It’s something you’ll have to do at some point as a sailor. Even if you own another type of boat, it’s still an ability you must master. We’re talking of course about docking your boat. If you’ve yet to do this and you’re soon setting sail, you may wonder, what do you need to know to dock a sailboat?
To successfully dock your sailboat, here’s what you must do:
- Make sure your spring line is ready to go
- Veer your boat towards the dock at a low speed
- Toss the spring line, preferably atop a cleat or dock piling
- Gently accelerate your boat to pull against the spring line until it’s tight
- Pull any other lines necessary to keep you secure
Those are the very basics of sailboat docking, but they’re not all you need to know. In this ultimate guide, we’ll discuss docking your sailboat in windy conditions, under power, and even single-handedly. With plenty of other tips and techniques, you’ll feel like a docking master by the time you’re done reading.
How to Dock a Sailboat Under Power
Docking your sailboat under power is so complicated that there’s a book written about it. You can check that out for further pointers, but for now, we’ll cover what you need to know when you dock your sailboat under power. These tips also apply if you’re operating a yacht or similar boat in these conditions.
First, it’s very important that you never rush your entry towards the dock. You want to operate at a very low speed here, maybe around five miles per hour, if that. Also, it’s a good idea to have a second person onboard with you when docking your sailboat under power, at least for the first few times.
While you’re driving the boat, the second person, or the crewmate, should take the spring line and drop it over a piling or a dock cleat. Next, you want to pull against the spring line, which keeps you tight. Your boat should still be moving at this point.
Then, add any other lines as necessary and you should be secure on the dock.
How to Dock a Sailboat Under Sail
What if you don’t have any power to your sailboat or your engine has failed you? In both these scenarios, docking your sailboat under power is impossible. Instead, you must use a different docking maneuver. This is known as docking under sail.
As you approach the dock, from a good several feet away, you want to face the same direction of the wind if you’re not already doing so. The wind may not always blow predictably, so what you’d do next will depend on the direction of the breeze.
For example, if the wind is facing open water and not towards the dock, you have several options for docking your sailboat. You can move towards the wind angle, luffing your sails to decline in speed. As you reach the dock, you’d want to move parallel to it, typically with little time to spare. Thus, if you’re new to docking, maybe this isn’t the best option.
For wind that’s heading towards the water instead of the dock, you can also sail up to the dock’s end and then use that to aim out to the wind facing straight. This may be a little easier if you’re still inexperienced at docking.
What if the wind is facing in a different direction, such as parallel? In that case, then you want to move the boat towards the wind and then use the force of the breeze to push you along the dock. Once you’re beside it, come to a stop.
In some situations, especially if you weren’t sailing very quickly, the boat may move sideways if you turn in the same direction of the wind. This is also known as making leeway. If you experience this yourself while docking, make sure you attach your stern lines swiftly.
Now, you may also find you’re out sailing one day and the wind is facing the dock, not the water. This is going to make matters more difficult when it comes to docking, but not impossible. Depending on how strong the wind is, you may raise the jib or no sails at all. Lift the jib if you’re working with lighter winds and keep all sails down in heavier breezes.
Then, make a rounded turn into the wind, pulling the jib down as you do. As you reach the dock, slow down and sort of drift towards it. You can use a forward spring line, stern lines, and a bow line as well as after spring lines for docking, the latter of which prevents aft movement from your sailboat.
By attaching the boat to the dock that way, it should sit on its fenders. That will prevent rubbing against pilings or the dock itself, which can damage your sailboat.
How to Dock a Sailboat in the Wind
We’re not done talking about the wind quite yet. While in the preceding paragraphs, you may have dealt with a considerable wind, if it gets significantly heavy, then you may have to change up your docking technique yet again.
For instance, you might rely on a tee head or an end-tie for docking when usually, you wouldn’t. We have two methods of docking in strong winds, and both aren’t the easiest thing in the world. Remember though, the conditions are not ideal. That’s why we recommend practicing docking on a day with heavy winds. This way, you can work the kinks out of your technique before you ever need to use it for real.
Reversing to the Tee Head
Your first option is using your motor to reverse your way up to the tee head. While doing this, you would face the same direction as the wind. You should have readied your dock lines ahead of time, as that will make this easier.
Once the lines are ready, reverse your sailboat so it’s near the tee head. One of your crewmates would disembark from the boat at this point with the aft dock line in tow. You should then position your sailboat so its stern is as close to the dock line’s cleats as you can get in these windy conditions.
At the dock line, aim to keep your boat length at around ¼ from the dock cleat to the aft cleat. In the driver’s seat, you want to turn your wheel so it’s near the dock’s tiller yet not facing it. Then, go forward.
In doing that, the boat’s bow begins to move nearer the dock and in the opposite direction of the wind. If you have a second crewmate, allow them to throw some forward dock line to the first crewmate. Otherwise, the first crewmate can bring some forward dock line with them when they hop off the sailboat, but make sure it’s long.
Going Towards the Wind and the Tee Head
You have even a second method for docking in heavy winds, and that’s moving your sailboat in the direction of the wind to the dock’s tee head. Before you do this, you want to check that the dock lines have been cleated on both the aft and forward dock side.
All dock lines should be facing the life lines but outward and then atop any other lines. This prevents the life line from getting tangled up when you need it most.
Next, find the tee head and begin to sail towards it at a perpendicular angle. When angling, you also want to consider your crewmates, as you want them to be able to get off the sailboat without any trouble.
Once you get to the tee head, let one crewmate off your boat. They should be on the dock. Make sure you throttle carefully as you do this, as it’s not the simplest thing for your crewmate to disembark at this point. If they’d have to jump off the boat to the dock, then you need to get closer.
Now your crewmate will attach the dock line to the cleat of the dock. They should aim the line towards the boat’s aft, again keeping that ¼ length in mind for your boat alongside either of the two cleats.
Move your captain’s wheel so it’s near the stops on your side of the boat that’s not facing the dock, which is the dockside to the tiller side. Then, hit the forward gear. When you do this, the rudder has a force that moves it sideways and thus pushes your boat’s stern in the direction of the dock.
You then only have to switch the throttle so it can overcome the force of the wind and you should be just about docked from there.
How to Dock with a Spring Line
We’ve talked about spring lines several times throughout this guide, but how do you use them primarily for docking? We’re glad you asked, as we’re now going to discuss doing just that.
First, let’s begin with a little explanation of what spring lines are and where to find them. These are diagonal lines that go from the boat’s aft. The angle is typically shallow to prevent too much movement at the aft and fore.
What’s an aft line and a forward spring line? Aft spring lines, despite their name, curtail forward movement while forward spring lines prevent aft movement. Yes, it’s a little confusing, but you’ll learn as you work with these lines more.
When you attach a spring line to the cleat, that cleat is the new pivot point. As your sailboat moves towards the dock, you’ll aim for that cleat. You can also connect a spring line to the spring cleats, midship, at the boat’s middle, at its stern, or at its bow.
As you propel your sailboat, the force you generate pulls the spring line, moving you around your cleat pivot point. While it doesn’t take much to dock with a spring line compared to the other methods we’ve discussed so far, you’ll still want to practice as much as you can. This allows you to learn the intricacies of docking with a spring line, making you a better sailor.
Docking a Sailboat Single-Handed: Here’s What to Do
Until this point, we’ve discussed docking with the help of a crewmate or a second, even a third person onboard. What if you’re sailing completely alone or you’re the only one able to work on the boat? In that case, when the time comes for docking, you’d have to do it on your own.
Considering you’re the one controlling the boat, how do you dock it as well? It is possible, but it means docking single-handedly. Now, before you even attempt this, you should practice docking with two hands, and do so quite a lot. You might let someone else commandeer your sailboat so you can get comfortable with finding the cleat and using spring lines or whatever line type works best for docking in your situation.
You should learn to dock under power, with just your sails, and in very strong winds. Then, once you’ve mastered all that, docking with one hand won’t seem like such a major hurdle to overcome anymore.
Starting with your dock line, you want to create a sizable loop out of it. Some sailors suggest using a bowline loop, so that’s another option you have. Make sure the dock line is lengthy so you have plenty to work with.
Then, at your boat’s pivot point, attach the loop. From there, you want to take your loop and drop it down near the cleat while your boat is set in forward idle position.
Now, with your hand on the wheel, move the wheel so it’s facing opposite the dock. Yes, this time you don’t want to go near the dock, but rather, away from it. This generates resistance, which is what you need with a one-handed setup.
From there, you want to keep the wheel locked in that position and maintain your sailboat in forward idle as well.
Here’s a cool video to check out if you want to see how docking with one hand is done.
Other Techniques for Docking Your Boat
There are a few more techniques we want to discuss that could come in handy for docking your sailboat. The first of these is how to dock your boat when you don’t have a lot of room.
We’ll also talk about safely springing yourself off a dock. If your crewmates are the ones who will be jumping onto the dock, then you’ll want to teach them how to do this.
Docking in Tight Spaces
Okay, so let’s say there’s just not much space to spare between docks. This is common in fuel docks. If you’ve only ever docked in wide open waters, then the sudden lack of space can make you nervous.
There’s no need to fret. Just follow this technique instead.
First, you want to head near your dock. Then, allow your crewmate or crewmates to ready a spring line. This should be at the boat’s bow cleat side on whichever side of your sailboat is closer to the dock. The first crewmate should loop the spring line beneath the bow cleat for max control.
Next, you want to move your sailboat towards the intended place of docking. Go slowly as you do this and rely on your rudder amidships. When you’re in position, move your boat so it’s angled towards the dock at 45 degrees.
Your first crewmate with the spring line should hand it over to a second crewmate, who should be on the dock, not in the sailboat. This second crewmate will attach the spring line to the cleat that’s closest to your boat’s ideal stern positioning.
While they’re doing this, don’t throttle, but do move from the dock by turning. Tell the crewmates to release their spring line, which gives you enough force to move forward. Your crewmates can use the spring line to ease the boat to a complete stop, parking it in place. A bit of throttle at this point is allowable, as it will help get the stern where it should be.
Then, tie the spring line and you’re all done.
Safely Jumping Off a Dock
If your sailboat is positioned at the port but there’s enough wind coming from the side of the starboard’s bow quarter, then a crewmate on the dock might be moved back and forth. By angling the bow out, it’s possible to stop or at least slow this movement. That makes being on the dock safer for your crewmate.
To get started, you want to take the forward spring line and move it back, attaching its bitter end to the stern cleat. A second crewmate should have the forward docklines under control, and if they need to drop a fender, they can.
Keep the engine of your sailboat running, then reverse the transmission, using your rudder amidships for this first part of the process. The boat should begin to move towards the forward spring line, but only that line should be tight.
After that, a crewmate should move the fender so it’s between the dock and your sailboat. They need to grab the line of the fender as well.
Getting back to your duties as captain, you next want to steer towards the dock but while keeping in reverse. The spring line prevents you from going too far backwards and actually propels the boat’s stern towards the dock.
By adding some power to the stern side of your sailboat, the bow will begin to move at an angle so it’s further from the dock. During all this, your one crewmate handling the fender should make sure all is well on their end.
The bow is now out, so take the rudder amidships to move forward. Those crewmates handling the spring line at the stern should move the line forward at this point. If you need to reach starboard, then steer.
More Tips for Docking Your Sailboat
Before we wrap up, we have a handful of actionable tips that should make docking your sailboat an easier experience. No matter which of the techniques we’ve covered that you have to employ, you’ll know how to dock safely and efficiently.
Fenders Are Your Friend
You might think your own bodily force can stop your sailboat if you’re not going at a very high speed (which is necessary for docking). Sure, you can, but you’ll often greatly suffer for your efforts. It’s possible to separate your shoulder or experience other upper body injuries by overexerting yourself in this way.
You’re much better off relying on your fenders and going very slowly when docking. Also, practice your technique so you won’t have sudden momentum shifts that call for you to slow down very quickly.
Keep Your Passengers Safe
If you have other passengers onboard your sailboat besides your crewmates, you need to keep their safety at the top of your priority list. Everyone should either have something to grab hold of or a seat in which to settle into.
Also, only work with crewmates who have experience jumping off the boat and onto the dock and handling the various lines around your sailboat. Otherwise, you put people in harm’s way, something we’re sure you don’t want to do.
When Holding onto the Boat, Keep Limbs Inside
There are plenty of things to keep hold of on a sailboat, such as the railing. This is safe to use, but leaning arms, hands, and fingers over the edge of the boat? Not so much. Maneuvers can be quick when docking your sailboat, and if everyone onboard isn’t expecting it, it’s possible they could pinch or cut their limbs and even break bones.
Make sure you warn everyone to keep their limbs inside the boat at all times when it’s in operation.
Teach Crewmates to Jump on the Dock and Give Them the Clearance to Do So
When sailing, you’ve got to act fast. The same goes for docking your boat. In that urgency, a crewmate could try to make a jump they’re clearly not able to and severely hurt themselves along the way.
Huge jumps from the sailboat to the dock are not recommended. There’s always the possibility the crewmate won’t be able to make the jump, so they’ll end up in the water. Even if they do get across, if the dock is slippery, they could fall. The force of a hard jump could lead to severe foot pain and complications as well.
Make sure you line up your sailboat so it’s near the dock close enough that the crewmate can easily jump off the boat and onto the dock.
Announce What You’re Doing if Necessary
You know what they say about too many cooks in the kitchen. While you may need a small crew to dock your sailboat, you must make sure everyone is on the same page at all times. This may take everyone announcing what they’re going to do ahead of doing it.
If you work with the same crew often enough, you may not have to verbally communicate anymore. Until you reach that level of camaraderie and understanding though, make sure everyone is ready for what’s to come. If you catch anyone unaware, they could make a mistake in their part of the docking.
There are many ways to dock a sailboat, such as using engine power or just your sails. If you’re in very strong winds, you’ll have to change up your docking technique. You can even do the docking yourself with a one-handed maneuver.
Practice truly does make perfect. As you familiarize yourself with these docking techniques, remember to take it slow, have people onboard with you, and don’t be discouraged if you don’t quite get it right the first time. The more you work at it, the easier docking will become. All the best!