From Captain John’s Sailing Tips


“It’s Your Call, Skipper!”
Seven Golden Rules for Docking Your Boat


Imagine that you are coming back from sailing…

entering a narrow canal, waterway or marina channel.

Shoals to the left–shoals to the right…

plus a nice stiff cross wind blows onto your beam.

All of a sudden–out of nowhere…

Pop! Bang! Sputter! Your engine just died!

Now what, skipper?


Make This Recipe for Good Seamanship

When reading about sailing or power boat seamanship, you’ll run across one word time after time–preparation. The formula might be simple, but the followers often seem to be fewer these days. Look at this as a two part recipe for docking success…

90% preparation
10% execution

What does this mean? Preparations include defensive measures above and beyond the ordinary. For example, go down to any marina on a busy Saturday or Sunday and watch boat after boat as they return to their slips or come alongside a dock–unprepared for the unexpected!

Make sure your small sailboat gets prepared for the unexpected ahead of time–every time. Make this a habit when you know you will enter any narrow, restricted waters. And that always includes your own familiar marina. Why?

Engines fail when you least expect them to fail. Boats might block your path when and where you intend to tie up. An unusual current or wind may convince you to change from a port-side-to docking to a starboard-side-to docking (or vice versa).

Mad last minute scrambles to shift lines and fenders can result in confusion, lines that lead the wrong way, and accidents or injury. Follow these seven golden rules and you’ll be ready for action in any tight quarters situation:

1. Rig fenders on Each Side.

Lose power and you will not know which side you will tie up on. Your objective will be to get the boat alongside an open spot along a pier or seawall, slide into an empty slip, or drift up to a stationary piling.

2. Attach Docking Lines Port and Starboard.

Use extra lines or join two lines together (with a becket or double becket bend) to cover both sides of the boat in case of emergency. One extra bow and stern line on the opposite side will be enough to hold you alongside. Lead each docking line under the lifelines or pulpit and back aboard, coiled and ready to use in an instant.

3. Pass the Eye Ashore Always!

End the debate right now (“Do we use the eye on our boat or pass it to the folks on the pier?”). If you need to use a large eye in one end of a line when docking, pass the eye ashore. That allows your crew to work the boat cleat with the bitter end.

If possible, avoid using eyes in a line altogether unless you have no other choice (i.e. when tying up inside a slip). That gives you more options for docking line adjustment or springing alongside or off a pier.

4. Hold a Crew Pow-Wow Now

Gather the crew in the cockpit and assign docking duties. Pick the most experienced crew to handle lines. Remember that line handling skills often make or break any docking approach. Lesser skilled crew might work the roving fender (a single loose fender, carried to cushion contact points). Encourage quiet communications to keep stress levels low and concentration levels high.

5. Make Up a Roving Fender

Not many pieces of equipment get forgotten or ignored more often than a single, loose fender carried by a crew. Pre-hung fenders can be next to useless when docking. Their duties start when you get tied up. The roving fender does 90% of the work when docking or undocking.

The crew walks with the fender (roves) to cushion any point where the boat might make contact with the pier or another boat. Use a roving fender even with short-handed crews as your first line of defense against costly hull damage.

6. Use Headsets or Hand Signals

When I crewed aboard “SHIBUMI” this past summer–a big 65′ New Zealand ketch with an enclosed pilothouse–we used headsets for docking maneuvers. These wireless wonders keep communications quiet and clear as a bell. No yelling necessary. As an alternative, develop easy hand signals that all hands can understand. Keep communications quiet to keep stress levels low and confidence high.

7. Step Ashore and Work the Docking Line

Caution the crew that they need to step to the dock and never jump. Get the boat close enough before your crew goes ashore. This will help prevent serious injury. Go over the basic procedure and terminology for working a docking line. Again, line handling will make or break a great docking approach.

Keep your line handling crew or partner safe. Imagine that you are docking with giant rubber bands–which you are! Nylon can stretch up to 40%. If it breaks under tension, it will snap back at 700 feet per second. Keep that in mind whenever you place a docking line under tension.

Line handlers should take a turn onto the dock cleat right away. Work the docking line (see below) from the side of the dock cleat opposite that of the tensioned line. This prevents serious injury should the line fail.

Go over the basic line handling terms that you use aboard your boat with your crew. Never assume that new or experienced crew know how you communicate in tight quarters docking situations.

For example, newer crew might think that the docking term “ease” means to “cast off”. There’s a huge difference in docking when you “ease the after bow springline” as opposed to “cast off the after bow springline”. Once your crew understands how to work with docking lines, your dockings will go smoother and you’ll gain an envious reputation among the dockside lawyers!


Use these seven steps to dock your boat like a pro–even when the unexpected crosses your path. You will soon gain the skills you need to cruise with confidence–wherever in the world you choose to go sailing!