Zen and the art of docking

Capt. Katherine Redmond


A student in my Boat Docking Tips Course said he feared entering his slip because he didn’t know how long it would take his boat to stop. This made me realize how scary it would be if every time I pulled into my garage, I didn’t know how far my car would travel after I stepped on the brake.

Before you can dock your boat successfully, you must know how it responds to your commands, while keeping in mind that external forces can alter your boat’s reactions a little or a lot depending upon conditions.

Know thy boat

To build your skills slowly, you can practice by finding a stationary object in the water. Stay far enough away that you won’t collide with it but close enough to measure your vessel’s reactions. Then approach that motionless item, first in forward gear then in reverse. (My book, “7 Steps to Successful Boating Docking,” provides explicit skill drills for each type of vessel, from single engine inboards to outboards and inboard/outboards, as well as twin-screw engines.)

To become confident in your boat docking abilities, you need to know the answers to a few questions:

  • How long will my boat take to stop when I engage forward gear and use reverse?
  • What maneuvers should I use to hold my boat in place?
  • How far will momentum take my vessel when I engage forward gear and go immediately to neutral?
  • How sharply will my vessel turn when I move the wheel hard to port and engage reverse?

Embrace neutral

By watching others, you’d think docking is a whirlwind of violent voices, grinding gears and lucky landings. However, 90% of docking should be done in neutral, using momentum to move the vessel. When executed properly, docking should be a smooth, stress-free exercise.

Neutral gear allows the helmsperson to assess external forces affecting the vessel’s movement and make corrections to direction. Neutral is home base. When you’re learning to dock your boat, it’s easy to get confused and flustered. Neutral is where you return when your responses are out of control or when you’re unsure of what to do next. Neutral allows us to go slow, gain the most control, and make the tightest turns.

When you’re going slow, it’s easy to make minor corrections; those same movements become major corrections when speeding. You can stop more quickly when moving at a slow speed, and if you hit something, the damage will be minimized.

Some skippers believe you haven’t docked until you’ve hit something. I don’t care for this type of ding-bang docking. If I hit something while docking, I think I’ve failed. Having said that, if you hit something going slow, it’s a heck of a lot better than hitting something going fast.

Going slow allows you to assess how the wind and current will affect the docking process. If you go fast, you’ll have a hard time telling if the breeze is due to the wind or your movement.

If you need to go from forward to reverse or reverse to forward, you may do so when going slow. If you do the same going fast, you may damage the transmission.

Do less

New boaters expect their boats to respond with the same immediacy as their cars. Boats respond more casually; therefore, it’s best to anticipate early and react sooner. Some neophytes feel they must always be doing something at the helm. I don’t want to suggest that you should not be tweaking the process but making unnecessary direction corrections has gotten many new boaters into trouble. Sometimes it’s best to do nothing.

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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