Docking Your Boat FAQ

There is an old saying: The two happiest days in a boat owner's life are the day he buys the boat and the day he sells it.

When you first buy that hole in the water into which you pour money (another old saying), it is pretty simple to get in, load up your cooler with sandwiches and your favorite beverage, and head out to catch the big one or go swimming in the lake or ocean.

Returning to shore is when the fine art of docking your boat comes into play. Before you even buy your vessel, experienced boaters recommend that you acquire a book known as the bible of small boating, Chapman's Piloting: Seamanship and Small Boat Handling. Study it well before setting out in your new pride and joy to avoid embarrassing and dangerous situations, like crashing into the dock or another vessel.

Some very important things to know

When attempting to dock your boat, you must be aware of two major things that have a great influence on your success: the direction of the wind and the current.

Your boat has something called freeboard, which is the area extending above the surface of the water; the higher your boat is, the more freeboard you have, meaning that wind currents will affect your docking more than as if you were in a canoe.

Given that you're now a relatively well-educated boater (you read Chapman's, didn't you?), you know a few things, and you will have some "tell tales" hanging from an antenna or part of your rigging. Tell tales are just little pieces of string of fabric that tell you what the direction of the prevailing wind is, and you can make your docking calculations accordingly.

During docking, remember these key words: 'Go slow.'

Preparations prior to docking

As you approach your docking area, have your crew, if you have one, place fenders-landlubbers call them bumpers-along the side that you plan to have against the dock. This will save you from scratching up your boat and having an overly severe impact with the wall. If you don't have a crew, put your transmission in neutral, idle your engine while still away from the harbor and go hang the fenders yourself.

Get all your docking lines ready: one attached to your rear cleat to arrest your forward momentum, and one on the forward cleat to avoid the bounce-back effect when your aft line reaches its limit.

Typically, fellow boaters who notice that you're getting ready to dock will come to your aid, ready to catch a line and attach it to a bollard with that well-known figure-eight loop.

Secure your lines

When the first two lines are secured, it may be a good idea to attach another line at each cleat going in the other direction to stabilize your vessel. Assure that your fenders are hanging at the proper height, especially for oceangoing craft; water depths at the dock may vary by several feet depending on the phase of the moon and the tides.

After you have docked

If you trailer your boat, be courteous to your fellow boaters, and get your boat out of the water as quickly as possible to free up valuable space on the dock and launch ramp. You can do all the unloading, plug pulling and fender stowing after you are out of the water.

If you are lucky enough to have a berth, you may have to put fenders on both sides of the boat. Make sure that your automatic bilge pump is on, unload, and go on your merry way. If there are torrential downpours while your boat is docked, it would be wise to check on your bilges from time to time.

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