Let’s talk about docking technique

Ok….so I’ve been boating since the mid-seventies and except for going to a school for my Coast Guard captain’s license, I have never had any formal training on how to pilot or maintain a boat. That being said, I am pretty anal about proper seamanship, especially when it comes to safety.

I also believe strongly in the “Black Box” theory. For those that are unfamiliar with the “Black Box” theory here is the cliff notes version: There is an imaginary black box where a sailor deposits credits for every act of good seamanship and/or preparedness, whether it is needed or not. Preventative measures are high on the list of credits. There will be times where you screw up, forget something, or bad luck will befall you, and a credit will be taken from your black box in place of having a bad experience. Because of this you never want to have an empty black box, so you practice good seamanship, preventative maintenance and preventative measures to keep the box as full as possible.

Docking is probably the hardest thing to do in a boat and provides many opportunities to have bad things happen, usually with a crowd of onlookers just waiting for an entertaining experience. It is a common courtesy to help someone into a dock when you see them coming and we always make an effort to lend assistance if they are ok with it. There are some “standard” techniques that are usually applied and several variations that are used based on wind direction and water current. Here is the most basic standard for docking:

1. Tie dock lines to the forward, aft and mid ship (breast cleat) cleats before you approach the dock (so you are ready to tie the boat securely to the dock – duh!). If approaching your home dock there are usually lines secured to your dock permanently that you will grab so this step is unnecessary.
2. Approach the dock going into the wind or current if possible.
3. Use a spring line (dock line that is a bit longer than half the size of your boat) attached to your breast cleat as the first line that is secured.
4. Use the boat’s motor with the spring line attached to bring the boat alongside of the dock.
5. Attach the bow line (forward cleat) and then the stern line (aft cleat).
6. Adjust the lines as necessary and put fenders in place to protect the sides of the boat.

So we were sitting in Florida at a bar on the intracoastal waterway that had almost 50 docks for visiting boaters. There was a little bit of wind (8-10 knots) and a tidal current of 1-2 knots. This is a popular place and there was constant docking activity. They had a dock master and a dock hand to help people get in to the docks and secure their boats. I call it “Boating Lifestyles of the Lame and Clueless”. Here are some of the typical scenarios we saw as people came in to dock:

1. First approach…go straight for the dock unaware of wind or current…the boat drifts off past the docks before they get half way there. Second approach…same as the first…there must be something wrong with the steering? Third approach…aim up wind/current of the dock so they can drift down…oops not far enough up. Fourth approach…pick a different dock that is parallel to the wind/current…current rams the front of the boat into the front of the dock.

2. Same as scenario 1 except after 6 attempts…forget it, let’s not go to this bar.

3. Slam the boat into the dock…make the dock hand hold the boat in place by the rails (and risk falling in or pinning a limb between the boat and dock) while you get the dock lines out of storage.

4. Dock lines out and ready…throw the dock line to the dock hand…oops, the line isn’t attached to anything on the boat. (This is a frequent scenario believe it or not.)

5. Dock lines attached and ready…a person standing next to the dock line on the deck of the boat…never throws the line to the dock hand until after the dock hand wrestles the boat to the dock by the rails.

6. Absolutely no spring line…boat drifts away while trying to secure the bow line.

7. Dock lines attached to railings instead of cleats…railing gets pulled out of the deck.

We watched this go on for days with more than 3/4ths of the boaters having no clue how to properly dock a boat. We see it all of the time in our home waters as well, especially Put In Bay. It just amazes me that people have 40, 50, 60 foot boats costing hundreds of thousands of dollars that don’t have even a basic understanding of good seamanship. The worst part is that they will probably be the one that docks next to you and use your boat to stop theirs!

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