Parallel parking is the bane of many a driver’s existences. Learning how to maneuver seamlessly in between parked cars takes some people a lot of time and practice. Parking a car is a breeze, however, when compared with docking a boat. The car has a firm grip on the road surface, responsive speed control, and a steering and brake system that becomes second nature to people at the wheel. If you are parking a car and you’ve misjudged an angle you have the ability to stop the vehicle on a dime, pull out, and start all over. This is a luxury boat captains do not have.
There are several reasons why a boat is a difficult beast to handle. To begin with, it steers from the back, or stern. The orientation of the front, or the bow, is indirectly controlled by the action of the rudder. When you turn the wheel to the left (port) the stern moves to the right (starboard). Other than reversing the boat’s thrust there is no way to stop it; shutting off the engines or throwing into neutral will do nothing. The reason: current and wind.
Current and wind are the two most influential factors when you are docking, and each force is directed at a different part of the boat. To expertly and safely dock a boat you should be familiar with the effects of both and how to predict your boat’s response to each of these factors.
Current describes the strength and direction of water flow running under the boat. It affects the underbody of the boat. Sailboats with keels are affected more by the current than powerboats with a small underbody because there is more surface area for the water to affect. Wind, on the other hand, presents a considerable amount of resistance boats with a larger sail.
Sail refers to the part of the boat that is above water as well as an actual sail that can be hoisted on sailboats to manipulate the wind. Since sailboats dock with their sails down the wind plays less of a factor than it does with tall powerboats. To solidify the concept of how current and wind affects different sized and shaped boats examine a mooring field. If the wind and current are coming from the same direction all the boats will be aligned to head into them.
If the wind changes direction the boats will lose their alignment and will point in different directions. Boats with a large underbody, like sailboats with keels, will continue to be controlled by the current while others with greater windage will respond to the wind.
Once you are familiar with the affects of wind and current docking will be a lot easier. The first step in preparing to dock is to judge the external factors you just learned about. Your analysis will determine how fast and at what angle you approach the dock. If the wind is blowing towards the dock you will want to steer a course further away from the dock and allow the wind to move you in.
If the wind or current is on your stern you will want to go in more slowly and plan to shift into reverse earlier to halt your forward motion. Once you have a plan imagine how your docking will go in your head, as this will reinforce what you are about to do. Discussing your plan of attack with your crew is essential for a clean docking as well, so communicate.
Once you have stowed all loose gear, deployed the fenders, and have prepared all the correct lines for docking, you are ready to make your approach. You should have three lines ready for a boat docking a bow, stern, and midship. Larger boats (over sixty feet) will want to have two spring lines extending from the midship. Approaching the dock slowly, regardless of the direction of the wind and current will ensure that if you do make a mistake, you will not hit the dock very hard.
Docking abeam is like parallel parking. When the conditions are ideal ”an unobstructed dock and minimal wind and current, you will have this option. Make the initial approach at an angle to the dock with the rudder in the neutral position. As the boat gets closer to the dock turn the rudder (steering wheel) to starboard to start the turn.
As the stern swings around so that the boat is parallel to the dock bring the rudder back to a neutral position and reverse the thrust to halt the forward motion. If the stern does not tuck in all the way turn the rudder to port while applying pressure in reverse.
Seem easy? It is if there is no outside factor influencing your performance. When there is a wind the above is more challenging. If the wind direction is at a right angle to the dock and blowing toward it docking might be simpler since the wind will do all the work if you set the boat up properly. When it is coming from the opposite direction you will need to approach with more power to counteract the wind’s effect.
When a strong wind or current is encountered you should head into it if you have a choice. Your landing should resemble the normal docking procedure except you will use more thrust and will have to compensate for the opposing force by keeping the bow pointed more toward the direction it is coming as you head into the dock.
If you must dock the boat with the wind or current coming from the stern you will need to be prepared for a tricky docking. Sometimes this situation is unavoidable so you must be prepared for it. The wind or current increases the boat’s speed as it comes into the dock this is not desirable. If your forward speed is less than the speed of the wind or current it will push the stern away from the dock and forward. This puts the boat at a bad angle and trying to pull the stern back will only worsen the situation.
The best way to outmaneuver the wind and current is to dive right in. Heading into the dock uncomfortably fast to ensure a high level of control than applying a burst of reverse thrust just in the nick of time will impress any passerby. That is, if you don’t crash into the dock. A safer way is to back into the slip. By backing into the wind or current you can apply more power for control while not increasing your speed. The wind or current will assist you by pushing the bow into the dock as you back up.
The last situation can cause fright in even the most experienced skippers, so do not panic if you feel tension when you go to dock against the wind and current. Remember that keeping cool, going slow, envisioning how the docking procedure will go, and communicating to the people who are throwing and catching your lines are the most important things for a clean docking.