How to Dock a Sailboat

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Bring the Boat to the Dock

Approaching the dock
Photo © Dick Joyce.

Docking a sailboat can bring out your worst or your best. Some new sailors feel great fear and trepidation when approaching the dock, while some old hands delight in showing off for the inevitable onlookers. But docking is like any other sailing skill: learn how to dock your sailboat the right way, pay attention to your boat and the wind, and soon enough it will be second nature. The steps below are for docking under power; docking under sail only is described here.

Or don’t pay attention to these things and risk an embarrassing crash—or worse.

Follow these steps:

  1. Approach the dock slowly at a shallow angle with the boat completely under your control, as shown in this photo. If you have a choice, it’s easiest to come to the dock with the bow into the wind or current, whichever is stronger, letting it slow you as you approach. Never trust reverse gear to stop you in time if the boat is moving too fast.
  2. Long before you get close to the dock, have your fenders tied in place on the lifelines, the bow dock line secured forward on the anchor cleat, and the stern line attached to an aft cleat.
  3. Warning: Never put body parts between the boat and the dock! Even a small boat in motion has a lot of momentum and can cause serious injuries.
  4. Step—Don’t Leap—Onto the Dock. Once the boat is alongside the dock stopped or barely moving, step down onto the dock with the ends of both dock lines. It’s good to get in the habit of doing this yourself in case no one else is around to take your dock lines.
  5. Toss the Dock Lines to a Helper? Often someone on the dock will offer to take your dock lines as you pull up. Let them help, but then do the tie-up yourself to make sure the boat stays secure. All too often a helpful person simply “wraps” the line around the cleat in a way that may slip off later. Learn to do it the right way yourself and you’ll always know your boat will be there when you return.
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Secure the Boat to the Dock

Tied Up with Bow Line, Stern Line, and Spring Lines.

If a current or wind may start the boat moving before it is well tied up, always secure first the end facing the wind or current. If the bow is facing the wind or current, for example, tie up the bow line first before the boat starts moving backward. Then you don’t have to rush to tie up the second line.

  1. Tie up the bow and stern lines first.
  2. Adjust the height of the fenders so that they protect the hull but will not ride up on the dock with boat movement caused by waves or wakes.
  3. Secure one or two spring lines (unless you will be tied up only a few minutes and someone will be watching). Spring lines are tied from a midships cleat forward and backward to the dock. In a real blow, use additional springs. Be sure to use a cleat hitch to secure the dock lines to dock cleats.

Warning: Watch Out for the Tide! Most saltwater areas, including bays and even rivers near the coast, are affected by the tides. As the water level goes up and down, the boat rises and falls. If you tie up to a dock or piling that is fixed in height, your lines must be loose enough to let the boat move up and down. In many areas with very high tides, the docks themselves float up and down, avoiding this problem.

But if your dock is fixed and you are gone from the boat an hour or more, a water level change could strain a tight dock line to the point of ripping cleats from the dock or the boat—and setting your boat adrift.

Docking under sail. A small sailboat can be more easily docked under sail, especially if a long section of the dock is available and you can make the final approach into the wind. Just remember to come in slow and luff up (turn into the wind to make the sails luff, slowing the boat) just before reaching the dock. If you can't turn into the wind to make your stop, gradually release the sheets to depower the sails in your final approach. See this article for more detailed information about docking under sail only.

See also How to Leave the Dock.