Lessons learned while docking

Capt. Katherine Redmond


In my next few articles, I’ll share information as though you have just completed your boating safety class and are gathering on-land, theoretical knowledge of the docking process.

In my previous column, I mentioned that the helmsperson must stop the movement of the boat in the slip so that the line handler can step off the boat, not jump off. Over the years, I have seen line handlers suffer broken and sprained ankles and have seen them fall into the water when skippers come into the slip too quickly and line handlers attempt to stop the boat by jumping onto the dock to tie a line. This practice is dangerous. The helmsperson’s job is to stop the movement of the boat in the slip!

Yelling doesn’t help

Docking, especially with wind or current, is stressful for everyone. However, in 20 years of docking vessels, I cannot recall hearing one negative comment about my docking abilities, even when I made errors as a neophyte. In my experience, however, men are often ridiculed for making mistakes while docking. Because of the pressure, the helmsperson may get stressed and take out that stress on the line handler. If this happens, let the skipper know that while you understand docking can be stressful, screaming just compounds an already uncomfortable situation. I’ve even seen line handlers berate skippers, which just adds fuel to the fire. So whether you’re the helmsperson or the line handler, make a pact not to yell at each other during docking.

Boat size matters

When I was a newbie to boating, I believed larger vessels were more difficult to dock. Experience proved me wrong. I’ve found that larger, heavier vessels with more powerful engines are usually much easier to dock. They can hold their own against the wind and current, whereas smaller, lighter boats can be kicked around, pushing the bow out of control. To make matters worse, many manufacturers removed the pathway on the exterior sides of boats to increase interior space. These pathways allowed the line hander to move quickly from the stern to the bow. This design change has curtailed rapid mobility, making the helmsperson’s job more precarious, as the line handler, with fender in hand, is the helmsperson’s last line of defense if contact with another object is imminent.

Center the wheel

When you are docking a twin-engine vessel and using only the gear shifts to control the process, be sure that the wheel is centered. This may not sound important, but it can have a negative influence on your input if the wheel is turned to port or starboard. To center the steering wheel manually, turn the wheel as far as it will go to starboard (to the right). Grab the base of the wheel and turn it in full circles, counting as you rotate the wheel. If the wheel turns five rotations to the left (port), the center would be half that amount, or 2½ turns to the right.

As an aside, if you have a gauge that indicates the wheel’s position, please check its accuracy. For that matter, I’ve found many gauges give inaccurate readings because the salty environment can wreak havoc on these devices.

Avoid the fender switch

When visiting another marina, you may get directions to a transient slip that changes at the last minute. Perhaps you’ve been asked to tie up your port side initially, but the new assignment requires you to put the starboard side to the dock. Now you’re rushing to change the fenders’ location when your full attention should be on docking. To avoid a last-minute distraction, always put fenders on both sides, making sure the fenders don’t get snagged on anything protruding from the dock or other vessels.

Capt. Katherine Giampietro Redmond of Palm Beach Sail & Power Squadron/8 is a NASBLA-honored boating safety instructor with a Six-Pack Towing Captain’s License. Author of “The Chartracker Navigation Guides” and “7 Steps to Successful Boat Docking,” she created boatinglady.com to provide boating guidance for women.

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