For six months of the year I run a boat, spending a great deal of time at the dock. While there, I have the opportunity to see how others — both power-boaters and sailors — dock their boats. Sad to say that of every 10 boaters tying up, perhaps 2 percent have any clue as to what they’re doing. There is no joy in this observation, as I am often called to assist some hapless boater.
Problems arise because most boaters only practice their docking skills while they are docking. My old friend, Eben Whitcomb, suggested to me years ago when I got a new boat that I should go out early in the morning when the docks were empty of rubberneckers to practice “touch and go,” which meant just pulling away from the dock, heading out a bit and then learning what the boat would do. After much practice I came up with the solution that allows me to dock my 30-foot boat in any condition. This makes me look like a genius, but it is the result of hours of nothing more than practice.
Sailors understand the wind — power-boaters, less so. And they have no concept that their vessels have windage. When docking, they hardly ever take that into account, thinking they can just power into a dock higgledy-piggledy without taking wind or current into consideration. When learning how to dock the schooner Harvey Gamage, my friend Capt. Ken Hamilton explained his technique, which has been of great value for many years. “Slow down,” he would say. “And lay off the dock in forward idle or neutral. See what the wind and current are doing, then decide what action to take.”
Here are the things that are important:
1. Know whether you have a right-handed or left-handed screw. If right-handed, then going in reverse will bring the port side into the dock. A good thing to know: the boat will always reverse to port.
2. Forget the bowline. How many times have we seen boaters approach the dock with an offshore breeze and toss over their bowline, and then have their stern pushed out? I am a great believer in the spring line as the most important line in the docking evolution. Run from a forward cleat, it can be tossed on the dock and secured aft. It is thus made fast and the skipper can bring the vessel forward and aft, hardening up on the line the closer he comes to the dock. This one line will secure the boat and will bring the boat into the dock. Then the bow and stern lines can be affixed. Of course, every situation is different and there are times the vessel has to be brought into the dock stern-to.
The fuel dock in St. Maarten has a continuous offshore wind funneling between two high peaks. There is little room for making a mistake, and going bow-in leaves no options. The first time I docked there aboard the Gamage, Capt. Hamilton suggested I go stern-in and lay along portside, too. I was nervous as hell, but he was correct. The vessel backed into the wind and left me a way out should I have to abort the docking.
Another thing to remember is that the current is your friend. When I used to dock the schooner Pioneer, the most experienced captains taught me how to stem the current so that I could stay in place while maintaining control of the vessel.
So, to recap, come in slowly and be patient. See what the current and wind are doing. Sometimes you may have to bring the bow into the wind, run a spring line aft on the dock and bring the ship around. Know which way your propeller turns so you can use that to your advantage. Use one spring line to secure the vessel. Make that the first line thrown. Forget about all the people watching. Don’t yell at your wife or husband. And if you can do it, leave yourself a way out so you can try again.