Docking Tricks & Tips to Build Confidence

Getting ready for docking.

If you’ve ever sipped a beverage while sitting in a waterside restaurant then you’ve probably witnessed some awesome docking…sometimes in a can’t-look-away-from-the-wreck awesome. To avoid being the star of a YouTube video you will want to use these docking tricks & tips, many of which only require a bit of practice.

Docking Neophytes

As with anything worth doing, a little bit of effort goes a long way and practice will enhance that effort! For the first few times you take out your new boat try to do it when the marina is not busy and few boats are underway. A weekday morning when the tide is slack creates the best learning environment. Don’t forget to tell the marina staff that you will be in and out of your slip and won’t require any help. You will feel less pressure if you have no audience as you practice your close quarters maneuvering.

If you are fortunate enough to work with a training captain, start your very first time at the helm well after the boat is out of its slip. A professional training captain should have a number of docking tricks & tips to share.

The first steps to successful docking start with discovery. Discover what it takes to slow, stop and actually reverse your boat. Then combine this new information with how your boat is affected by tide, current and wind. Performing these skills while away from the dock allows a new helmsman to build docking confidence without concern for the occasional oops! Soon these skills will become instinctive with diligent practice.

Marina approach

Whether this will be your home port or your temporary tie up for a weekend adventure, there’s a first time in every marina. Everything looks different from the water so try to learn as much as you can before coming in to your slip. One easy way to explore your options is to stop at the fuel dock first. Fill your fuel tanks or pump out the holding tank then take a walk over to your assigned slip. Scan the surrounding docks for protruding bow pulpits or swim platforms that may require extra maneuvering. Is the power pedestal positioned that you must go bow or stern-in? Will the starboard or port side be against the finger pier? Is the pier floating or fixed, each calling for different fender requirements.

For those boaters in tidal areas, be sure to see from which direction and how fast the current is moving. You may need to compensate and overshoot your slip, allowing the dominant force of wind or current to help your maneuvering. Don’t fight the force…let the force be with you.

Tools for the Captain

Every helmsman should become adept at maneuvering with engines only. Learn how your boat responds and how it moves with your engines in different conditions. But, it’s not cheating to use the tools you have at your disposal. Bow and stern thrusters are a bonus when you must slide right into a side-tie slip but it’s important to know their limitations. Get comfortable with how much power is available, either battery or generator assisted hydraulic thruster.

Remember that pilings are your friend, unless they are cement! It’s OK to lay your boat’s rub rail against a sturdy wood piling, sometimes using it as a fulcrum when the wind or tide challenges your maneuvers.

Tools for the Crew

Docking tricks & tips aren’t just for the helmsman. A savvy crew can make a so-so captain look like a skilled helmsman. Correct fender placement is essential. And for good measure, have a walking fender –one that’s loose and easy to grab – ready for your mate to strategically place when contact is unavoidable.

Boat poles can make the difference between getting that line over the piling or launching a dinghy to make it happen. One pole is essential, two is preferred and three assures you will have a boat pole available when one and two go in the drink! A floating boat pole is wonderful but you still need a second pole to retrieve the first.

Dock lines with large loops are terrific for placing over pilings without choking them. A choked line is difficult to remove from a piling and may need to be left behind. Either splice in a large enough loop or learn to properly tie a bowline which will create a loop of the size you desire. Many boaters purchase prepackaged cut and spliced dock lines. That’s usually fine for smaller boats. Be sure to have long enough lines to spring forward and aft to deal with tidal changes once you’ve landed safely and are permanently securing your lines.

Breast vs Spring line

Lines are always a great topic for a dockside discussion. And our first docking line is almost always a breast line. This docking line is attached to the center-most cleat on your boat. Unlike the spring line, the breast line is secured at the dock perpendicular to the boat. We keep the breast line as short as possible. This is a temporary line that prevents the boat from blowing off the dock. And the short length keeps it from moving too far forward or aft. Once you have successfully landed, readjust this line to become a spring line.

With practice you can secure the breast line to the dock without your mate ever leaving the boat. No jumping from the side deck and no dockside help needed! But if you do require help, $5 makes a nice thank you to the marina dockhands.

Crew Communications

Unless you are single handing, it is essential to keep your crew in the loop. Plan your docking strategy, then share the plan with your crew, agree to it and be prepared for changes. It helps if you walk in each other’s deck shoes and understand the responsibilities of each crew member. Minimally you must find a way to communicate what is occurring. Say, “breast line is ON!” when the line is secured. Or if the helmsman feels a change in the plan is required call out, “Secure stern line first!”

So how do you talk when the wind is howling? Can you yell if your boat is too big to hear each other clearly? Technology is a wonderful thing and options are plentiful. In addition to a two-way hailer there are head set selections for every budget. Be sure you recognize the possibility of snagging wires and cumbersome battery packs so try before you buy when possible. After you become competent with each other’s roles then short, key words can help describe a multitude of situations. No need for long explanations to get the job done.

More Docking Tricks & Tips

Even before you head out for hands-on docking practice, learn a few more docking tricks & tips. We offer more concepts in our 60 minute Docking with Confidence training video. You can rent it for 72hrs or Buy on Demand to stream & download this terrific training tool anytime.

Docking is an art that can be refined with practice. For some lucky boaters, docking skills are plain ole raw talent. Just remember that sometimes you watch the show sometimes you are the show. So build your docking confidence with docking tricks & tips from Ask Captain Chris!

Captains Chris & Alyse Caldwell are USCG 100 ton Masters and Cruising Coaches who offer Personal Boat Training Online or Onboard your boat anywhere! The Caldwell’s help build your cruising confidence with hands-on training and with their training videos filled with tons of tips for the boater who loves learning. If you have additional questions for Captains Chris or Alyse, please email them at