15 February 2021
This article first appeared in the Great Loop Link
Stress Free Docking, For Free
America's Great Loop offers lots of free docks, sometimes in the best spots in town. Yet, some cruisers hesitate to use them because they are often fixed docks with pilings and without dockhands. Luckily, it is really not that difficult to dock your porcelain treasure at a free face dock, stress free. You just need the right equipment, some critical skills practice and advance communication of a plan for how the docking will work and how it will fail.
Before You Buy: Rub It In
If you are still in the planning stages for your great loop adventure, then it is wise to consider docking as part of your purchase checklist. Those fixed docks with pilings mean the boat is going to make first contact with a piling (the big pole in the water), not the dock (the flat surface you walk on). This makes pre-positioning fenders difficult since in the heat of the moment the pilings and the fenders may not line up. The ideal solution is a sturdy, full-length rub rail. Nearly any botched docking can be hidden behind a bit of shinny stainless.
Once You Own: Fender Up
You are going to need lots of fenders. While some people say that the primary purpose of fenders is to protect your boat, actually, the primary purpose of fenders is to protect your marriage. Nothing sounds so sweet on a boat as "Don't worry honey, that's what fenders are for."
Many fenders are shaped like a tube with holes at both ends, allowing the fenders to hang horizontally for fixed (piling-first) docks and vertically for floating (dock-first) docks. The holes also allow connecting two fenders end-to-end, creating a horizontal sausage to protect even more of your expensive wax job. Sure, the smug old salt on the dock might think your thirty foot monohull looks like a RIB with all those plastic tubes, but remember the most important rule of stress-free docking: Ignore the spectators.
Go in Armed
You are also going to need a boat hook, perhaps a docking aid, and some lines. Not the fanciest or most expensive boat hook, just one with sufficient length and a forward facing tine or two. The first mate should be able to reach the dock from about four feet away, standing about one-fourth to one-third of the way back from the bow. This typically requires roughly twice the length of a broom handle. A telescoping boat hook can be useful for getting the length just right.
For the tip, you need at least one forward facing tine (pointy bit). Some boat hooks have many tines, a soft cap, or a backward facing tine (a hook). You won't need those features here and sometimes they get in the way. There are also docking gadgets for your boat hook. Some people like the gadgets and some don't. As long as you can hold a loop open and withdraw the hook without hang-ups, your boat hook technique is working.
Finally, you are going to need some maneuvering lines called warps. Warps do not need to have the same characteristics as dock lines. They can be thinner, stiffer, cheaper and easier to tie and toss than a dock line. For example, an old, ugly sailboat halyard works great for a warp but not as a dock line.
One critical difference is that warps do not have eyes (loops spliced into the ends). Without an eye, either end of the warp can be dropped when things go wrong. A small, fixed loop (and especially a lasso on a loop) can bind to the piling or cleat and make dropping the line more difficult or impossible under tension.
The goal of docking is to get the warp around something on shore, either a piling or a cleat, with the other end already secured to the boat using a cleat hitch. Don't just wrap a few random figures of eight around the boat's cleat. When the captain botches the approach or the mate snags the wrong piling, a cleat hitch that can be dropped under tension is critical.
For the shore side, a very large loop (two to four feet in diameter) tied with a bowline is best. The large loop makes it easier to snag the target, and the bowline won't slip but is easy to undo. US Powerboating has great on-line training videos for both the cleat hitch and bowline.
Docking errors are common but they do not need to be stressful. With a backup plan, as soon as things don't look right, you know what to do. Even if it takes two or three tries, with spectators (that you are ignoring) wagering on your next attempt, your eventual stress-free landing makes you a winner.
One key to the win is the pre-docking briefing. Before the mate goes forward and the captain starts the approach, make sure you have a pow-wow to discuss the plan and the backup plan. How are you going to approach the dock? How are you going to escape if things go wrong? Which cleat or piling is the target and which is the backup target? What effect might the wind have? Rehearse the hand signals as well. This is a good time to emphasize that warps are cheap and disposable: The mate can just drop them on the dock if things go wrong.
With the boat, the equipment and the knowledge, it is time to perfect the plan.
The first question is: Should you be facing the same direction or opposite to everyone else on the face dock? If you are the cool kid, you can glance at your SOG, STW and AWI and figure it out. For the rest of us, fortunately, you don't need a PhD in acronyms to get it right.
Place the boat about four to six boat lengths off the dock directly opposite your selected spot and hold the boat in position (station keeping). If you need to pulse the engines into forward from time to time to stay even with your spot, you're facing the right way! If you need to pulse the engines into reverse to stay in place, you're facing the wrong way. It is that simple!
Note that the throttles should be in idle position. If more power is required to maintain position, it might be wiser to wait for the tidal current to slacken or find some trusted help on the dock.
Once the boat is facing the right way, and it looks good to dock, plan to communicate this to the mate with a thumbs up.
Lock and Load
Once the captain gives the thumbs up, the mate sets the fenders and warp on the dock side of the boat. The warp should be a midships or quarter, forward spring. This is a line that it is cleated at midships or about one quarter of the way back from the bow and extends forward far enough for the stretched out loop to extend just past the bow.
The mate should load the loop onto the boat hook. For a traditional boat hook, the hook part faces forward or up (so that it won't get caught in the loop or cleat when the hook is withdrawn). The loop drapes over the forward-facing tine. Hold the boat hook with one hand and the bowline knot with the other, keeping the loop open and hanging down (see the figure). For most mates, this will allow them to reach out three or four feet off the deck.
A loaded boat hook should be held vertically to make it clear to the captain that the mate is ready. The mate can also give a thumbs up to the captain. If the captain responds with a thumbs up, it is time to dock!
Look Don't Touch
The action shifts back to the captain. Allow the boat to drift back from the target cleat or piling to the point where there is a thirty-degree angle from the bow to the target. In other words, if your bow is at twelve o'clock, and the dock is to starboard, the target is at one o'clock.
Now, turn the boat to face your target and pulse the engines to start your approach. Your goal is to come in on an imaginary line that connects the boat and the target. This part takes practice and finesse. The wind and current will push the boat back and possibly off or onto the dock. Adjust your heading and engine pulsing to stay on the imaginary line.
Chart plotters are not accurate enough for this part. To stay on track, sight on what's called a range using objects on shore. Select a near and a far object that line up vertically, perhaps the target and a tree or car behind it on shore. If the two objects remain positioned directly above each other the boat is on the imaginary line.
Approach at a speed just slightly above what it took to hold your position. So, if pulsing the engines for one second every four seconds kept the boat in place, consider pulsing for two seconds every four seconds.
The goal is to stop the boat about three feet from the target. To communicate distances, the mate can yell, use headsets, or simply lower the boat hook only when the boat is close enough. This way the captain knows to keep going until the boat hook lowers.
As soon as the mate lowers the hook, the captain returns to station keeping. This part is critical and the spot where the yelling often starts. To avoid a docking smack down, the captain must keep the boat a few feet from the target at thirty degrees to the dock as long as possible. The longer the captain can station-keep this way, the more stress free attempts the mate will have at the target.
A Line Made in Heaven
The mate's got the line on! The mate signals with a triumphant fist held high (pumped is also acceptable, Rocky theme music optional).
The hard part is over. The boat's already facing the right way and the stern will gently swing towards the dock. If the wind or current is very light, a quick pulse in reverse will assure the stern's approach. If the wind is blowing strongly off the dock, more reverse may be required. Once the boat has nudged a piling, reverse will hold the boat against the dock. Warps shouldn't be stretchy, so the boat will be stationary.
The mate carefully steps off the boat and calmly secures the dock lines. Once the dock lines are secure, shut down the engines and retrieve the warp (turn off the Rocky music. It gets annoying). Get out the docktails and celebrate!
Not every docking is going to go well. In order to reduce stress, make sure everyone knows how, and when, to abort.
The most common problem is the approach. It takes practice to angle the bow just right to stay on the imaginary line towards the target. As the boat starts the approach, the captain may soon find that the primary and secondary targets are just not going to happen. No stress! Just turn the boat away from the dock and try again. No need to communicate to the mate. It is pretty obvious that when the boat is heading away from the dock, it is not coming alongside.
The second most common abort condition is when the mate misses the piling or cleat and the captain is no longer able to hold position. Missing the target once is not a criterion for aborting. The mate just picks up the line, loads the boat hook and tries again. But after three tries it is probably time to abort and back away for a new attempt. There is no boating reason for this. It just gives the mate a chance to regain composure and the captain a chance to give a good pep talk!
One thing to note here is that if the stern approaches the dock - often the case when the wind is blowing onto the dock -- the captain will lose the ability to back away. This is not necessarily a cause for an early abort. If the captain can still hold the boat's position along the dock, the boat can just sit and wait until the mate snags the target.
Get the right equipment (rub rails, fenders and warps), practice the critical skills (knot making, station keeping and staying on a range), plan and communicate. Armed this way, you can always laugh off the most embarrassing attempts, take a bow for the spectators (it is really hard to ignore them) and notch up another Great Loop story. Perhaps most importantly, practice saying "Don't worry honey, that's what fenders, warps and rub rails are for."