Watching someone pick up a mooring ball has always been a source of amusement while sitting at anchor with an afternoon cocktail in hand. When they do it quickly and efficiently, it is a thing of beauty. When they screw it up, it can go from entertaining to perilous in an instant. Doing it well is indeed an art — an art that is learned and practiced, not something that happens accidentally.
Securing a mooring ball from the bow of a small boat (less than 30 feet) with the bow rising no more than 6 feet off the water is generally easy (assuming the captain and mate are practiced or at least have discussed their plan). The biggest problems can arise when the mooring ball is not rigged as expected.
Most balls have a 3- to 5-inch metal ring at the top. Sometimes this ring is fixed to the ball; other times it is affixed to a chain that is fed through the center of the ball. This second situation is the easiest since you can grab the ring with a boat hook, pull it up to the boat, thread your bridle through the ring and drop it back down. If the ring is fixed to the ball, you’ll need to lean down over the bow (usually with some potential comedian holding your feet) and try to thread the mooring line through the ring. This is not easy, and often times leads to emphatic profanities and unscheduled swims.
If your boat is longer than 30 feet, chances are that your bow is simply too far off the water to reasonably grab the ring, whether it is on a running chain or directly attached to the ball. Many times I have seen someone hanging off the bow with a 10-foot boat hook, trying to grab the ring and haul it up so they can thread the bridle through, only to discover too late that it is attached to the ball. Bye-bye boat hook (or occasionally an even louder splash is heard).
Devising a system
Since our boat is 57 feet long, grabbing a ball from the bow is not a realistic option; so, we have devised a much easier technique.
We have a large swim step that provides the perfect water-level platform from which to grab the ball. (Having cockpit motor and thruster controls obviously makes this much easier.) For our mooring system, I assembled an integral harness/bridle that combines the bridle with a safety line that is half the length of our boat.
On the end of the safety line is a spliced-in eye that is looped around a mid cleat and led back to the cockpit, where it is clipped to both spliced ends of the bridle with a large carabiner. In the middle of the bridle is a loop that is attached to a swivel and then to a C.S. Johnson “Grab ‘N Go” hook. The Grab ‘N Go hook is an easy-to-use, stainless-steel clip that allows you to both hook and release a ring remotely. We attach the hook to a boat hook with the supplied quick-release slide.
Eric Sanford’s mooring ball connection method using the Grab ‘N Go hook, bridle and safety line.
We approach the mooring ball slowly from downwind until the ball is alongside the swim step. My wife then hooks the mooring ball ring with the Grab ‘N Go and releases the boat hook (automatic when she pulls on it). Then, she walks the two free ends of the bridle up to the bow, releases the safety line (used just in case she needs to drop the bridle for any reason), and secures the ends on port and starboard bow cleats. We’re now securely hooked to the mooring ball with the hook attached to our bridle.
To release the hook, there is a small cable trip-ring that allows the hook to open when given a stiff tug. The problem with this is that you either have to lean over the bow with a boat hook to grab the trip-ring, or you have to reverse the mooring process and walk the bridle back to the swim step to grab it. To solve this, I simply added a thin line to the trip-ring so that the hook can be easily released with a quick yank on the line from the bow.
All this is fine as long as the mooring ball is also set up correctly, which, unfortunately, is not always the case. The best system is to have a ball with a hollow flue in the center through which at least 10 feet of chain is attached to the mooring ring. When the ring is grabbed, it can be hauled upward until it can be threaded or hooked, then released to sit back on top of the ball with the chain hanging below it.
ACCO 5/8-inch mooring chain is rated to an SWL of about 10,000 pounds and weighs around 4 pounds per foot. That would mean 40 to 50 pounds of chain to help hold the ball in place. The main — and most important — reason to have at least 10 feet and 40 pounds of chain hanging down is so that the remaining line that secures the buoy to the bottom is well underwater, preventing it from accidentally getting tangled in a prop. The best system uses all chain but many, for whatever reason, do not.
I recently became acutely aware of this hazard when attempting to catch a mooring ball in front of a friend’s island cabin. Unfortunately, there was significant current and wind — and, of course, not in the same direction. The 3- to 5-knot current was swirling around, and the wind was not cooperating. After a couple unsuccessful attempts to come close enough to the ball so that my wife could hook the ring, I decided to try to back into the ball.
Ordinarily this wouldn’t present a problem, but in this case there was only 5 feet of chain on the ball, and only 3 feet of that was below the surface since the ball was at least 2 feet in diameter. This meant that the rope that was attached to the chain was simply drifting around in the current (since it was low tide and thus had more slack than at high tide).
As I eased back toward the ball, the starboard motor alarm suddenly screeched to life. Our big 30-inch, four-blade prop had snagged the invisible mooring line, wrapped it instantly around the shaft and, thankfully, shut down the motor. At least we were moored.
Sanford's mooring system setup.
After coming to grips with the fact that we were not going anywhere, it was time to figure out what to do. Since we seem to have a history of “situations” (meaning we actually use our boat … a lot!), I am pretty equipped to handle most misadventures. This includes having a small dive tank and drysuit on board since we cruise from Mexico to Alaska. Instead of full dive gear (large tank, buoyancy compensator with weights, regulator), I have a small pony tank (up to 30 minutes of air) with 25 feet of hose connected to a small regulator. If I need to check under the boat, I simply connect the regulator hose to the tank, leaving it in the cockpit, and jump in. In this way, I don’t have any stray straps or hoses that can snag the running gear under the boat, and indeed I am never more than 6 to 8 feet underwater. This system is inexpensive, safe, simple and easy to use.
So, I squeezed into my drysuit (the water was a brisk 54 degrees) and jumped in to check the prop. Sure enough, the 1-inch-thick line was wrapped tightly between the prop and strut. Even though I have line-cutters on the shafts, the mooring line was so thick and tough that they simply snagged the line rather than cut it. The current underwater was crazy, making it exhausting to try to hang onto the prop with one hand while trying to loosen the line with the other. The only thing left to do was to cut the mooring line and hope I could loosen the line from the shaft, releasing the mooring ball that was hard up against the hull.
A big serrated bread knife did the trick and the buoy floated free. The rope was still wrapped on the shaft, but after a few minutes of cutting and tugging it was off. We were free!
A tweaked prop shaft
When I was back in port, I had my boat hauled to check the prop and shaft. It turned out that even though I was motoring at idle speed, the shock of having the motor stop dead from 600 rpm was enough to tweak the shaft around .009 inches — enough that it had to be straightened. In addition, the line cutter was trashed and one of the motor mounts was loose. So, with marine repairs running around $125 an hour, this was an expensive adventure.
Lessons learned? Well, as clever as my mooring system was, it was not foolproof. I need to always assume and prepare for a worst-case scenario in any seemingly easy operation. With that in mind, we’re going to have to be extra careful when picking up a mooring buoy from the stern, something that hadn’t seemed like a risk when I came up with my system. Now I’ll put the starboard motor in neutral when approaching a ball, just to be safe. It is, after all, a boat.
Eric Sanford is an experienced voyager based in the Pacific Northwest.