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Big-Boat Docking: Tools and Techniques

If you address the dual challenges of communication and sightlines, docking becomes a whole lot easier.
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Contrary to common belief, the degree of difficulty in docking a boat does not increase with the size of the boat. Handling a larger boat in close quarters is no more difficult than handling a smaller one. The larger boat just requires a different strategy, one that focuses on two particular challenges.

Docking our 22-foot C-Dory is a stressless and enjoyable exercise. From the pilothouse steering station, I can see every point on the boat, while my wife, Dori, and I can communicate easily without raising our voices.

Docking our 54-foot Ocean Alexander trawler is just as easy, even though I can only see a fraction of the boat from the helm, and Dori and I are frequently out of each other’s range of hearing.

Our ease in handling the 54-footer comes from having solved two challenges that are particular to larger boats: the inability to see all points of the boat from the steering station, and being able to communicate easily with your mate on deck. Addressing those issues can make docking a larger boat even easier than docking a smaller one, since a larger, heavier boat is usually more stable at rest, giving the skipper time to think.

The use of hands-free headsets solves the communication problem by allowing the helmsman and mate to speak to each other without raising their voices. Headsets also supplement the lack of vision by enabling the mate on deck to act as the helmsman’s eyes. (Have you ever watched a pilot arrive or depart from a jetway at the airport? The pilot cannot see the tail or wing tips of the plane. By use of radio and hand signals, the ground crew tells the pilot where they are and the direction in which to move the plane.)

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Communicating directions to someone who cannot see requires specific instructions, given with actionable information. If the crew on deck says, “You’re too close to this side,” and you can’t see your crew or the side, that information is of no use to you. However, if your crew says, “Move the stern to starboard 2 feet,” you can do something with that information. When backing into a slip or coming along for a side tie, your mate can say, “You’re 5 feet off, now 3, now 2, now stop.” In doing this, your crew becomes your eyes for a portion of the docking.

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Beyond communicating accurate and actionable information, it’s equally important to do it calmly. Screaming “You’re going to hit the piling!” stands a good chance of eliciting a potentially dangerous overreaction from the helm.

In addition to the headsets, another way of solving the sight and sound issue is by moving the helm station to a position where you can see what you’re approaching. Commonly, larger boats will have wing stations with thruster and engine controls outside of the pilothouse or in the cockpit. The alternate control stations allow the helmsman to have a better view of the side or stern of the boat.

While these alternate stations do improve sightlines, they do not eliminate the problem of being unable to see all points on the boat. Using the aft steering station may keep you from hitting the dock when backing into a slip, but if the bow you can’t see is scraping along an outer piling, you still have a problem. Remote stations can be helpful, but they don’t replace the need for effective communication.

Taking the concept of the wing station one step further is the use of a wireless remote-control device. These remotes give the helmsman the flexibility of moving around the boat to see the most critical area at any moment.

Remotes are especially helpful when there are no dockhands to help with lines. We frequently leave marinas early in the morning before staff arrives. The remote control gives me the ability to be out on deck helping with lines and making sure Dori is aboard safely, all while being able to control the boat.

Handling any size boat can be easy and stress-free. All it takes is good communication while using the right tools and techniques.


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