Make Upwind Docking Less Scary

There’s probably no other single maneuver in boating that causes more anxiety than docking.  For beginners or seasoned pros, it is docking that has the most potential for at least some embarrassment, and at worst an expensive repair bill or crew injury.

It need not be that way.  Sure, it takes a lot of practice but the art of docking also requires a keen sense of the forces on the boat (wind and current) and how they affect that particular boat.  That’s right, I said the ART of docking.  One modern definition of art is “something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful.”  Beauty is of course in the eye of the beholder, but I just love watching a helmsperson dock a boat cleanly with all odds against them.

The most challenging situation is when the elements (wind or current) are pushing the boat off the dock.  This is also when crew members get hurt by jumping to the dock and hurry the handling of dock lines.

The first thing to understand is how the forces affect drift.  Most boats have more appendages (rudder, running gear, lower unit) aft which create more drag in the water when subjected to a beam wind.  That combined with a typically higher bow causes most boat to blow more bow downwind. 

So when approaching a dock with an offsetting wind, it’s necessary to approach at a slightly steeper angle than would be used in calm conditions.  That momentum towards the dock is needed to carry the boat against the wind once the turn to line up is made.  With inboard single engine boats, it’s also extremely helpful (if not critical) to dock port side to (assuming a right hand prop).  When shifting to reverse, the transverse thrust will bring the stern towards the dock.

So let’s go step by step through the maneuver. 

First, make sure you have fully briefed your crew on line handling duties.  Use standard terminology so there is no confusion on what is expected.  Approach the dock at a steeper than normal angle.  It may be necessary to carry more speed as well to take advantage of the momentum towards the dock.  Windy conditions definitely require more aggressiveness.

Start your turn with the bow close to the dock.  The boat will immediately begin to blow off the dock so timing is critical – on larger vessels it’s helpful to have a crew member on the bow calling out distance.

The first line to go over will be the #2 (after bow spring) line.  The line handler should be in the forward half of the vessel so they can step off at the closest point.  They then make Line 2 to a point aft on the dock.  The helmsperson applies right rudder and minimum power turning ahead against the line to bring the stern in and bring the boat to the dock.  Of course the cleat on the dock should be substantial enough to handle the load applied to it.  Once parallel alongside, the other lines can be made.

Where should Line #2 line be attached to the boat?  Most boating references show the after spring line led from the bow.  For docking purposes, it is MUCH better and easier to make the line aft from the bow, and in fact it should be made such that the line of force is through the center of rotation of the boat.  What does this mean?

Most boats when turning ahead will pivot about a point about 1/3 of the distance back from the bow.  If the load on the #2 line projects through that point then the boat can very freely turn about that line and bring the boat parallel to the dock.  Make Line 2 amidships on a cleat along the rail and much less power will be needed to get the stern to the dock.

With sailing vessels, the pivot point is typically at the keel and closer to the halfway point along the underbody.  In this case, the ideal attachment point for the after spring line is actually the port side primary jibsheet winch.  It can handle the load and is perfectly lined up with the pivot point when alongside the dock.

All docking takes a lot of practice but upwind docking can be especially tricky.  I recall being on a 42 foot sailing yacht in Greece and attempting to tie onto an upwind dock with a crosswind gusting to 35 knots.  I was actually able to get my sole crew member and spring line onto the dock but the boat simply did not have enough power to close the gap and make other lines.  With the boat hanging off the single line against the wind, the only option was to take in the line and find another place to tie up. 

 Sometimes the best solution is to admit defeat and change the plan.