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My Home Dock

— by Charles T. Low, author of Boat Docking for Boat Safe

Boat Docking's front coverMy home dock, assigned by my friend, the local Harbour Master, has, by virtue of its difficulty, made me a better boater. I have no choice but to try to hone my skills on every docking. The ‘HM’ expresses no interest in my anxiety level (or my crew’s), nor in how many close calls we have had — as long as I actually can get in and out, then he is happy, and for the finesse which this has added to my technique I am grateful.

Any committed boater will, after a few seasons berthed at this dock, have mastered probably 90% of the basic close quarters maneuvering skills, through nothing more than experience and the survival instinct, assuming that he or she does not shy away from gradually more challenging winds.

My home dock


Step number one: make sure no one is leaving the harbour just as you try to enter. There isn’t enough space for two boats to pass and still allow adequate maneuvering room. It can, however, be difficult to discern another boat in motion when you yourself have some ‘way on’, through the tangle of masts and pilings, so be careful.

Step number two: the next, and probably least significant conundrum of this docking entails that first turn to port, to head more or less north, between the two rows of docked boats. The prevailing wind tends to push the boat through a much wider arc than available space permits. We overcome this using the same techniques as for the more exacting maneuvers coming up in a few moments. 

The boat must go very slowly, often coasting, more rarely even using reverse gear to take off headway. Slower speeds allow sharper turns. Start the turn early, knowing that the boat slides and skids as it yaws. If you start too early, flattening the curve out presents little difficulty, whereas the converse, starting too late, may leave you out of room.

Also for reasons of having reserve space in which to perform maneuvers, start on the outside, upwind side of the turn; if this causes an internal contradiction, then make your best compromise.

Now that you have slowed down and are about to make the turn, you may need to give the boat a little shove, with the wheel hard over, using more engine power than available at just idle speed. The extra power gives you ‘steering authority’. Use it briefly, in short spurts, lasting usually only a few seconds at most, adjusting throttle and steering moment by moment as needed. Don’t use too much, but certainly don’t use too little — in a strong wind, especially, a boat may require considerable force to persuade it to turn.

Step number three: Back off on the power as soon as possible, and make your way between the two rows of boats. You may have to over-rotate, sometimes by a surprising amount, to compensate for the gradually dissipating momentum which wants to make the boat skid wide through the turn, and to counteract the force of the wind, which is now more or less abeam.

Step number four: The next corner to negotiate is just the same as the first, except worse. Quarters are getting closer, and a novice or unskilled boater may, even though he felt comfortable making the first turn, now experience unease, even though the general principles have not changed.

My boat’s stern swings to port, in reverse gear, due to ‘asymmetric propeller thrust’. A minority of boats have sterns which swing to starboard. The phenomenon goes by several names, one of which is ‘walking’. Anyway, right here, about to make the second turn, vaguely towards the east, I more often actually do use reverse gear to slow the boat down, and the propeller walk helps to start the boat turning. Sometimes, I will even begin to make a little sternway, which also helps prepare the boat to make that very short, sharp turn to starboard.

Step number five: By this stage, I need not say that getting through a narrow gap, and then turning the boat sharply into its deep alcove, with many other boats tied up nearby, and the wind howling, is not a trivial exercise. It’s still all the same as the first two turns, except that each one gets more gut-wrenching.

Three final points: (i) There is quite often a point of no return, a place beyond which there is no practical way to go into reverse gear and back out into open water. Close quarters, wind, reverse gear — these can be an impossible combination. The higher the wind, the earlier on this point is; occasionally, and also depending on the winds’s direction, even entering the harbour commits me irrevocably to completing the docking. It is very helpful to have some idea where this ‘no return’ point is! Rarely, in very heavy weather, the intended slip may be simply inaccessible — better to know about it while there are still options!

(ii) I don’t always drive the boat right into its slip. Sometimes, I’m content just to get a part of it, usually the bow, in close to the dock, and from there I or a crew member can take a few long lines ashore to control both ends of the boat and haul it in manually. In certain adverse winds, I will even dock up initially on the south side, across from my slip, occasionally needing to rest against another boat there (using lots of fenders). Then, I throw a line or two across to ‘my’ side, walk around, and haul the boat over. This is much more elegant than crashing around, and even the guy who ‘wrote the book’ absolutely has to know his own and his boat’s limitations.

(iii) If it’s completely calm, I may back in, but that doesn’t happen very often. Usually, I go in forwards, as I have been describing, and then, in preparation for my next departure, turn the boat around end for end by hand (‘winding ship’), using a simple, effective system of lines.

Conclusion — Close quarters maneuvering has no conclusion. I find this docking easier in October than I did in May, and I hope and expect to find it easier in ten years than I do now. It’s never perfect, and I’m always learning. As I gain ever more experience, it gets easier at least partly because I work at it harder (although, when you love boating as I do, ‘work’ isn’t quite the right word), giving closer attention and a more concentrated focus to the details of close quarters maneuvering.

The End
My Home Dock — for Boat Safe

Read Capt. Matt's review of this book
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