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Maneuvering a Single Engine Powerboat in Close Quarters

For many boaters, both newbies and experienced, docking can be a real anxiety festival.  In this blog post I’d like to share some of my tips for successful docking, including the proper way to leave the dock, and general advice for maneuvering in tight spaces.

The Five Rules of Docking:

  1. DON’T PANIC! When we panic, we have a much higher tendency to make poor decisions. I’ve seen it plenty of times while training new boaters. They get close to the dock, everything seems to be going according to plan and then, a gust of wind or some other unexpected situation arises, and they get nervous. Some of them panic and do nothing. Some of them enter analysis/paralysis mode and try to engage me in a theory lesson, and others… well they just jam it in forward or reverse and think that may solve their problem.
  2. Have a strategy in place. The two most important components of the strategy are A) what will the wind do to me and, B) what will the current do to me. If you know and understand these answers relative to your particular docking situation, then deciding which side to hang your fenders and dock lines on should be your next step in the strategy.
  3. Neutral is your best friend. Spend most of your time in neutral. You only need short thrusts of forward and reverse power to maneuver the boat. The longer you stay in forward or reverse, the more momentum you build up. Momentum is bad while docking. Remember, never approach anything faster than you’d like to hit it.
  4. Steer Before Gear. On an outboard (or I/O) powered boat, put the rudder (engine) where you want it before applying thrust. The boat will respond much better if the engine is turned in the desired direction before going into forward or reverse gear. If you “gear before steer” the boat will not go in the direction you want until approximately 3 seconds after you stop turning the wheel. For more pinpoint maneuvering, you should Steer Before Gear.
  5. All hands on deck. When boating with friends and family, don’t expect them to know what to do to help you when leaving your slip or docking. If you need their assistance, take the time to provide them with some basic instruction, and assign them to a certain task. If I’m backing into a double-wide slip with one boat already in it, I will assign one crew member to keep a fender between the two boats. Then I will assign another crew member to catch lines as I’m backing in. The point is, make sure they have a specific job and know how to do it safely.

I’m a visual learner, so here is a link to a video on docking. This one is good to start with, and the algorithms of YouTube will give you a hundred more. When it comes to docking, practice makes (almost) perfect, so get out there and practice. If you still need help, give me a call.

Wishing you fair winds and calm seas,

Capt. Frank