Docking Your Boat


Leaving a dock or coming into one can be a display of good seamanship. Or it can turn out to be an experience of major embarrassment or, worse, of boat damage. And usually, when the latter happens, they are plenty of people around witnessing your major screw up and shaking their head in disbelief. Dare say it never happened to you :-)

Here are some simple guidelines to avoid being embarrassed and/or be in the statistics of the charter company's insurance policy.

As in most seamanship topics, the key words are: PREPARATION and SLOW. Boaters coming full throttle to a dock are guaranteed of one thing: catastrophe! I have seen some situations with large powerboats, where a botched docking left part of the marina looking like Pearl Harbor.

Leaving the Dock (Boat Parked in a Slip)


  • Make sure that everything is in order on the deck and in the cockpit.

  • Two crews or at least one, should be standing on the foredeck with a long boat hook and a fender at the ready to fend off a potential collision with another docked boat. TIP: NEVER use feet or leg to fend off another boat.

  • The dinghy should be tied on one of the front side of the bow, with the painter as short as possible.

  • Your engine is now on and idles on neutral.

  • Before you do anything else, at this point, you should know 3 things:
    a) what's the wind direction so you know where it's going to push your bow; b) what is your plan of action, step by step. Your crew should know it too; c) what your path is going to be right after you'll be off your slip. You don't want to improvise here.


  • If the boat is stern to, which it is most of the times, instruct your crew to release the stern lines and bring them on board. Just throw them in the cockpit for the time being, as now is no time for coiling. At the very same time, give a burst forward to the boat and have the foredeck crew release the bow line(s). Keep moving forward very slowly. If you can get out of the slip and the marina by just going straight, then do so. If you have to immediately turn into a channel, keep going until the boat is 2/3 out of the slip. Then start turning your boat slowly but firmly, especially if it is windy, in which case you need a little more power. In all cases, always bear in mind that you need to maintain power in order to keep steerage.

  • At this point, you can instruct your crew to remove the fenders and store them. You are out.

  • Once you get out of the marina, or just before if there is room and time, instruct you crew to bring the dinghy to the stern and cleat the painter.

Coming Back Into a Slip

Look, we've all messed up here, one day or another. So relax, do not white-knuckle, and if you miss, no big deal. Just start over and do it again.


  • About 30 minutes before reaching the marina, call the dock master on the VHF. He will tell you which dock/slip you will have to put the boat at.

  • Most sailboats, when in reverse, back up to port or starboard, depending on the propeller orientation. Make sure you know how your boat behaves, before entering.

  • Before entering the marina: a) Have the crew tie up the fenders (TIP: tie up 1 or 2 fenders at the transom); b) have a crew bring the dinghy to the bow and tie it on either side with a short painter; c) all the docking lines should be out and cleated. c) Two crews or at least one, should be standing on the foredeck with a long boat hook and a fender at the ready to fend off a potential collision with another docked boat. They will also help you spot the slip where you have to go.

  • At this stage, your crew should know exactly what your game plan is, and what everyone has to do. Basically: You steer, 1 crew is assigned to the stern lines and watch, 1 crew at the bow to lasso the pilings or cleat to the side dock, 1/2 crew(s) with boat hook and fenders in hands.

Doing it

  • Once you have spotted your slip, slow down as much as you can but just enough to keep steerage. If you are going too fast, throw the boat in reverse to slow it down.

  • Look at the slip, how the wind is blowing and visualize in your mind what you'll do. If necessary go around to see how wind and current push your boat.

  • Once your boat is positioned, start backing up slowly but steadily. NOW, if you feel you're going to miss, do not insist: you could start banging on obstacles or other boats. Simply stop your maneuver and go around to start over. No shame. And remember: this is the moment where people on the dock are ready to help, but also watching how skilled a sailor you are!

  • Whatever happens: do not yell at your crew.

  • Finally you have backed up in your slip. Your foredeck crew should immediately jump on the side dock to round up the bow line around the dock cleat, or lasso the line around the piling. In both cases, he/she should do it in a way that he can keep slacking it off as you keep backing up.

  • Once your transom is close enough to the dock, have your stern crew either jump on the dock with one of the stern lines, or throw the lines to some help on the dock. Immediately stop the boat. Adjust the length of your lines.

Coming to a Regular Dock (Fuel Dock for Ex.)

Everything above remains the same, except:

  • Tell your crew in advance on which side you're going to dock, so they can tie up the fenders accordingly.

    TIP: If you boat backs to the port side, you want to dock on your port side. Ideally, you also want to dock upwind.

  • Instead of backing up your boat into a slip, you are going to approach the dock at a very shallow angle and very slow, but remember: keep steerage.

  • When your bow is about 2 to 3 feet from the dock, throw your engine in reverse, and your stern will start to back to port, closer to the dock.

  • Your crew(s) should step on the dock, or throw the lines to helpers on the dock. (Mysterious rule: They are always helpers on the dock. Just hope they do not mess up!)

  • If you are just refueling or taking on water, a bow line, stern line and one spring line are enough. If you intend to stay longer, you will need 2 spring lines.

Well, that is about all there is to it!