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How To Maintain Focus When Docking

Disorientation is a real phenomenon in boating, especially during docking maneuvers.

Wait. Where am I?

This summer’s Olympics in Tokyo introduced us to a phenomenon called “the twisties,” which sidelined star gymnast Simone Biles. The condition occurs when a gymnast or high-diver can’t tell where his or her body is while spinning through the air. Airplane pilots and underwater divers can experience a similar condition, called spatial disorientation. They lose the ability to determine up from down.

Anytime our bodies experience motion in multiple directions simultaneously, it is easy to become disoriented or confused. A subtle form of spatial disorientation called somatogyral disorientation can also affect boaters, especially in docking situations. You can lose the ability to detect movement, or can perceive movement in a different (mostly opposite) direction to reality.

Disorientation is a real phenomenon in boating, and it can happen anywhere, especially during docking maneuvers.

Disorientation is a real phenomenon in boating, and it can happen anywhere, especially during docking maneuvers.

The final phase of docking a boat involves a multitude of actions. One of the most important aspects is knowing where the boat is relative to its surroundings. With the potential for the boat to be pivoting and moving sideways, while simultaneously going forward or reverse, it’s understandable how one gets confused about what action to take.

No other vehicle we are accustomed to operating induces this feeling. When driving a car, the vehicle normally doesn’t have the ability to spin or move laterally while you’re driving. Unless you’re driving on ice or in similarly slippery conditions, your vehicle is not dramatically influenced by outside forces. The only thing that affects the direction of the vehicle is the input you give it.

Knowing and acknowledging that it’s easy to get disoriented is the first step in correcting the problem. Experienced boaters make a practice of being aware of what is going on around them. They take visual cues from their surroundings to know whether the boat is moving in multiple directions simultaneously. That awareness prepares them to react if the boat is rotating or moving sideways while they are attempting to back into the slip.

While we’ve established that operating a boat is very different from operating a car, we can take a page from driving education to help us improve our docking skills. Drivers are commonly taught using a system known as SIPDE (scan, identify, predict, decide and execute). It’s a step-by-step process used to make judgments and act in complex environments.


When entering the close-quarters confines of a marina, make a thorough scan of the environs. Observe pinch points, which are narrow areas where maneuvering may be especially difficult. Scanning provides you with the information you need, in enough time to make decisions or act.


Anticipate how conditions within the marina may affect you and the movement of the boat. This is the “what if?” phase of SIPDE.

What outside influences, such as wind or current, could affect the boat’s movement? Are you entering a marina in an urban or downtown area where large buildings could block or funnel the wind? What will happen when you turn sideways to the wind or current down that fairway?

Predict where the boat will be in five to 10 seconds. Experienced sea captains refer to this practice as “sailing ahead of the ship.”


Having predicted where the boat will be in the immediate near future lets you determine what action to take now, to have the boat where you want it to be at that future point. Decide what is necessary to counteract any outside influences.

The first and most important step is to adjust your speed. Boats lose their momentum slowly, so reduce the throttle long before you need to bring the boat to a stop.

Next, adjust your position. Allow room for the boat to be set sideways without encountering other boats, piers or pilings. The degree of adjustment depends on how much time and space you have. The more time and space, the less risk you’ll encounter.

Knowing what input to choose and how much to give the boat, to move it in the correct direction, is critical at this point.


Carry out your decision. This is when your handling skills come into play and where they must be second nature. This is not the time to learn how the boat will react when you advance the throttle or engage a thruster. Practice those skills in advance, on a calm day in open water, clear of any obstacles. The best decision will be meaningless without the skills and commitment to carry it out.

Focusing on each of these actions, individually, helps eliminate the potential for becoming confused or losing your perspective on your surroundings. Actively engaging all your senses through every aspect of docking, and knowing what will happen next, helps reduce the potential of becoming disoriented and increases your ability to make the best decisions for the conditions at hand.

This story originally appeared in the November/December 2021 issue of Passagemaker magazine.