How to dock a boat

Bringing a boat back to the wharf should be done with great care. Not only is there seldom as much room as the operator would wish, but others will probably stop what they are doing to watch the docking procedure.


Before the boat is brought to the wharf, fenders must be hung over the sides at a height that gives maximum protection to the hull. The lines for the fenders should be secured using a knot that permits easy adjustment, and of those described in our knots post the best is the clove hitch. It should always be locked with a half hitch, once the final adjustment has been made to the height.

Docking lines should be handy, both fore and aft, with one end firmly attached to a cleat on board. The strength and direction of both wind and current should be estimated to determine which is likely to have the greater effect.

The approach

The skipper should select the docking location carefully, and make the initial approach to it dead slow at an angle of 45 degrees. The final step will depend on the strength and direction of wind and current.

Current/wind onshore


This is the easiest situation, because the current/wind is working in your favour. The boat is steered close in to the wall, way is taken off by engaging reverse gear, and the boat is brought to lie parallel to the wall, two or three feet out. The boat shown in Figure A–6.9 is much too far off, but is drawn that way for the sake of clarity.

As soon as the way is taken off the boat, the current/ wind will take it in to the dock, and it can be made fast fore and aft. In practice, the bow usually moves in first, and it may be necessary to fend it off to avoid bumping.

Current/wind astern


This is also a simple procedure. The final approach to the wall is made at an angle of 10 degrees, way is taken off by engaging reverse gear, and a line is passed ashore from the stern. When this is made fast, the wind will keep the bow close to the wharf, and it can be secured with a bow line (see Figure A–6.10). All this may be a simple procedure if the current is weak, but in a strong current it may well be impossible. In general, it is preferable to dock facing the current if possible.

Current/wind ahead


When the current/wind is ahead, and the boat is to be docked on the port side, the procedure is very simple if the boat has twin screws. It is brought close in at an angle of 15 degrees, and then way is taken off, using both engines in slow reverse. A bow line or a breast line is passed ashore. The starboard engine is put into reverse and this, combined with the action of the current/wind, will swing the stern in so it can be secured.

A similar procedure can be followed if the boat is equipped with a single-screw inboard engine with a right-hand (RH) propeller. As soon as the engine is put into reverse to take off way, the stern will begin to swing in, though it may require fairly high power to be fully effective. A bow line and stern line are passed ashore and secured.

If the single-screw engine has a left-hand (LH) propeller, the effect of putting the engine into reverse will be to swing the stern away from the wall, so a different procedure must be used. The approach should be at a very shallow angle, and a line is passed ashore as soon as possible and rigged as an after spring line. The rudder is turned away from the wall, and forward gear engaged at low speed. This will force the stern in where it can be secured (see Figure A–6.11).

The above procedures are changed as appropriate if the boat is to be docked on the starboard side.

Current/wind offshore


This is the most difficult situation. The approach to the wharf should be at a steeper angle and, as additional power may be needed, there should be good fenders at the bow (see Figure A–6.12). A boat with a single RH screw inboard engine may find it possible to bring the stern in by engaging reverse gear. It is more likely that a line from the bow will be passed ashore and the engine and rudder used to bring in the stern, or the procedure described for a boat with a LH propeller will have to be adopted. Again, when docking on the starboard side, the above procedures are changed as appropriate.

Heaving a line

If the docking manoeuvre is completed successfully, it will be necessary only to hand the free end of the docking lines to someone on the dock who is willing to help. If something goes wrong, and a line has to be heaved ashore, the correct procedure should be followed. Assuming the docking line has been properly stowed after undocking, the coils are divided into two equal parts, and one part is held in each hand. The coil in the right hand (for a right-handed person) is thrown ashore with an underhand or round arm swing, and the coil in the left hand is fed out after it. In this way, almost the entire length of a 10-metre line can, with practice, be sent ashore in one heave. Aim to throw past the receiving person, so that the line will not fall short. Boaters should practice heaving a line because in an emergency, such as putting a line aboard a boat that is adrift, or in a man-overboard situation, an accurately heaved line may save a life.

Securing the boat

Once the boat has been docked, the bow and stern lines should be made fast. It must then be secured properly, taking into account possible changes of wind and of water level. Not until the boat has been safely secured should the engine be turned off.

Sourced from the CPS Boating Course.

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6 thoughts on “How to dock a boat

  1. To me knowing how your propeller causes the boat to react is the most important thing. We practiced with a fender thrown overboard -back/forward at/around/alongside. Do let your crew know what you are going to do!

  2. This is a great overview of common docking situations, and the drawings really help. It’s also important to keep an eye out for traffic in the waterway or moored boats getting underway. And there’s nothing like practicing to find out how your boat handles under different docking conditions. Thanks!

  3. I really appreciate your tip to try and attach both the stern line and the bowline to the dock. My wife and I have been thinking of getting a new house, and we noticed that one of the properties that we are really excited about has a lake right next to it. If we move into that house and get a boat, I will be sure to attach it to the dock by the stern lien and the bowline!

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