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Docklines: preparing for winter storms

small cleated line

For those of us whose boats winter over in the water, one thing we must always be prepared for is the arrival of winter storms. From Hurricanes along the SE coast to the blustery squalls of the Pacific Northwest, the winter storm season is upon us. As Hurricane Matthew dissipates and as we see more rain than sun out here in Seattle, I’m reminded that it’s that time of year to be prepared for the arrival of winter storms.

The one thing we all need to keep in mind, no matter how much you use your boat over the winter is being ready to tie our boats up for a storm. All too often I’ve seen the casual boater scooting down to the dock, while the skies darken with impending storm, to throw on one or two more docklines from the musty pile of old dock lines they keep in their dock box. There seems to be an attitude amongst some boaters of “if you don’t have good dock lines, use a lot of them.”

The most important thing when it comes to tying up your boat is not using a lot of lines, but using new ones. Practical Sailor found in a test of old dock lines that they lost up to 75% of their strength over time to UV damage, chaffing, and wear. These findings alone may make you think about how old your dock lines are and when you last replaced them. BoatUS found after years of studying insurance claims following hurricanes that most boat damage was the result of vessels being poorly tied up (often with old lines).

Another debated topic in picking docklines is three-strand vs double-braid. Three-strand nylon dock lines offer great stretch and elasticity to absorb the shock and loading that docklines experience, especially in stormy situations. However, three-strand line is much more susceptible to chafe where it runs through chocks and over rough and angled boat edges. While double-braid often offers great protection to chafe, it does so at the sacrifice of stretch which can load to shock loading and a lower breaking strength. Double braid also is known to loosen itself when it is constantly loaded and slacked, which can lead to an ineffective dockline and overloading of other lines.

I am of the opinion that your best option is three-strand nylon lines. To start with, they are cheaper, making frequent replacement less painful. But they also tighten down on themselves when they cycle through loading and slacking. They provide better stretch and strength than double braid which allows your boat to ride out a storm smoother and reduces shock load impact on things like boat chocks and cleats. There are many ways to mitigate chafe points, and a quick google search will reveal some creative options. Simply providing chafe protection allows you the safety three-strand docklines without the worry of reduced strength from chafe and wear.

One of the best suggestions we saw for developing storm lines was to splice together 3 strand line with double braid line (via two eye-splices). The sections of double braid are thus used to protect potential chafe and wear points. While splices will reduce line strength by about 10%, they reduce line strength much less than knots. This allows for more expensive line to be used cost effectively to produce a section of dockline that can run through and over points of potential chafe and wear while providing strength and proper stretch where needed in the nylon three-strand.

If you can stomach the price and have the storage I recommend keeping a set of “winter” docklines, a practice I long practiced when I was caretaking boats over the winter. As we get a lot less UV here in during Pacific Northwest winters and since they weren’t getting used all year, I felt confident in using these storm lines for a few winters in a row before feeling the need to replace them. While I used full length three-strand with bilge hose for chafe protection, I am intrigued by the idea of splicing in a few feet of high-test double braid to protect areas with the potential for chafe and wear. I recommend also oversizing winter docklines, along with incorporating chafe protection, this will provide more life to your docklines as well as allowing them to age a little longer before you need to replace them.

As we head into winter, no matter if you are mothballing your boat for the season or simply waiting for that perfect winter day to head out on the water in solitude, properly protecting you boat will give you piece of mind while you are away from the marina. Instead of running down to the marina before the storm to throw on several old, retired docklines for some last minute protection, do yourself a favor and invest in a new set of nice nylon three-strand dock lines. Or better yet buy the line you need in bulk and splice the eye-splices yourself (check out our accompanying video of how to splice three strand line from our partners over at Power and Motoryacht)! A set of new docklines will help your boat ride out winter storms smoothly and give you the peace of mind as you ride out the storm from the comfort of your home.