Maybe youâ ve seen a charterboat skipper bring his vessel alongside and casually drop one long bow line onto a cleat near the stern. Then, heâ ll sit there, with the engine running slowly — nonchalantly â parkedâ with only one fender amidships and just that one line holding his boat to the dock. While some boaters might see this as a sign of mere laziness or barely controlled chaos, the skipper is actually applying his experience in a carefully calculated manner — and heâ s making it look like childâ s play. Indeed, one mark of a truly experienced power boat skipper is whether he or she understands the proper use of dock lines to handle a boat when coming alongside. This is an area of boat handling that is often neglected by novices. Consequently, seasoned boat operators judge the true abilities of fellow boaters by observing their skill at dock line handling. Power boat instructors often spend the first hour with students on the dock working with lines, before they ever start any underway instruction. This is because the ability to properly bring the boat up to the dock becomes useless, if you canâ t keep it at the dock by getting a line over and tying up the boat. So, here are the basics of proper dock line handling, and the secrets that charter skipperâ s use to make it look so easy: The Dock Lines Knowing the proper name for dock lines is the first step. Dock line terminology is simple and straightforward, when you think about it. Dock lines are named according to their location on the vessel and by the direction in which they lead. Forward, abreast and after are terms that indicate the direction a line leads from the vessel. Bow, stern, waist and quarter are the terms that locate the line on the vessel. Lines are designated as offshore or inshore in relation to their lead to the dock, with the side of the vessel near the dock being the inshore side. At a Mooring Generally, boaters tying up to mooring buoys will use bow and stern lines to hold the boat to the float. They will follow with two spring lines: the after bow spring, and the forward quarter spring. The two springs keep the boat from moving backward or forward. A variation on this is to also add a bow and stern line to on the opposite side of the boat when berthed between two finger piers. At a float, there is not much use for a forward bow spring or an after quarter spring, because the floats move up and down with the boat as the tide rises and falls. At a Pier On the other hand, tying up to a pier or a wharf requires longer lines with a good deal of slack in them, because the tide will move in and out — lifting the boat up and down (see â Keeping It In Line,â page 100). The best way to tie up in this situation is with spring lines, and no bow or stern line. Professionals often use four spring lines — including the forward bow spring and the after quarter spring, but without a bow or stern line. One variation is to take the bow and stern lines well down the pier, so that they act like spring lines. A properly tensioned 25-foot spring line can handle a 6- to 8-foot change in the tide without having to be tightened or loosened — because that 6-foot change in tidal elevation will only require 1 foot more or 1 foot less spring line. However, a bow or stern line straight to the pier would require the entire 6 feet of additional line. The key is to avoid lines that run straight to the pier, perpendicular to the boat. Getting under way from typical marina finger slip floats is relatively easy: You just let out the lines and back out of the slip, make a single point turn in the aisle between slips and put out to sea. To return to the slip, you simply reverse the process. This is pretty simple, except for making steering adjustments to allow for the wind, and is why most marinas are laid out this way. Most boaters are very familiar with how to do this kind of head-in â boat parking.â However, once you leave the marina, your next landing is liable to be alongside a pier or a guest float, without the advantage of finger piers. Suddenly, the whole game has changed — and now you will need to â parallel park.â This is when knowing what you are doing really pays off. Coming Alongside Coming alongside usually requires you to place your vessel between two other vessels already on the float or pier. This is entirely different from bow-in boat parking, back at the marina finger slips. Although this operation may look a lot like parallel parking a car, it is not at all similar. The last thing you want to do here is try to apply your automobile parallel parking experience. With the car, the back part goes into the space first, because the carâ s steering is done by the front wheels. However, on a boat, the opposite is true: Your rudder and your steering system are located on the stern. This means that the boatâ s bow has to go in first, to allow you to steer the stern in. The key is to know how to get the stern in without moving the bow. The simple way to do this is to rig an aft bow spring line before you head in. With this spring already made up, leading from the bow chock aft, you can simplify the entire maneuver. When tied off on the pier, this line should come back to a dock cleat, almost at the stern of your vessel. Motor in toward the pier at an angle of about 20 degrees, and use reverse thrust to stop your bow about where you want it to be. Let a crewmember step ashore off the bow, with the aft bow spring in hand, and walk aft on the pier until he or she is close to the stern. There, the crewmember will tie off the shore end of the spring line. Next, turn your wheel away from the pier, and motor slowly ahead. The helm will swing your stern into the pier, and the spring line will prevent your bow from swinging away from the pier. Your boat will stop parallel to the pier and the spring line will transfer the thrust onto the amidships fender (see â Dock Like a Pro,â page 101). The vessel will just sit there with the engine running at â slow aheadâ speed, parallel to the pier on a taut spring line. This is called â putting the boat in limbo.â With practice, so that this maneuver can be done properly, this will bring your boat up against the pier amidships, where you only need one fender. (Having another fender on the quarter is a good idea, however.) Commercial skippers often stand on the dock for extended periods of time this way, with this single spring line and with the engine at â slow aheadâ and their helm steering away from the dock. Once you have the boat sitting there in limbo, you can step ashore and add all the other lines, then go back aboard and shut down the engine. The aforementioned docking situation probably sounds simple — but, what if the current or the wind is blowing you off the dock and there is no convenient cleat for the spring line? If there is someone on the dock, you can throw him or her a bow and stern line, and let that person pull your boat in. To do so, you will need to know how to properly throw a line (see sidebar, â Heaving a Lineâ ). Getting Under Way From a Dock Getting under way from alongside a dock is also simple. If you have made up the spring line so that it is twice as long as needed, you can slip it around the cleat on the dock and take it back through the bow chock to the bow cleat. Tying it off on the boat allows you to slip the line from on board when you leave. Next, with the helm turned away from the dock (just as it was when you landed), motor at â slow aheadâ speed against the aft bow spring line. This will hold your vessel in limbo while you remove all the other dock lines. Once everyone is on board, put the engines in neutral and reverse the helm, so that it is turned toward the dock. Motor slowly ahead, with the spring line in place, and the stern will swing out. You may want to have a crewmember move a â floatingâ fender along the bow to keep the bow off the dock, while the stern is swinging out. When the stern has gotten well out, clear of the other vessels, place the engines in neutral. Slip the spring line off the dock cleat, then back away from the dock. When your boat is well off the pier, shift the helm, place the engines in â slow aheadâ speed and put out to sea. Practice docking and clearing a few times in no-wind situations until you can master the coordination of helm, engines and lines. Remember when you are motoring at a â dead slowâ speed, you can shift in and out of gear regularly, to move at an even slower speed than â dead slow.â Work the shift and not the throttle. Never rev your engines: Just proceed calmly, and everyone will know that you are a professional. Capt. Alan Ross Hugenot is a San Francisco-based marine surveyor. If you have questions about marine surveying, hull maintenance, naval architecture, electrical systems or other cruising issues, contact Capt. Hugenot, Box 318210, San Francisco, CA 94131; email@example.com.
Capt. Alan Ross Hugenot