Improving Your Docking Skills

by Dale Kramer

When I first read it, I could not believe it. Statistics published in the Coast Guard Auxiliary magazine cited that most boating accidents occur while a boat is being docked.

After thinking about this, I realized how true this must be. I, myself, can recall several instances of accidents, most of which were due to not knowing how to handle the boat, alcohol and not thinking through a situation.

I have seen a boat full of people, more than there should have been, which, for some unknown reason, run to one side. This shift in weight caused the boat to fill with water quickly and sink.

Also, I have seen boaters run into docks at a fairly high rate of speed. Then, upon damaging the boat, blame it on someone other than themselves. I have seen this same forward motion throw unsuspecting passengers overboard.

Granted, sometimes docking and undocking is tricky business. Knowing good basic procedures can help make your boating day much better.

Let’s start with the approach. Don’t come in with a grand flourish and at high speed. Come in at no wake speed, then throttle down gradually. This will keep the boat under control. When you see that you have enough speed to reach the dock, slip into neutral and use reverse when necessary to keep forward motion in check.

Remember, boats have no brakes. You need to move slowly. Bring the boat to a stop by using the reverse gear. Never try to stop a moving boat with your arms and legs.

If you were correct in gauging your speed, you will end up several boat lengths from the dock. If you come in at too high a speed, you will be forced to go into neutral a long way from the dock losing maneuverability with the prop disengaged. If you are closer to the dock, you will be able to ease in slowly.

Also, put your lines and fenders out in place as soon as you know which side of the dock you will be on. Then, follow these steps.

First, determine the wind direction. If possible make your approach into the wind. This will give you more control. Then, with boat fenders and lines in place, slowly ease the boat to the dock.

If there is no wind or current, approach the dock at a narrow angle. When close enough, grab the bow line, step ashore and secure the line. Next, swing the stern in by grabbing a line or using a hook. Now tie your line. Don’t shut off the engine until both the stern and bow lines are secure.

If the wind or the current is pushing you away from the dock, then point the bow toward the dock at a sharp angle, about 45 degrees. Approach the dock and secure the bow line. Use reverse, to swing in the stern. Then secure the stern line.

If you must approach down wind or down current, then move as slowly as possible while sill retaining control. Be ready to use reverse to stop and maintain your position. This is one time when you will want to secure the stern line first and then the bow line.

When leaving the dock, it is important to keep the mooring lines tied until you have started the engine. Always be sure you are in neutral. If you have a pull starter, remain seated.

Once you are satisfied that your engine has warmed and is running smoothly, get ready to cast off. You will want to direct the boat away from the dock. If there is a wind or current pushing the boat away from the dock, all you will need is to cast off the lines and give the boat a helping push away. When you are safely cleared, shift to forward and slowly leave.

When you have other boats in front and behind you, leaving can be a bit tricky. To do this, cast off the stern line. Then go slowly into forward gear and turn the steering wheel or tiller as far as possible, steering the bow towards the dock. If needed, increase the speed slowly to kick the stern out and push yourself clear of the other boats. Then back away.

However, if the wind or current is pushing the boat away from the dock, cast off all lines. Push the boat away from the dock making sure that there is sufficient clearance between you and the other boats. When clear, shift into forward and slowly leave.

There are other problems which occur at the dock. Unfortunately, sometimes boats fill with water. It is quite a sinking feeling when this happens to you. There you stand, looking forlorn at your boat which is partially submerged. The natural thing to do is to cut the lines which are holding the boat. This is not the best course of action because most people think that their boat has floatation built in which will keep it afloat or at least be able to stay above water and be even. Usually, this is not the case.

Also, as you cut one line, it increases the strain on another one. This presents the danger of the boat slipping under the dock. Also, other lines can break and fittings can pullout, becoming dangerous projectiles.

Instead of cutting lines, add more and in as many directions as possible. When you do this, it lessens the tension on the existing lines and allows the owner to move the boat in any direction.

When you have your lines tied, you can tighten each in succession and hopefully this will allow the boat to float level. You may even be able to bring the boat up high enough to begin to bale it out.

Remember, just because you have a boat, does not mean you can drive it. Practice and experience will turn the “Weekend Warrior” into a seaman.

Dale is a coxswain in the Coast Guard Auxiliary, Flotilla 83 – Lake Seminole. He can be reached at

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