Docking with Confidence

Docking with confidence includes using the lines, fenders and proper cleat knots to secure the boat.

If you’ve ever sipped a beverage in a waterside restaurant then you’ve probably witnessed some awesome docking. Sometimes in a can’t-look-away-from-the-wreck awesome. Try these awesome docking tricks and tips, many of which only require a bit of practice. You’ll be docking with confidence in no time.

Docking Neophytes

As with anything worth doing, a little bit of effort goes a long way and practice will enhance that effort! Consider the first few times you take out your new boat. Plan to practice 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, practicing. Let them know that you won’t require any help. You will feel less pressure if you have no audience as you practice your close quarters maneuvering.

It’s terrific 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. Discover what it takes to slow, stop and actually reverse your boat. Then learn how it is affected by tide, current and wind as the first steps to successful docking. Performing these skills while away from the dock allows a new helmsman to begin docking with 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. Here’s a short video that captures a trawler crew docking with confidence.

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. This allows the dominant force of wind or current to help your maneuvering. Don’t fight the force…let the force be with you.

Tools of the Trade

Every helmsman should become adept at maneuvering with engines only. 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 the limitations of a thruster. 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 we use the piling as a fulcrum. So when the wind or tide challenges your maneuvers you have a place to pause. And for good measure, have a walking fender –one that’s loose and easy to grab. Your mate can strategically place the walking fender 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 boat poles are 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.

Learn Your Lines

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

This is always a great topic for a dockside discussion. But our first docking line is almost always a breast line. This docking line is attached to the center most cleat on your boat. And unlike the spring line, the breast line is secured at the dock perpendicular to the boat. This line is as short as possible. This is a temporary line that prevents the boat from blowing off the dock. Properly secured your boat won’t move too far forward or aft.  Once you have successfully landed, readjust this line to become a spring line.

With a bit of practice the breast line can often be secured 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. Then you can understand the responsibilities of each crew member. Minimally you must find a way to communicate what is occurring. The crew reports, “breast line is ON!” when the line is secured. The helmsman calls out, “Secure stern line first!”  when a change in the plan is required.

So how do you talk when the wind is howling? What 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, keys words can help describe a multitude of situations. No need for long explanations to get the job done.

Training Videos and Seminars

We all learn differently. So because of that, we’ve created many training videos for those who are visual learners. Even if you’ve had an in-person training captain come aboard with you our videos can help your progress to docking with confidence. Check out our latest selection of training videos including docking- right here.

Join us at our 2-day seminars in Vero Beach FL. Learn about Cruising 101 FUNdamentals and Introduction to Boat Systems. Ask Captain Chris to help you understand what you are looking at when you find the perfect boat online. We offer online or in-person boat previews before you step aboard. We will point out great features as well as equipment to examine more closely. Captain Chris will provide information to smooth your learning curve.

Docking is an art that can be refined with practice. And, for some lucky boaters it is plain ole raw talent. Docking with confidence should be every boater’s goal. Just remember that sometimes you watch the show sometimes you are the show.

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. Their training videos are 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