they will have an audience when they dock, but watchers can make a good dock job go bad.

If you are one of those people watching a boat come into the dock, keep your mouth shut and lend a hand when asked. Opinions shouted over wind and motor sounds about how to dock a boat are rarely helpful and most times have a deleterious effect on the docking.

Wrapping Things Up

So stopping a boat when and where you want is not rocket science. You don't need a PhD in boats to do it well and anyone can master docking with a little practice and some good old fashion teamwork.

The keys are to control your speed and power before you get to the dock and only add just enough power to do the job.

Pick your spot and tell your crew where you want to land. And go slowly, there is no race to get it done and you look a lot better if you come in with some cortrol.

Stopping a sailboat is the worst part of the day for some, and that should not be so.

We have all seen the shirts that say, “I am sorry for what I said while I was docking the boat,” and that’s just not right.

Docking can be stressful, but remember we are doing this for fun. If stopping your boat keeps you up at night, get some help from a real sailing instructor. They might have some good tips on how you can be more effective with your particular slip, mooring or dock and a couple hundred bucks and a couple hours can save your relationships, your boat repair bill and your pride.

If all else fails you can drop anchor and swim in, but that’s  for another post.

Thanks for reading and have fun, sail far and do good.

How to Stop a Sailboat (Where & When You Want)

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