Wing Controls


I haven’t had a rant for a while. So here goes.

What is it with recreational trawlers and the lack of wing controls?

The Pros Know

The first thing our friend Bob, a commercial mariner and fisherman, did when he and his wife Brenda bought their Nordhavn 55, BJoyce, was to upgrade her controls so he can adjust rudder, engine, and thrusters from the side of the boat outside the wheelhouse where he can see everything properly while he docks and most, importantly, where he can see where crew members or dock hands are at all times.

Bottomline, trying to dock a big motorboat with a 300 hp engine, capable of exerting enough force at idle revs to rip someone’s leg off, from inside a wheelhouse with blind spots everywhere, is just plain dangerous. Yet we see it done every day, usually with much shouting and angst.

Flying Bridge Is Not a Substitute

A flying bridge sometimes helps, but on trawlers that are often quite beamy with controls in the middle of the boat, the skipper tending them still can’t see a crew member on the dock without leaving the controls.

We saw this graphically demonstrated on a 50 foot trawler we went out on when the skipper, under the impression that his crew was back aboard after untying the spring used to swing the bow out, put the boat in gear. She was still on the dock and reaching for said spring. Luckily, she realized what was happening and jumped clear, but things could have ended with a very nasty injury.

Or Headsets

Sure the headsets that we see motorboat crews using these days can help, but there is no substitute for actually seeing what’s going on. All it takes is one verbal miscommunication and disaster can strike.

Other Benefits

The other huge benefit of wing controls is that the skipper can easily throw a line to someone on the wharf without having to leave the controls. Way better than popping in and out of the wheelhouse like some demented gopher or, worse still, risking life and limb scrambling up and down a near vertical ladder to the flying bridge.

This is Not Smart

This really is a stupid situation. How often do you see a large beamy commercial vessel being handled by a professional mariner without wing controls? Not often.

But the recreational trawler industry is willing to put a huge powerful boat in the hands of an amateur and then not even give said amateur a safe control station to dock her from. For shame!

OK, got that off my chest.

Thank You

A big thank you to Bob and Brenda for staging and taking the above photograph, required for this post, since some dummy forgot to take it while he was on their boat.

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Meet the Author


John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

39 comments… add one
  • Myles Feb 12, 2015, 10:08 pm

    Looking foward to your series on docking. Would also like some tips when solo.

    • John Feb 13, 2015, 11:07 am

      Hi Myles,

      Yes, should be fun. We are even planning some video.

      Single handed is tough. I did quite a bit of single handed coming alongside back years ago when I sailed around Newfoundland, much of it single handed. I got reasonable good at it, but it’s always easier if you can get a bystander to catch a spring…good way to meet women too, but that’s another story.

  • Ben Tucker Feb 13, 2015, 12:31 am

    Very true, sadly not long ago a nasty accident happened down this way due to a stern line that the skipper thought was “all clear”, not being so. Just make sure you test you have the bridge wing controls before berthing. I’ve had a couple of frights, finding out at the last minute the engine is still on inside control… Not much fun with 300 odd ton of boat moving towards an immovable dock! On the Bigger ships we used very formal and standard language, eg “all gone, NOT clear aft” and “all clear aft” gone was let go, clear was out of the water, or well away from harms way, tugs/bow thrusters, lines boats, props etc. Looking forward to your berthing series.



    • John Feb 13, 2015, 11:12 am

      Hi Ben,

      Now there’s a couple of really good points.

      I think the point about formal standard language is a another thing that we amateurs can learn from you pros.

      For example, when Phyllis and I change over the person conning our boat, we look directly at the other person and say “you have the con” and then don’t hand over until we get an acknowledgement. Seems a bit silly and phoney on a yacht, but a couple of times before we started doing this (years ago) we got into a situation where nether of us was really in control and each thought the other was.

      • Marc Dacey Feb 14, 2015, 3:30 am

        It might seem phoney/silly language, but it is entirely appropriate. We adapted racing language (ready about? Ready! Helm’s a-lee, etc.) for our cruising and have further adapted the sort of terms at use in the RYA courses: precise nautical terms that are the opposite of “No! The OTHER left!” one hears coming from other docks. Boats weigh enough to crush humans even at minimal speed, and handling them is both art and science. Besides, it’s a reminder that while we are having fun and daydreaming on a foofy 10 knot day, we are still in command of a large object in motion, often via just muscle power, and there should be clarity about intent at all times. In addition, nautical directional terms like “port side lockers, just forward of midships, aftmost toolbox by the knees” gets you the needed item to hand faster than “the green box in the cupboard in the wall where we eat”.

  • David Lyman Feb 13, 2015, 10:41 am

    Did you see the un-docking fiasco last year on the Brovo TV series “Below Decks?” A reality show about crew drama on a charter mega-yach operating in the BVI.
    The incident tore out one the dock pilings at Nanny Cay (BVI), on Camera, when the engine went into gear automatically. The skipper comes out of the pilot house, shoves the camera man away and leans over the side. Made for good reality TV, but dangerous. Later on the charter, the crew discovered a problem within the aft control station (un-manned,) not communicating with the bridge. It was a design error, not a crew error.
    Would TV cameras be a less costly solution than installing wing bridge controls?
    You can buy a system at Best Buy for less than $100.

    • John Feb 13, 2015, 11:15 am

      Hi David,

      Yikes, that sounds scary.

      As to TVs as a substitute, my answer would be an emphatic no. While useful (Bjoyce has one pointing aft) they are, in my view, no substitute for wing controls. You just don’t get the same situation awareness looking at a screen.

  • ChrisW Feb 13, 2015, 10:54 am

    Last time we had a large trawler dock next to us, the skipper had a similar control paddle one uses for a bridge crane. It had about 25 feet of scope and he was all over the place in the process of coming and going. It hung from his neck like a small keyboard. When I asked him about it, he had made it himself, because all the company offered was helm and side controls. He considered side controls inadequate because he couldn’t see what other boats were doing while his view was obscured by everything forward of him.

    • John Feb 13, 2015, 11:21 am

      Hi Chris,

      Yes, wandering controls are interesting. My worry with them, both wireless and wired is reliability. The thought of a short in the cable at the wrong moment is truly frightening, (see David’s comment above).

      My thinking is that for most boats well placed wing controls are the best option. Of course you are right that the opposite side is often obscured, at least somewhat, but then again, the skipper does not usually move to the wing until very close to the wharf where what boats are doing on the far side becomes less important. Bottom line, it’s all compromises.

      • ChrisW Feb 13, 2015, 12:04 pm

        True enough, however given what I seen of some (even high end) boat wiring, I think I might opt for industrial cable sets…

        • John Feb 13, 2015, 12:18 pm

          That’s a good point!

  • Terry Mason Feb 13, 2015, 12:24 pm


    Trawlers are not my thing, but here is my $.02. Standardized communications removes any ambiguity from critical procedures, and having standard operating procedures (SOP), checklists plus a crew briefing prior to the event takes all the guess work out of it. As a former professional pilot, these things were mandatory and taught from the beginning of training. words like “affirmative” , “negative” and having the skipper educate the crew in the procedural language that he prefers should go a long way to improving safety. I know the recreational boater has to accumulate some knowledge by osmosis , but that is often misleading to say the least. The boaters courses are a good starting point, but I am sure many don’t take them (how hard can it be?), or perhaps the training at that stage is a bit weak concerning communications. The aviation version is: A newbie pilot gets his license then buys a big fast plane and kills himself and whoever else in on board. Happens all the time.

    • John Feb 14, 2015, 10:16 am

      Hi Terry,

      I agree. I’m a very out of date private pilot (have not flown in 40 years) but I still think of and use the structure and discipline of flight training you mention in the way I run our boat.

  • Bill Balme Feb 13, 2015, 3:15 pm

    We were in Mariehamn, Finland last year and watched a large (45′?) trawler dock – between pilings – in the busy and tight marina, single handed, whilst his disabled spouse looked on. His secret was to stand on the bow as he reversed in – using a remote control. I hope those things are reliable, because it was poetry in motion – he came in very relaxed – and with some (10 – 12 knots) wind. He was able to move about the boat attaching lines as he came alongside each piling.
    I can’t imagine him (or anyone else) docking such a large beast if restricted to a single position within the wheelhouse.

    • John Feb 14, 2015, 10:11 am

      Hi Bill,

      That really does sound a very cool way to do it. On the other hand I really wonder about how safe these remote controls are?

      The thought of such a control running amok is truly terrifying.

      • Matt Feb 18, 2015, 11:41 pm

        It’s quite possible to make a radio remote that’s as reliable as a good directly-connected control.
        An example: If you’re using a 70 metre, 5-segment robot arm to guide a 500 ton-per-hour flow of concrete over the heads of a gang of construction workers, you’ll likely entrust the control of that machine to a German-made Putzmeister Ergonic radio remote.
        I have, however, yet to see a yacht-market radio remote that comes anywhere close to that standard of engineering.
        Industrial quality, industrial reliability and industrial pricing tend to go hand-in-hand. Few boaters are willing to pay for such equipment.

        • Marc Dacey Feb 19, 2015, 7:18 pm

          So I gather the using the $500 Garmin Quatix watch as a remote autopilot isn’t for you? I have visions of solo skippers trying to self-rescue using one of these devices and getting run over by their own boats.

  • Bill Robinson Feb 13, 2015, 8:17 pm

    A young Australian girl was killed a few year back at a marina in Thailand, when a dock line snapped. Apparently the problem was caused by a failure of the wing control on a super yacht.
    Another similar problem is the lack of engine/gearbox controls on some catamarans ,with twin helm stations, the Catana range especially. As a delivery skipper who often sails single handed, it is difficult to dock one of these wide cats, when the dock is on the opposite side to the controls.

    • John Feb 14, 2015, 10:09 am

      Hi Bill,

      That’s a sad story that brings up how vital it is that engine and steering controls are reliable. One of my greatest fears is an engine control failure when docking, say a gear or throttle cable that breaks. In fact I’m so paranoid about this that I replace said cables every 10 years.

  • RDE Feb 13, 2015, 11:03 pm

    Good point about visibility from the power control station on many catamarans. Potential docking problems are exacerbated by the high windage relative to displacement, especially with the currently popular condomarans with vertical windows and helm stations on top of the cabin. And unlike most trawlers in the 50-60′ range, bow thrusters are far from common.

    Terry, in principle education should help but all the certificates in the world are no substitute for intelligence and experience. I once flew down to the BVI to help bring a beautiful Frers Swan 54 back up North for the summer. The owner had a 100 ton Yatchmaster ticket and had chartered it in the BVI for a couple of years, so I was looking forward not only to sailing on a great boat but perhaps learning a bit as well. We motored over to St. Thomas to fuel and take care of a few business items. I went forward and set up a breast line anticipating the 20 knot breeze blowing us off the fuel dock. The skipper insisted I remove it and take the stern line ashore instead. The other crew did the same with the bow line. So naturally she blew off the dock until the slack came out of the two lines. Looked over at the boat and realized that there was nobody on board— skipper had jumped off onto the dock the moment it was within leaping distance. The fuel pumps were at least 100′ further down the dock— no problem just drag 50,000# of Swan down there. After we fueled the skipper motored over to an open slip and ran the bow into the end at about 4 knots. I grabbed my sea bag and hoofed it over to Frenchtown and a cheap room before flying home!

    So I’m not that impressed with licensees and certificates unless they are accompanied by some actual knowledge!

    • John Feb 14, 2015, 10:05 am

      Hi Richard,

      Your comment brings up something that always amazes me: the number of otherwise experienced sailors that never bother to learn to come alongside properly. And there are few things that cause more anxiety and unhappiness around cruising than poor docking skills. And the sad thing is that it’s not a skill that’s really that difficult to acquire.

  • Dick Stevenson Feb 14, 2015, 12:20 pm

    John and all,
    The comments on wireless controls reminds me of a time when lounging in Alchemy’s cockpit at the end of a Fort Lauderdale fuel dock I was keeping a watchful eye on a quite large motor yacht maneuvering it’s way onto the dock stern to stern with me. The captain was running the boat with an elaborate set of wireless controls while at the same time abusing the young dock boys and girls who we’re trying to help. I (momentarily) considered going below and firing up my SSB/ham rig on high power and scrolling through the frequencies till I found the one that would make this yacht pirouette. Some good ideas should definitely go un-acted upon.
    Dick Stevenson, l/v Alchemy

    • ChrisW Feb 14, 2015, 1:04 pm

      Just to clarify, I explicitly did not endorse wireless nor do I consider wireless a good idea for any control system where uncommanded outputs/failure can have other than benign consequences. I won’t even use it with my RC boats. Fly-by-wire controls on the other hand, have an exceptional safety record.

      One of the things I have observed with the comings and goings at our marina is the side controls are only on the correct side about half the time which one might expect, since the slips are of the shared finger pier variety. On the face dock for transients, we have yet to see one do a 180 to come alongside with the controls in the favored position.

      Further only about half the boats have the side controls on the same side as the fuel or water service points. Most skippers seem to favor not dragging a hose across the deck to using the side controls. And we have observed crew preferences for boarding and solar exposure have about the same impact.

      One guy had it nailed though. He had a remote state P & S aft and a walk-around at the bow. Watching him dock was a master class.

      • John Feb 15, 2015, 11:33 am

        Hi Chris,

        All good points, which in turn bring up another point: The controls should be on the same side of the boat as the direction of propeller rotation, at least for single screw boats and twin screw without counter rotation.

        In other words if the boat has a right hand prop it is almost always better to be starboard side to since the prop rotation will then help get the vessel off the wharf. (More in our upcoming series on coming alongside.) So I would argue that prop rotation direction should be the largest influence on the position of the wing controls

        • ChrisW Feb 15, 2015, 1:48 pm

          Amen on placement. We saw a rig in Marsh Harbour, that was arguably the best I’ve seen. The joystick controlled throttle, rudder, and thrusters. It was on a half-million dollar 29 footer. Just about everything on the dock came to a stop when the Bahamian captain tango-ed his boat into the slip with never a touch. Unit was amidships on the prop walk side.

        • michael f Jul 4, 2016, 12:41 pm

          I have not been able to find the series on “Coming Alongside” and am unsure if I failed to search correctly or if it is not yet published. Also, my search for “docking” yielded an entirely blank page titled “Docking/Tying up”. I am not nagging, just concerned that I may be missing the content. Thanks.

          • John Jul 4, 2016, 2:02 pm

            Hi Michael,

            Sorry, we have not got to that yet, although we have shot some video to start the process of putting together a Coming Alongside” book.

    • John Feb 15, 2015, 11:34 am

      Hi Dick,

      You have an evil imagination.

  • Svein Lamark Feb 15, 2015, 7:57 am

    Hi John, this is a very interesting post. I think we can learn something here and use it later. Like you I prefer to dock a small boat without bow thruster , but it helps to have a large CPP on a joystick.
    I have been interested on the topic on big ships and made two small videos published on YouTube. The first shows a famous captain when docking and all his cooperation with the crew. He has fingertip control of the ships rudders and propellers and gives commands that are sent by the mate to deck hands and dock workers. With a drilled crew like this the captain can dock a large ship without tug boats in a few seconds.
    The second shows what happens in the engine room with that crew and some enormous Rolls-Royce diesels.

    • John Feb 15, 2015, 11:40 am

      Hi Svein,

      Fun Videos. The Hurtigruten captains must be the best ship handlers in the world—practice makes perfect!

  • Bernd Feb 15, 2015, 11:53 am

    Hi guys, it is indeed an interesting point Suggest to relativate though, since not everyone can afford an “ocean steamer”like Nordhavn’s. The important factor is that you have unhindered line of sight towards the people working on your mooring stations( and can communicate with them) and having the same line of sight to the quay.On smaller boats the view from the wheelhouse and/or flybridge may be more then sufficient, where wing controls would be an overkill. If that unhindered view is not there something needs to be done. When sufficient crew there should be a designated helmsman who steers and operates the engine control on masters command, who can then choose the best location for himself. This is how it was done in the merchant navy on older ships (prior wing controls) and it works fine. Some of these ships had a cable operated steering tiller or joystick- for the master ( i.e. remote cable controls are a rather long established technology) . Prior to mooring or un mooring a checklist is followed to ensure that all equipment is working. Like on airplanes. Should something still fail, and you create a fabulous disaster, your insurance broker will love that checklist and/or your entry in your log, that all systems were tested and functioned (it shows utter diligence of the ships handler to the underwriters and makes it much more difficult to attack you as captain). The industry is using remote controls wherever needed and suitable. Heavy lift cranes are often operated by wireless remote control. Meaning, believe we should use available technology if it helps us to do a better job – with a conservative approach and to always exercise due diligence and check the system before we use it in a potentially critical situation (will people follow this up on private boats ??) In the incidents and accidents described above, a system check prior use might have revealed that the system was not properly working.
    To Sveind’s comment:
    Yes indeed it is indeed always a pleasure to observe Hurtigruten Masters maneuver their ships in and out of extremely narrow places seeing the huge windage of a passenger ship- they are equipped with electric azipods – if remember correctly and surely the masters have spend long hours in ship handling simulators before . (No offense meant here: even Hurtigruten Masters run aground occasionally in front of their own house But the daily handling of such large floating structures is certainly an art and deserves our respect.
    Noted that large pax vessels are more and more equipped with DP systems
    and there appear to be more and more dynamic positioning systems coming for yachts – already at affordable prices. This can bring singlehanded or shorthanded mooring operations to a new dimension where you can “hover” on push button 1 foot from the jetty (against wind and current) and handle all lines yourselves. This works as well for single screw boats, but you need a bowthruster, Technically interesting times, however, since most seamen seem to have a (probably justified) conservative approach towards technology its probably best to practice your maneuvers first with the “poor man’s” bowthruster – the anchor – before going high tech. But this is a topic for another chapter I believe.

  • Svein Lamark Feb 16, 2015, 7:45 am

    Hi Bernd,
    it is interesting to read your comment on the Hurtigruten. The captain of Kong Harald, Ulvøy, run aground on his own island Ulvøy after entering the Trollfjorden. I think he simply knew this water too well and was too relaxed in complicated waters. Medical doctors have studied captains of airliners when landing and captains of supply ships when docking at an oil platform in the North Sea. Just before landing their pulse rises to up till 180. Adrenaline production and stress hormones also go up, but when landing they are calm and concentrating. We can learn from this that it is most likely that you might do a mistake when docking in your own homeport because you are not enough concentrated. This is an important lesson that we should be aware of.
    However I guess that most of the accidents of Hurtigruten is caused by high turn over among the mates. The mates of Hurtigruten are attractive on the labour marked and that can give a too high turn over. So an accident is more likely to happen when the captain is sleeping. As John says, practice makes perfect. When we have trained docking till perfection, we must remember too still keep up the concentrating. Captain Klodiussen on my video is very concentrated and active. He has done this for 30 years without accidents. I know that the Hurtigruten company is fully aware of this arguments.

    • Bernd Feb 16, 2015, 11:59 am

      Hi Sveind, indeed an interesting topic, yes stress levels are high prior maneuvering but then training and experience kicks in. The example of the Master only shows one reality, you can be as experienced and skilled in ships handling as you want, there is always the moment when the unexpected happens and you crash or make a dent or a scratch. It is embarrassing but those who state that it never happened to them – well, frankly i doubt their statement. But your example showed a perfect wing control, fully sheltered for high latitudes, with full vision and forward and aft alongside the ship and of course standing almost outside of the ship with perfect view on the jetty.

    • John Feb 16, 2015, 12:26 pm

      Hi Svein and Bernd,

      Now that’s interesting. I have noticed the same thing, before a tricky landing when it is blowing I can be very nervous and even feel a little sick, but about 50 meters from the wharf all of that goes away and I feel very focused, the more difficult the manoeuvre, the more focused and calm I feel.

      Also a good point about the dangers of over familiarity. I’m ashamed to admit that some years go I ran “Morgan’s Cloud” on a reef right in front of my own yacht club in Bermuda! I have known about that reef since I was 10 years old participating in junior sailing classes.

  • Bernd Feb 19, 2015, 8:17 am

    Hi John, guess that happens to many people, and running aground or making a scratch or a dent in the boat happens to everybody who runs boats on a regular basis, there is no shame in it. Although i must admit that i don’t like it when there are too many observers when i have made a dent.

  • Svein Lamark Feb 19, 2015, 11:40 am

    Hi Bernd,
    I see that you say about the masters of Hurtigruten; ” surely the masters have spend long hours in ship handling simulators”. But that is not how the navigators of the Hurtigruten exercise. They practise the real thing. On the bridge of such a ship there are always to fully licensed navigators that also have a full pilot license. To get the pilot license you must have experience as navigator, and then 3 years of real practise in the correct waters before graduating as a pilot. Simulator time does not help passing the examination. What counts is detailed knowledge of the waters and practical training with a large ship. That’s why one often see two masters on the bridge of a Hurtigruten ship and some mates who are training to get the pilot competence. Doing it this way the company does not have to hire an expensive pilot from the Government and as John says they get some of the best ship handlers in the world.
    I think this is good news for us small boat sailors. It is real practise that counts. I am looking forward to read more about Johns methods of docking.
    I have nothing against simulators. They may help and they can be very funny. I ones tried a F-16 simulator. It was very funny until The royal air force of England ordered that old sailor out. However most of us will never enter a large simulator, but a small boat is better to train with.

  • Bernd Feb 20, 2015, 2:21 pm

    Hi Sveind, with simulator use i meant more getting familiar with the azipods (steerable electric thrusters as main propulsion), since you need to train your brain in how to use them for thrust vector steering etc. And believe that the very tight spots they go in are not really a suitable training ground for a new master or c/o, so assume that they sent all of such guys to the simulator first. That being seperate from the pilot’s exemption they must have.
    Looking forward as well to John;s ship handling methods.

  • Svein Lamark Mar 18, 2015, 7:43 am

    Hi John,
    I have made some small videos to show azipod sailing without any rudder
    I find it rather difficult, probably because I am used to sail with a rudder. As the azipods can be turned 360 degrees, it may increase the rotation of the ship considerably. One of the videos shows how the ship is rotating by measuring the speed on different positions of the ship. The stern comes round rather fast! The safety officer of Hurtigruten (Maryann on the video, a very competent lady) told me that they do not use simulator training for the beginners. They start training when the ship is being docked. The beginner has to take the ship out with instructors standing by. Real training gives an expert.
    What can we small boat sailors learn from this? We do not need a simulator. Start in the dock and get out. Try to stop and rotate the boat somewhere with plenty of space and learn the different rotation behaviors of your boat when stopping. Start the exercise in good weather and then in bad weather. Then you are ready for docking. I leave that docking operation for you, John.
    best regards Svein

  • Dick Stevenson Mar 18, 2015, 9:56 am

    Svein, What fun videos. Watching them dock when in Norway last season was a wonderful display of purposeful choreography, a dance performance with dozens involved, executed impeccably. We took a day trip up the Geiranger Fjord on Hurtigruten ?? ( the oldest one) and I agitated for a visit to the bridge, but to no avail for security reasons. Anticipate returning to Norway late April, early May from Lerwick.
    Thanks for the video, Dick Stevenson, Alchemy

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