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‘Jump, Dan, Jump!’

If you’re shouting this type of thing at the mate while docking, you’re doing it wrong.

Capt. Jack (not his real name) and his brother and first mate, Dan, were on Capt. Jack’s first multiday cruise aboard his 30-foot trawler. Capt. Jack’s experience docking the trawler was limited to his home marina and slip. The second day, they cruised to the La Conner Marina & RV Park near Anacortes, Washington. The town of La Conner has water access thanks to the Swinomish Channel that runs roughly north-south.

At the time, Capt. Jack was unfamiliar with the strong currents in the channel. He approached the lengthy guest dock and anticipated a portside docking, with lines and fenders configured accordingly. With a 30-degree angle of the boat toward the dock, he figured that when the bow reached the dock, Dan would comfortably step off and secure the bow line, and then the stern line.

Unfortunately for Capt. Jack, the current was running from the stern at several knots. The current, coupled with the bow-toward-the-dock approach, left the stern exposed.


The current grabbed hold, the stern swung away from the dock, and the unwitting captain instructed the first mate to jump. Like a good first mate, Dan followed instructions, leapt to the dock and secured the bow line to the cleat with something that looked more like a monkey fist than a proper cleat hitch.

Then, the boat pivoted 180 degrees on the bow line, ending up starboard side to the dock. About the only thing Capt. Jack did correctly was to find about 120 linear feet of free dock space, leaving plenty of room for his 30-foot trawler.

There is, of course, a well-known saying that one learns more from failure than from success. That seems to be true for my friend Capt. Jack. He has passed along some “practice pointers” for a successful docking, gleaned from the experience described above and from simply having more seagoing experience.

First: Communication with the crew is critical, and should occur well in advance of starting the docking maneuver. The crew should be instructed about their tasks in the process, and how to perform them, as well as a general description of how the docking is expected to play out. If the first mate doesn’t know a cleat hitch from a meat cleaver, then a direction to tie one may not be successful. The crew should also understand the basic verbal commands and hand signals the captain typically uses while docking.

Second: Mooring lines and fenders should be set before commencing the docking maneuver. Capt. Jack sets fenders on both sides of his boat, even if he anticipates a port or starboard tie, as the case may be. In the event that a planned portside docking is abandoned, having fenders on the starboard side avoids crew chaos as they scramble to relocate fenders to starboard. The mooring lines should be properly secured to the vessel and placed neatly on deck. This should include, at a minimum, mooring lines at the bow and midship, and two at the stern (port and starboard).

Third: Familiarize yourself with the marina. Capt. Jack now likes to use Google Earth to obtain an aerial view. This helps him to visualize the actual marina setting, areas of restricted navigation, and more. In addition, many marinas have maps available on their websites. These are useful in the planning process. Last, your trusted guidebook may have additional
information from authors with firsthand experience at the marina. In short, some advance research means you won’t be going into a new marina blind.

Fourth: Capt. Jack suggests knowing whether you’re going to be assigned a slip or using the linear transient dock. Many marinas will have slips for permanent tenants and then a separate transient dock that requires reservations on a first-come, first-served basis. Absent the ability to visually identify the number of boats already at the guest dock, it is useful to radio the harbormaster to find out how much space is available.

Other marinas will have slips they assign to guest boaters. When nearing the marina, contact the harbormaster via VHF radio and find out your slip assignment. Ask whether the assigned slip is a port or starboard tie, and if you prefer one versus the other, ask to be assigned a different slip. Ask the harbormaster if there is another vessel sharing the slip. If there is, then it’s good practice to place fenders to port and starboard. If your vessel has a wider-than-normal beam, or restricted maneuverability, convey that to the harbormaster. Does the marina have dockhands available? If so, Capt. Jack prefers to request that assistance, if for no other reason than docking at a new marina can be a bit unpredictable, even with the best advance planning.

Fifth: Have a realistic understanding of your abilities in various docking situations. If you’re comfortable sliding your 40-footer between two other boats with only a few feet to spare fore and aft, then have at it. But if you’re not, then look for an alternative mooring option. Capt. Jack still likes to have ample space fore and aft when docking between vessels, and takes no shame in advising the harbormaster, “I can’t get my boat in that slip.” Also take into consideration the effect of wind and current on the docking maneuver, particularly as they relate to your docking skill and, if applicable, the slip assigned and the other vessels already on the dock.

Last: It’s the responsibility of the captain to place the vessel on the dock in a prudent and safe manner. The crew should not use their limbs to fend off the boat from the dock. It is not only dangerous, but also rarely successful.

For Capt. Jack’s part, he hasn’t uttered the command “Jump, Dan, Jump” since that fateful docking years ago, and that’s good for many reasons. First mate Dan is not as spry as he once was.

This article was originally published in the October 2022 issue.