It is understood, at least on our boat, that coming to or leaving a pier is not ‘social hour.’ Instead, it is important to remain focused on the job at hand, and the more difficult the docking, the more focused you must be.
One day, as I was on the dock, I watched a fairly new-to-boating couple bring their mid-sized boat in to tie up. Difficulties ensued and the docking procedure disintegrated into much yelling, running around, and confusion.
I ran into that couple later in the day and during our discussion they mentioned that their docking routine usually ended up with the same result that I had witnessed. They were ready to give up on boating because this end-of-the-day routine always ruined any pleasure that boating might otherwise have given them.
As we continued our discussion, a few ideas were tossed around and they started to realize that they were neglecting a few pre-docking preparations that might help alleviate many of the problems they were having.
One procedure they decided to adopt was to first stop at a comfortable and safe distance from the slip and discuss things such as wind and current, what the captain’s plan would be, and line handling, along with any other topics that might be germane. Only after the fenders and docklines are in place, and the boat poles are readily available, would the docking proceed.
Although we’ve become much more adept at docking a boat than we had been earlier in our boating career, we still, to some extent or another, go through a procedure like this ourselves, even today. We’ve also discovered that it’s a good idea to have a similar discussion before leaving a slip, too.
DON’T BE VAGUE
We noticed right away that the folks docking and tying up their boat exchanged vague instructions and requests—the primary reason for many conflicts on board. It took Jill and me years before we finally realized this. Her idea of “a little bit” was much different from my idea of what “a little bit” meant.
Now, we try and make our instructions and requests as clear and as specific as the circumstances require. Many times it is not, “Give me some slack,” but instead, “Give me 3 feet of slack.” Not, “You’re getting close,” but instead, “You’re 3 feet from the pier.” Not, “Let’s move the boat forward a little bit,” but instead, “Let’s move the boat 2 feet forward,” and so on.
There are also a few basic skills that every boater should practice. One of these is that every crew member that will assist in docking the boat must be adept at throwing a rope. It’s not difficult to learn how to throw a rope, but you cannot simply just read about it. You must practice doing it. (See "The Artful Tosser.")
In order to successfully throw a rope, you must throw lines that are long enough, because throwing lines that are too short will make both the thrower and catcher look foolish.
HOW LONG IS LONG?
So, what does “long enough” mean? For us, “long enough” means the rope should, if thrown accurately, extend eight to 10 feet past the receiver, providing a reasonable measure of time for them to reach and grab hold of the line before it slides into the water. So, keeping in mind that the boat may often still be 10 feet or more from the pier when the line is thrown, for most recreational boats in the 30- to 50-foot range, “long enough” means lines that are 30 to 40 feet in length, or longer, if necessary.
Also, the captain needs to know how to maneuver the boat, and this skill is another one that only comes with practice. The captain should practice frequently, and away from all encumbrances until he or she is comfortable doing it. Then, the captain can progress to the next stage—practicing in tighter quarters with adverse wind and current.
Jill and I practice docking by ourselves every chance we get, when the wind and current are cooperative. We like to forgo the pier committee’s help, unless thing get out of control. You can learn some great lessons from smashing into a piling or seawall.
The captain does not necessarily need to be the one at the helm so, he or she must also become adept at passing instructions to the helmsman and be able to do so succinctly and in a timely manner.
To avoid confusion on our boat, the crew follows the captain’s instructions. The last thing we need is for the crew to follow directions from someone trying to be helpful, while the captain is planning and attempting to do something else.
So, when the local dock committee comes scurrying down the dock, chomping at the bit to be helpful, we ask them to stand by. If necessary, we’ll tell them two times or more—as many times as is necessary to get them to not interfere.
It is also understood, at least on our boat, that coming to or leaving a pier is not “social hour.” Instead, it is important to remain focused on the job at hand, and the more difficult the docking, the more focused they must remain on the job. If folks on the pier keep providing distractions, we try to suggest that if they give us a few minutes to get the boat tied up, we’ll then invite them on board. If necessary, we’ll also ask them to quiet down, so everyone can hear the skipper’s commands. We’ll always ask for help when another boat has been damaged by our boat though.
With the proliferation of bow thrusters and stern thrusters, docking a boat without them—especially a single-engine boat—seems to be a lost art, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, whether or not your boat has a thruster or two, it’s still useful to practice docking your boat without them.
Granted, some of these ideas may not apply to all boats or in all circumstances, but it’s important to develop good habits early because it may come in handy one day, particularly in a situation where there is little time to think.