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From the SIERRA Experts

Stress-Free Boat Docking: Simple Steps and Tips for Boat Owners

A large boat and a small boat tied to opposite sides of a dock on a lake

Numerous surveys by the boating industry have shown that one of the biggest stress points for new boaters is a fear of docking. This is understandable. Every boater, no matter how experienced, had to start somewhere. In this post, we’ll review a few basic steps you can use while practicing docking your boat.

Practice Docking when there are fewer boaters on the water

Try to practice your docking skills when your local marina/launch ramp is not likely to be crowded. Or look for ramps and marinas that are off the beaten track and have fewer boaters. Then you can practice approaching from different angles and see how your boat reacts and handles different wind and current conditions. When you remove the stress of others watching and impatiently waiting for you to get out of their way, the docking experience can be fun. 

Avoid Scrambling and Prepare before your final approach

Before it’s time to approach a dock or boat slip, get your front and rear dock lines attached to the boat’s cleats and put out fenders (also called bumpers) on the side of the boat that’s going to face the dock. Don’t wait for this step until you’re on the final approach. Get it out of the way when you know it’s time to head towards the dock. 

Pay Attention to Other Boats that are launching or coming in

Take stock of the situation, particularly the location of other vessels and whether they are launching or retrieving. If possible, try to choose a location where you will have the most available room to tie up and won’t have to contend with other boat traffic. Sometimes, however, you will have no choice but to get close to other boats. If you pull into the dock behind a boat that is coming out of the water, you can move yours forward as that boat leaves, making room for others behind you. 

Check Wind and Current as You Approach the Dock

Wind and/or current can greatly affect docking procedures. A light wind or current moving toward the dock can help move your boat toward your target and can hold it there as you secure the lines. In this scenario, it’s best to approach the dock from the upwind side and go light on the throttle as the wind and current will be providing an assist.

On the flip side, strong winds or currents can overtake your control efforts and slam your boat into the dock. In these situations, approaching from downwind, knowing that the wind and/or water will be putting the brakes on my boat, may be helpful. It will take a little more throttle and a more direct (steeper) angle of approach to the dock to make headway.

Remember that the wind and current may be going in opposite directions. You will need to judge which is strongest and make your approach accordingly. 

A slow approach can avoid damage to the dock and your boat

Don’t approach any dock faster than you’re willing to hit it. Many docking disasters can be avoided by taking a cautious and slow approach. Boats don’t have brakes, so if you come in too fast, this will force you to over-apply reverse throttle to stop from striking the dock. This leads to overcorrecting. Instead, quickly bump the engine in and out of gear as you approach the dock, allowing the boat to slide forward or backward as needed.

Delegate Docking Tasks to a Trusted Crewmember

Have a member of your crew attach the lines and fenders and stand ready to assist you in docking. Let this person handle fending off, grabbing the dock, getting lines wrapped around cleats, etc. Don’t leave the helm, as you may need to provide a little boost of engine power to help your partner with his or her job. If you are boating solo you will have to make your approach to the dock and quickly step away from the helm to get the lines secured.  

Follow a Basic Docking Approach

While every docking situation presents its own nuances, there is a basic approach plan boaters can start with. When there is little wind or current, slowly approach the dock from about a 30-degree angle. As the bow of the boat nears the dock, turn the outboards or sterndrive hard over so the propellers are facing the dock, and give a brief and gentle application of reverse. This stops the boat’s forward slide and helps swing the stern of the boat into the dock, making it easy to attach lines. 

Help Other Boaters Who Are Docking

If you’re on the dock and see another boater approaching (especially somebody who is solo), offer to help catch dock lines and bring the boat safely and gently to the dock. Other boaters are often very appreciative of the assistance.

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