Boat Docking Tips

After the fishing's over, it pays to know how to tie your boat up correctly

Boating Docking Tips

Gear Up

Making sure you are properly equipped with gear is vital when docking the boat.Richard Gibson

Gear Up

To make life easier when traveling, it's important to have the right gear. On Stalker, we carry 12 50-foot dock lines, six large A5 polyball fenders about 30 inches in diameter, two more 15-inch fenders, plenty of removable chafe gear, two large carabiner clips, and six 3-foot sections of chain with thimbles and shackles. We also have two 300-foot anchor lines and 60 more feet of chain in case it's necessary to tie off in a big storm or hurricane.

I have been in a situation where we were on a concrete bulkhead and had to float the anchors across the channel on the smaller polyballs, then bury the anchors in the ground, securing one to the bow and another on the stern to keep the boat off the seawall during an unexpected storm. We had no marina to go to. The short section of chain was used to go around the bottom of concrete pilings below the bulkhead. Concrete pilings are reinforced with steel rebar and usually bedded in the ground, making for a much stronger point to pull from.

Boat Docking Tips
Even if you are just fishing for the day away from your dock, your boat should have a certain amount of gear on board.Christopher Balogh

Leave the Dock Prepared

Never leave the dock with less than six dock lines on board, two fenders, some chafe gear and one anchor ready to go at all times for safety purposes. You never know when you might have an engine failure and need to fend off of a dock or a bridge or need to tie off onto another boat.

Approaching a marina for the first time, the crew should be prepared for any docking situation. You never know where a dockmaster will stick you. Six lines should be pulled out and unwrapped; two go on the stern and four on the bow, along with a rope hook or gaff at bow and stern. The lines on the bow should be laid in the center of the bow so you don’t trip on them as you traverse along the toe rail. Also, the very end of the line should be secured to the cleat that it will be going on in case you drop it. Even though you will have a rope hook or gaff with you, the distance can be too great, and it’s faster to just go to the cleats for retrieval.

Boat Docking Tips
At least two fenders should be unsecured from wherever they are kept and tied up, ready to go in the cockpit.Henry Badenhorst

Keep Fenders Ready

The deckhand should have also made the loops ready by passing the main line through the fixed loop to save time. The best place is to lean them on the fighting chair away from the gunwales so you don’t trip over them. If fenders are brought to the bow, have them tied to a secure point until needed so they don’t roll off the boat.

Most marinas are set up to have two bow pilings and, if you’re lucky, two midship pilings, but that’s not always the case. If a midship piling is out and there is another boat in the slip next to yours, you obviously need to put a fender on that side. Remember that just because you put a fender out on that side does not mean you have the right to let the boats make contact. The fender is for precautionary purposes only. No one wants to have another boat pushed up on them because it can cause wear and tear on expensive paint jobs, and rubber does leave micro scratches. All effort should be made to control the stern to prevent this from happening.

Boating Docking Tips
To control the stern, you need to have the bow secured.Henry Badenhorst

Controlling the Stern

Stalker is 57 feet long, and we don't have a bow thruster. I would recommend one to anyone traveling with a boat 60 feet or above as they do come in handy. On boats without a thruster, you need to get the bow secured quickly. Once the loop has been passed over a piling, the mate should pull it snug with a few hard jerks of the line to lock the line tight to the piling so it does not slip down.

Do not make the mistake of throwing a line over a piling with a fixed open loop; it will just slide down the piling and make it hard to get or remove later. More often than not, marinas don’t have adequate rope hooks to prevent lines from sliding down their pilings. Once the bow is secured, you can pivot the stern away from the other boat, keeping your boat centered in the slip. If it’s not a situation where you have an excess of wind and tide to contend with, I encourage the mate to put both bow and spring line on the piling at the same time. Putting two lines on at once is better than playing cowboy if you are not good at throwing a lasso.

Coming side-to at a marina or fuel dock can be easier, but a couple things must be considered. For the deckhand, it’s usually only four lines and a couple of fenders to contend with. After readying the lines, the fenders should be placed. Placing fenders seems like a no-brainer, but I see guys mess this up all the time by not having fenders at the right height. The fender must be tied to a cleat with a cleat hitch or to a railing with a clove hitch. Always take a quick look at the height of the seawall or dock. They are all different, and as you get closer, you might find it necessary to make an adjustment. By using a cleat hitch or clove hitch properly, the mate can quickly loosen or untie the fender. Also, make sure you don’t put a fender over an air vent. Most air vents are not structural components of the boat, and they’re very expensive to fix once crushed by a polyball.

Boating Docking Tips
Some fuel docks have permanent lines on them, but they are often old and worn, not to mention filthy.Richard Gibson

Dock Help

Most marinas or fuel docks have dockhands that meet you to take your lines. Always assume these guys are inexperienced and not qualified to tie up a boat. They are there only to assist you. As the responsible crew member, you should pass this person the loop end of the line first, then instruct him or her where you want the line to be put.

Floating docks are becoming more common these days with new marinas, especially ones with extreme tides, such as in the Pacific. Unfortunately, many of these docks lack good piling placement. Once there’s a wind and current situation, these slips are not that easy to get into, so getting in fast is important. I generally back into floating dock slips a little faster than I would a regular slip, whether there is an excess of wind and current or not. The faster you go, the less chance of getting blown around. You have to drive into the slip and not just float in and then bounce off pilings. My objective with these slips is to get the stern on the windward side secured first; this leaves the mate with no room to miss.

I never count on a dockhand to be able to take that stern line and get it on the cleat as fast as is needed. My mate can do it faster because he knows the plan, and nothing will be lost in translation trying to communicate with an inexperienced dockhand. My mate secures a line to the windward aft stern cleat, then keeps the line in hand while standing in the cockpit at ready while I am backing the boat in. The mate should stand ready in the cockpit, never on the covering boards, while the boat is moving. Once I have the boat all the way in the slip, I turn my rudders so that when I make a quick stop by going into forward gear, the forward thrust on the angled rudders pushes the aft quarter up against the dock. It can be a very abrupt stop, so if the mate is on the covering board, he could be thrown into a dangerous position; he must wait for the stop before making the jump. Once stopped, he needs to be quick with the tie-up. You get only one shot at this if the conditions are bad. Not only will the wind and current push you off the dock, but the fenders will also spring you away after you push up on them. The trick is not to miss that dock cleat.

Boating Docking Tips
If you're not careful with fenders, it doesn’t take long for thousands of dollars of transom lettering to rub off.Henry Badenhorst

Med-Style Mooring

You don’t see Mediterranean mooring much, but you do run into it here and there. Sometimes you are sandwiched in between other boats very tightly, and, of course, fenders are necessary: at least two on each side and two on the transom. Again, fender placement on the air intakes needs to be considered on your boat and the boats that you might be laid up against. Also, it’s better to go rub rail to rub rail with the fenders always off of the paint, if possible. The fenders on the stern also need to be placed where they will not rub on the transom lettering.

Most Mediterranean mooring marinas already have mooring balls to attach a line to, and we carry the carabiner clips for this purpose. Adding a clip to the dock line makes for a fast and convenient way to connect and disconnect from a mooring ball. Once connected to a mooring, backing between two boats should be done with care. One mate should have the line on the bow cleat with an unlocked wrap on it, letting it pay out with some or very little tension while waiting for the captain to give the signal to add a locking hitch to the cleat. While that mate is waiting on the bow, the other mate or crew should be prepared to fend off with a small, unattached fender if needed. Usually, the displacement of your boat will push the boats apart when you start to get close. If the boats aren’t separating from the displacement of your boat, a little forward thrust of prop wash in between the boats will push them apart nicely.

Boating Docking Tips
There are many books and online sources about nautical knots and how to tie them.Richard Gibson

Learn the Knots

The simplest part of the docking process is the tying knots that best secure your boat to the dock. However, many crews don’t know how to do it correctly and all you have to do is walk down any dock and see the mess of lines piled up on each other or wrapped many times around a piling or cleat. There is a saying that if you can’t tie a knot, tie a lot, but that should be just a joke and not reality.

You obviously don’t need to know them all, but I would recommend all deckhands learn at least these three knots and master them: the bowline knot, clove hitch and cleat hitch. Knowing these knots is a necessity. They are all easy, fast and very good at securing your boat, and if done properly, they can be untied and removed easily after being under extreme loads. Practice these knots, learn how to do them quickly and always keep in mind you might have to leave that dock in a hurry someday.