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How to Dock a Boat - The Definitive Guide #QuickTips

By: Bill Jennings

Pilots have an expression: “Any landing that you can walk away from is a good landing.” If you watch people docking boats, you might think that boaters follow a similar philosophy. Yet, I know that many boaters are keen to improve their docking skills, because of the large number of boaters that take the Power Boating Academy docking skills course. It may surprise you to learn that any boater willing to follow my few simple docking steps will never bang a dock again. Furthermore, these docking procedures apply to almost every docking situation and every type of boat. Here are those steps in detail.


Know your docking destination: Your home dock is a known commodity where you usually follow the same approach. For other docking locations, you need to have a good idea well before approaching where you will dock and what route you will follow, especially if it is a busy marina. You can look up and mentally plan your desired docking details, even before leaving your home port by using your GPS or ‘Navionics’ on your cell. Such advanced information not only provides you with dock details, but it can help avoid nasty surprises.


Begin docking preparations at least 100 yards from your dock spot: Throttle back to reduce your approach speed to ‘slow.’ Clearly provide instructions to your crew, asking your first mate to attach docking lines and fenders to specified cleats. Ask the remaining passengers to remain seated until you are completely docked. Ask if there are any questions.


Ask yourself FOUR questions. Use the answers to calculate in advance what effect each will have on your approach path and how you will need to compensate:


1) What is the WIND? The answer will tell you what direction, and with what force, the wind will affect your boat movement once you have reduced your speed to dead slow. Based on this information, you can set up your inbound track to stay on the course you desire. Wind details will also alert you in advance to possible last minute steering changes, such as when you enter an area protected from the wind by shoreline trees.


2) What is the CURRENT? There is almost always some level of current at a destination. It can be insignificant or considerable. Either way, if currents are moving the same direction as the wind, they will add to the wind effect. If moving in the opposite direction, they will reduce the wind effect.


3) What is the TIDE? For many docking situations tides do not apply, but where they do, their effects will vary in strength with location and time of day. They can dramatically change the motion of your boat, just when you think you have the approach nailed. Have a look at the speed and direction of water that is moving around the base of pilons where you plan to dock. This will give you a good indication of what push strength to expect from the tides. Even more importantly, tide details should be used to confirm that your planned docking space has sufficient depth for your boat.


4) What is the TRAFFIC? Spotting traffic early and avoiding it on your approach will avoid the need to make dramatic directional changes when you are close to the dock. This will allow you to continue in a smooth approach. Who else is docking and who may be in the process of leaving a dock? It is often wise to hold your final approach until a potential traffic conflict has passed.


It is critical that you consider the effects of the day’s wind, current, tides and traffic well before getting close to the spot where you want to dock.


The longer the approach, the better. If possible, line up a long approach to your dock or slip. This gives you the opportunity to observe the actual effects of the four factors we have just evaluated, so that you can adjust your heading accordingly.


When you are 20 yards from your destination, you enter what I call the “Red Zone.” Again, the steps to follow in the red zone are basically the same for every docking scenario.


1) At least 20 yards out, pull your throttle back to neutral. This will take you completely off plane.


2) Then move forward applying the “two second rule.” This rule is key. From your entry into the red zone, until the time you shut down your engine(s), you should never place your motor(s) in gear for more than two seconds at a time and you must keep your engine rpm’s below 900. What this rule accomplishes is moving your boat at the slowest possible speed while still maintaining momentum and control. Maintaining momentum is key. Move any slower and your boat will not follow your steering input. Move any faster and you lose the ability to make finite steering corrections.


3) You will quickly discover that you can maintain direction and momentum with these periodic, short, two second applications of being in gear. During the periods when you are not in gear and coasting, assess your coasting progress in the desired approach to the dock. Take this time in neutral to determine what steering input is needed to make a directional adjustment before you shift back into gear for another two second spirt. Repeat this process to slowly move towards your chosen docking position.


4) Advise your crew to never throw a dock-line to that ‘helpful’ person standing on the dock. These ‘helpers’ will inevitably grab your line and pull you towards the dock, which of course completely fouls up your smooth landing.


5) Once you arrive at your selected position, (beside a dock or in a slip), you will still be carrying a slight forward movement and may also need to bring your stern closer to the dock. To accomplish these final touches, turn the wheel towards the dock and move the shifter into slow reverse. You can shift back into neutral when movement stops.


Multi Engine Approach: Boaters with multiple engines will probably already know that once they enter the “red zone,” they should leave the wheel in its central position and accomplish all steering movements by using the outermost engines only. (In gear for two seconds maximum; on dual power, engines #1&2, triple power 1&3, quads 1&4.) Such multi engine craft also have the ability to rotate on one spot, by moving the shifters in opposite directions -- which can also produce a very useful docking maneuver.


Never Hesitate to Go Around. If during the course of your approach, you have any reason to doubt that your progress is not perfect, do not hesitate to abort. We have all witnessed the problems that can occur when someone tries to save an approach that has gone sideways.


This protocol may seem somewhat involved to simply dock a boat but trust me -- if you skip even one of these steps, you run the risk of an embarrassing dock event. A final suggestion would be to prepare a check list of these procedures to follow while practicing. Keep the check list in your boat for reference, until you have committed it to memory. Smooth docking will save face and money, and both you and your passengers can walk away -- happy.


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4 Comments


#3 Tides Where you are referring to tides pushing the vessel, you are referring to current. Correctly tide is vertical motion, rise and fall, current is horizontal flow, flood and ebb. Only the last sentence in this section is correct, be aware if you have adequate depth. "Commonly used expressions like "flood tide" and "ebb tide" should be avoided, as they confuse the horizontal motions of tidal currents with the vertical displacements of the tide." Oceanography of the British Columbia Coast, Richard E. Thomson, Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Multi engine approach - leaving the helm centered is the way when you have shafts. With legs, outboard and Inboard/Outboard, using the helm and the engine on the outside o…

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Nathan Turner
Nathan Turner
Aug 18, 2023

When I first bought my boat the one piece of advice that I use all the time is, “you can never approach a dock too slowly.” Using this has helped me successfully dock countless times.

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I enjoyed the docking article. Is there a plan to combine a Bimini with flexible solar panels so we can both recharge the batteries of an electric pontoon boat at the dock and while underway at slow speed but also make the height of the boat as low as possible when on the trailer? We plan on purchasing an electric-power pontoon because it is quiet and has manageable maintenance issues. Our cabin is off grid so planning is essential for a good experience.

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I struggled with my docking, until I read and followed the 2-3 second gear on, gear off technic.

Works for me.

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