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10 Tips to Make Coming Alongside (Docking) Easy

Archimedes said:

Give me a spring line long enough and a fairlead in the right place and I can dock the world.

Pretty smart, particularly from a guy given to running around the streets naked.

Yea I know, the history books talk about Archimedes and levers, but that’s just a foul conspiracy orchestrated by Henry Kissinger from his underground bunker to keep us from becoming happy boat handlers.

Whatever, the key point is that a good docking almost always starts off with a spring line. But not just any spring…a magic spring: the one line that, all by itself, makes all the difference. We will get to that soon.

But first, let’s start with a few tips:

#1—Rig Up

Before we even approach a dock, four lines should be rigged, cleated off, coiled and ready to go:

  • bow line,
  • stern line,
  • forward-running spring,
  • aft-running spring.

That’s four lines, including two springs, not just the bow and stern line that many (perhaps most) people rig. I’m belabouring the point here because spring lines are the key to easy docking.

(In a later chapter we will get into the details of rigging these lines.)

#2—One Skipper

Yea I know, while you are rigging all those lines, the marina dock guy is pacing up and down yelling instructions and demanding you get on with it so he can get back to whatever he was doing (probably nothing).

Don’t worry about it. He won’t be paying for the damage if you hit the dock, so just give him the thousand-yard stare (I practice mine in front of the mirror) and take all the time you need to rig all the above lines and put the fenders in place.

Seriously, one of the biggest mistakes that we can make in coming alongside is to listen to people on the wharf or be hurried by them.

Also, many wharf rats have their own ideas about how to handle a dock line…and most of them know shit about it. So the deckhand on your boat should firmly but pleasantly say “please put this dock line on that cleat” while pointing. And, although I am embarrassed for my gender to say this, it is particularly important to leave no ambiguity if you are a woman talking to a male dock guy.

If, as is common, the dock guy just stands there holding the line without cleating it off as instructed, just put the boat in gear and drag him off the dock for a swim…OK, I’m kidding…maybe.

But seriously, establishing who is boss at the beginning is vital. To this end, we should even be willing to uncleat the boat end of the line and drop it in the water to make the point when the dock guy has done something other than what we asked him with his end.

And further, never give a dock line to someone ashore until you have stopped the boat at the place you want to end up. Otherwise they will almost invariably either pull on it, or cleat it off while the boat is still moving. Both actions will result in a docking that ends badly.

By the way, the funny thing is that the more ignorant a person on the dock is, the less likely it is that they will do as they are asked. Hand a line with clear instruction to a professional like a fisherman here in Atlantic Canada, and they will invariably do exactly what you ask—they know that there’s only one skipper and that goes double in close-quarters boat handling.

Actually, once you have this and the coming chapters mastered, and as long as there are two or more of you, you will probably join Phyllis and me in fervently hoping that the dock guy stays in his little hut watching his soap operas while we get on with it.

#3—Terms

Before we go any further, quick clarification of terms here: It’s important that everyone on the boat clearly understands which spring is which: The forward spring runs forward from the boat to the wharf and the aft spring vice versa.

It may help you to remember this rule if you think, “John is a self-centred old codger and therefore the fore spring runs forward from the boat he is on”.

Seriously, if you must name your springs the other way around, and plenty of perverts…ahh, people do, make damned sure that everyone on the boat clearly understands the names you use. Getting confused between springs leads to crunch.

#4—Briefing

And talking of making things clear, always take a moment to brief your crew on the docking plan just before you start rigging up.

That said, if you are not entirely sure of how it will go, perhaps when you are entering a tight marina where you can’t see the intended docking space, be honest about that so your crew understand that a quick change may be required, perhaps to coming alongside on the other side than originally intended. There’s no shame in changing our plans to meet new circumstances.

#5—Rig in Open Water

And, by the way, when rigging up it is better to motor back out to clear water to do it after taking a look-see at the intended wharf. Same applies if you are forced into a rig-up change. This has the added benefit that it makes the dock guy completely nuts and with luck he will stomp off in a huff.

#6—No Shame in Going Around

And that brings me to the next tip. No matter what docking situation you are in, if the approach does not work out as you planned, go round again for another attempt. Do not even think about trying to save the situation, it almost never works.

#7—Don’t Over Rely on Thrusters

If you follow along with me over the next few chapters, you will be able to dock even relatively big boats in tricky situations without thrusters, bow or stern. This I know because we have a 56-foot 26-ton boat with no thrusters.

And I strongly suggest you learn without thrusters too, since there are few admissions of boat-handling defeat more uncool than “we aborted our cruise because the bow thruster died”.

#8—The Vital Line

Don’t ever forget tip number one: rig up with all four lines. Having said that, in an emergency, when only one line can be rigged, make it the aft-running spring.

#9—And The First Line

In most docking situations the aft-running spring is the first line that should go ashore and be cleated off on the dock or dropped over a bollard.

#10—The Magic Spring

OK, I saved the best for last. Here’s the big payoff tip:

The aft-running spring should run from a point on the boat that is about one third, or a little more, forward from the stern, not from amidships.

But wait, I can hear you scream, “no one does it that way, and I don’t have a fairlead or cleat there”. Yes, I know, but fixing that will pay you back many times over, I promise. In fact this is so vital that I have a whole post all written on just that.

And yes, you probably can get away without fixing this, and I will even discuss some alternatives in future chapters, but before you lazy-out, read on for why and how this one tip will change your docking life—oops, that was a bit evangelical, where’s my white suit?

Enough justification, here’s the payoff: With a spring secured as above on the boat and running to a cleat or bollard ranging from about 8 feet (2.4 meters) to as far as your line (or crew) can run aft—exact position on the dock matters not one wit—you are docked.

Doesn’t matter:

  • if the wind is blowing you on or off;
  • how long the crew takes to get the other lines on;
  • if the helmsperson must leave the wheel to hand or throw another line to the crew on the dock.

Docked, finished, complete…can’t  think of any more synonyms for done.

That’s right, once that magic aft spring is secured, everything else is just tidying up, with no urgency required.

Coming Next

That’s the theory. In the next chapter, I will get practical with step-by-step instructions for several docking scenarios—onshore wind, offshore wind, wind along the wharf.

Like what you just read? Get lots more:


Meet the Author

John

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.

75 comments… add one
  • Taras Mar 24, 2017, 12:20 pm

    Hi John!
    Could you please maybe explain or draw more from where exactly the “first (one) line” line comes?

    • John Mar 24, 2017, 1:49 pm

      Hi Taras,

      More coming in the next chapter, with diagrams and Video.

      • Tim Mar 25, 2017, 7:42 am

        I was just about to ask for a diagram as well !

  • Marc Dacey Mar 24, 2017, 12:22 pm

    Whew, for once I realize this is already how I work! My old Viking 33 didn’t have midship cleats, so I fabricated a pair of cambered teak blocks to raise horn cleats above the toerail, jst aft of the mast. Worked a charm. If you sail solo, doubly so, as coasting into the dock in neutral, you just leave the tiller and walk off with this aft spring, cleat off and you’re in. The rest is tidying. I customarily have the spring in one hand with a boat hook in case of dock guys who need fending off.

    • John Mar 24, 2017, 1:51 pm

      Hi Mark,

      If you spring cleat is just aft of the mast, it’s almost certainly too far forward to be used with a single aft running spring as if said spring loads the bow will swing in hard.

      More in the next chapter.

      • Marc Dacey Mar 24, 2017, 4:49 pm

        Not on a 33 footer with a 15 foot J measurement, it wasn’t. Less IOR type boats, yes. In practice it worked like a charm and gave me a leisurely docking. But our steel cutter is quite different and more like MC in weight and dimensionals and windage and I look forward to your thoughts.

    • RDE Mar 24, 2017, 8:15 pm

      Hi Marc
      Since I always had a lot more momentum to deal with than you did on your 33′ IOR boat, my procedure was to use two spring lines located where John places them. I’d step off with the aft spring and use it to stop the boat if she still had a little way on. Then take a couple of steps forward to where I’d rigged the forward spring outside of the lifelines but still on board looped over the top of the lifelines. If there was a current or headwind running I’d still have the fwd spring in place in seconds before she had a chance to drift down and slack the aft spring. But I’m sure John will show that more clearly in his forthcoming video.

      And John, if you’d like to make my day, mention one of my pet peeves— people who wrap the shore line the wrong way around the cleat and then pile a bird’s nest on top. I’m sure they tie Granny knots in place of square knots as well. No one is immune— I recall a photo used by Steve Dashew years ago in an article about using high-tech dock line that had a bird’s nest any osprey would love. And no, the proper direction doesn’t change in the southern hemisphere. LOL

      And being who I am I can’t sign off without a final vignette.
      I’m working on a boat across from a long finger pier that led to a travel lift. Blowing 25 straight onto the pier as it often does in that harbor. I hear a stream of frantic yelling and pop up to watch the show. Captain of a new 40 foot sailboat is running up and down the side decks beseeching anyone within shouting distance to come and help. There is an open slot about 50′ long between two workboats. Fortunately Captain, (being the strongest) has put his wife at the helm so he can fend off and avoid disaster. She drives the boat up to a place directly opposite the opening and stops it with the bow about 30 degrees into the wind and uses a few bursts of throttle to keep it aligned as the bow blows down and the boat falls into the slot between the two fish boats. Captain collapses into a nervous puddle by the mast, so the wife steps off and ties up the boat.

      • Marc Dacey Mar 25, 2017, 1:58 pm

        Oh, dear! Yes, headless chicken events are all too common, and yes, you are right about what I would attempt with a low-slung 9000 lb. 33 footer compared to our current 16 tonne slab-sided beast. What you describe is what we do now to stop the boat and the rest is more leisurely. Another aspect that is different is that with a smaller boat I rarely used the motor in docking; it was running but in neutral and I timed how much “coasting” distance I needed. Now I use prop walk to crab the stern against the dock, giving an “authoritative” shot of reverse if needed. The consequences of inertia are simply not worth chancing.

  • tristan mortimer Mar 24, 2017, 4:27 pm

    This spring is so important and yet unfortunately I regularly see RYA training schools with bow and stern lines going ashore first. If good mooring technique is not imparted at this level it is little wonder but also very sad that so many scenes and unhappy sailors are seen during berthing.

    • Dick Stevenson Mar 24, 2017, 9:12 pm

      Hi Tristan,
      Many a time in the UK, I have sat in the cockpit drinking a cup of tea and watched the in-training crews, RYA and otherwise and often 6+ strong, being taught dock skills without a spring line in sight. It was always hard not to speak up, especially since they were in training and paying good money for poor instruction and, given the general state of docking skills, they might never learn the much safer and easier way.
      My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

  • Dick Stevenson Mar 24, 2017, 9:52 pm

    Hi John,
    From your mouth to all who will listen. My take is that 70-80% of the sailors out there could vastly improve their skills, their safety and their boats intact-ness by absorbing your suggestions.
    A couple of thoughts:
    Often there are no dock hands (I think more so here in Northern Europe), so when there are cleats or bollards, we put a loop on the end of the dockline with a bowline and drape it over the cleat or bollard—(sometimes reaching the loop to the cleat with a boathook when necessary). This is always the aft spring. We then adjust length on the boat as needed. Gently powering ahead on the aft spring allows us to position ourselves as wished and, with a bit of rudder adjustment, “park the boat” with the forward thrust opposing the aft spring, the boat settled and one can stroll off to take care of the other lines. Single-handers can do the same if they run a longer dock line from a winch near the helm, around the cleat and back to the loop dropped over a cleat. All done from the helm area. BTW, docks with only rings are a real challenge to this method.
    If there are dock hands or other people who want/insist on helping, the dock line loop mentioned above means crew can just hand the loop off and point with authority to the cleat/bollard it is to be laid over. The ease of this is especially important when language is an issue. There are too many who mess up a cleat belay or want to slow the boat or pull it closer in ways that thwart my intentions. A loop on a cleat aft, Ginger adjusts the length, slow forward and we are secure.
    Finally, it is best to have a cleat situated where John suggests which balances the forces nicely, but I is my experience that powering gently ahead on the aft spring and finding the sweet spot for the rudder that lays the boat parallel to the dock just where you want it, mitigates this need to an extent.
    My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

    • John Mar 25, 2017, 8:04 am

      Hi Dick,

      I will be covering these details in the next two chapters.

    • Mal L May 11, 2020, 8:28 pm

      I was just about to write something similar, maybe things are done differently here in Australia but i would never hand a dockman a line nor would i trust him to cleat it off properly! i would always give an insistent dock helper a looped end of sufficient size for what the dock had i.e. cleats, bollards piles etc. i would also never prepare my ships lines cleated off! you need to keep control of the length especially the springs and only cleat as instructed by the captain, i flake lines and put on one turn but thats it, also you mention handing a professional fisherman a line, i hope you meant the loop end?, i handed professional fisherman a line once, only once, as a young green crew on a prawn trawler, the dock fisherman looked at me strangely shaking his head while he tied his own bow line (in quick time of course) and slipped it over the bollard, after docking the mate then instructed me to always prepare and hand over the loop end to shore personal and the ships crew adjust the lines, I understand its different with minimum crew and if the crew are stepping off to tie lines on their own then yes of course cleat it on the vessel first but still i would never come in with the first line aka the spring line cleated.

      • John May 12, 2020, 8:23 am

        Hi Mal,

        If there are bollards of big cleats on the wharf then we would have a bowline in the line, but there are many circumstances where a loop won’t work, so it depends.

        And we always properly cleat the lines on the boat, or have them run to a winch, that way, as you say, if a crew member steps off with one they can get a turn ashore and the line can be immediately loaded.

        Given that, in our experience, leaving lines just flaked with a single turn can lead to problems as there may be no one available to cleat the line off when it needs to be loaded and more to the point I think that most of us generally expect a line to cleated off, so Phyllis and I find the consistency of always cleating of on the boat works best for us.

        You can see more on how Phyllis and I actually operate, including a video in later chapters.

        • Mal L May 13, 2020, 5:37 pm

          Yes well all as i had to do John was get to the next chapter where you state-
          “If there is a winch within reach of the helm and the aft spring exits the boat via a fairlead, when rigging the lines lead the aft spring to said winch so the deckhand can just DROP a LOOP over a cleat or bollard and the helmsperson can PULL the SLACK out to suit.”
          Without the winch normally this is how i do it just with the crewman standing by the deck cleat after he/she throws over the loop i drive to position then tell crew to cleat off then I spring the boat in.
          I’ll wait till i read all chapters in their entirety before i comment again, i’m a slow reader lol:) but i will try this winch technique next time i single hand.

  • Kristoffer Appelquist Mar 25, 2017, 4:34 am

    Good first chapter! I look forward to the next one. One question – In the picture at the very top the aft running spring is not setup as you suggest, right?

    • John Mar 25, 2017, 8:01 am

      Hi Kristoffer,

      That’s correct. As I recall, we changed the springs around after we got alongside.

  • Stein Varjord Mar 25, 2017, 6:40 am

    I’ve been sailing for several decades and have docked innumerable times. I’m confident that my methods work well, but I’m completely certain that reading this book will improve my knowledge and skills. Even such a simple thing as docking is complex enough to need a fresh look.
    “He who thinks he’s finished learning, isn’t learned, just finished!” 🙂

    • John Mar 25, 2017, 8:02 am

      Hi Stein,

      So true, I fully expect to learn from the comments to.

  • Dave Heffler Mar 25, 2017, 7:42 am

    John
    A good start. I am looking forward to more. And I hope the final chapter will discuss the operation that is sometimes more difficult than docking gracefully… Leaving a dock gracefully.

    • John Mar 25, 2017, 8:03 am

      Hi Dave,

      Yes, I will definitely doing on getting off the dock, particularly in strong onshore winds with no bow thruster.

  • Reed Erskine Mar 25, 2017, 8:55 am

    Having been the spectator for hundreds of docking/mooring situations, I have often marveled at the allocation of resources chosen by so many cruising couples. 95% of the time it’s Papa on the helm and Mama scrambling around with dock lines, boat hook, fenders, etc.
    I do understand that many women are loathe to take the helm for fear of screwing up and being shouted at, but on our crew Mama is the trained helmsperson and Papa (me) handles all the upper-body-strength tasks. It seems to make sense. The dock hands, though often surprised, approve, observing that women have an easier hand on the throttle. Yes, I have experienced occasional contempt from bystanders regarding my male prerogative like “…who’s the captain there?”, to which I reply, “She is.” I find it best to leave ego ashore when we’re on the water.

    • Stein Varjord Mar 25, 2017, 9:03 am

      This is one of those occasions when I look for the”like” button. 🙂

    • Dick Stevenson Mar 25, 2017, 9:49 am

      Hi Reed,
      And your observation goes double for many vessels when anchoring and, particularly for raising, stowing, and securing the anchor. This is particularly apparent as the helm work is mostly just slow-ahead/sitting/waiting/ while the crew at the pointy end, on many/most recreational vessels, often is quite busy with a dirty task made more dangerous when done by the crew with least upper body strength. I think the majority of medium grade injuries I am aware of have happened at the pointy end around chain and windlasses and anchors.
      In docking, following John’s suggestions, neither Papa nor Mama should be scrambling around with dock lines, boat hook, fenders etc. All should be calmly prepared ahead of time well clear of the dock. And also, following John’s suggestions, neither of the jobs should demand much skill or strength to ward off drama.
      It is on poorly set up boats and/or with poor procedures that upper-body-strength comes into play, often in an attempt to mitigate the disaster with brute strength. And yes, it is good to plan ahead for unexpected happenings, like a wind gust, where one might turn to strength, but I would suggest bailing out (and trying again) rather than muscling one’s way in.
      My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

      • Reed Erskine Mar 25, 2017, 11:26 am

        You’re right. I should have mentioned anchoring, and more particularly retrieving anchor, which can be a nasty business depending on bottom type, wind and wave action. I wouldn’t want to have subjected my wife to some of the hair raising anchor retrievals that I’ve endured. We’ve found that using 2 way radio headsets improves critical helm-to-deckhand communications for med mooring and anchoring situations. As for normal coming alongside docking, preparation is the key, but the upper-body-strength issue still applies when tossing lines, especially on the second try when they can be heavy with sea water. Hate to be sexist, but women don’t seem to throw stuff as well as their male counterparts…..except, of course, when inspired by rage.

  • Charles L Starke Mar 25, 2017, 9:47 am

    My answer to the question of “Who is the captain?”…….”She is the Admiral!”
    If you put a two to three feet long hose over the line inside the loop of the bowline on the aft spring, ithe hose will hold open the loop enabling a nice line drop over a cleat, bollard, or post.

  • Dick Stevenson Mar 25, 2017, 9:51 am

    Hi Charles,
    Excellent suggestion. We can usually get a loop by draping it over a boathook end, but your way is more guaranteed.
    Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

  • Eric Klem Mar 25, 2017, 10:33 am

    Hi John,

    I agree completely on the importance of the spring and where you make it off onboard. Interestingly, you refer to your springs with the opposite terminology from what I have always heard used. In practice on commercial vessels, we always numbered lines starting at the bow as it was a lot faster for me to say “ease #2 6 feet” or something like that. I do have to disagree with one little part of #10 and that is that where you put the spring on the dock can matter on boats with their beam carried aft that have a lot of separation from prop to rudder. In a crosswind or current, there needs to be a significant component of the line pulling the boat in towards the dock and if it is parallel, you might not be able to thrust vector enough to come in. Of course, springing off the dock is the exact opposite and you end up running the line from the bow along the dock as much as you can.

    I really like #7, many boats seem to do all their maneuvering with thrusters. I will be interested to see what happens with all the fancy docking systems on boats now when they get to be 30 years old and don’t work right. I had a funny situation a number of years ago where we had just put a 90′ single screw on and off a dock with a lot of current and then come in again a little later in the tender. As we were standing on the dock waiting for a few people to come back, a 50′ fancy twin screw power boat came in and we realized that they were not going to be able to turn hard enough to avoid hitting the dock. We quickly untied the tender and pulled it out of the way and the powerboat missed it by only feet with the dock crumpling and wood flying around. Afterwards, the owner came over and his apology went something like “sorry for scaring you but this doesn’t have a bow thruster and is very hard to dock without one”. I didn’t know what to say so I let one of my crew spout off on him instead.

    I am looking forward to the other chapters.

    Eric

    • John Mar 26, 2017, 11:09 am

      Hi Eric,

      Good point on the prop to rudder relationship. I tried to keep things really simple in this post without too many qualifications, but we will need to expand on that in later chapters. Thanks.

      And yes, I have heard plenty of people name the springs the other way around. I think it might be a function of where you learned, but I don’t really know. Anyway, as long as all on board are on the same page, I don’t think it matters much, and if I tried to change now I would probably suffer some kind of old-guy-brain-explosion at a critical moment.

  • Tom Westberry Mar 25, 2017, 4:23 pm

    Hello All
    Great points as usual. It helps me to form a picture in my mind of where the boat wants to be just outside the dock given wind and current so that it takes the least imput from the helm to get in from there. If I can hit that spot, the rest is usually easy. I also make it a habit of physically touching the throttle and transmission levers to verify their correct position and verbalize it to myself before scrambling off to tie lines. This helps in saving back surgery deductibles.

  • Sterling Williamson Mar 25, 2017, 9:24 pm

    Sorry John, The nomenclature is still unclear to me. The “aft running spring ” starts somewhere forward of amidships , yes? You mentioned that the line starts 1/3 of the way forward of the stern. The spring lines do cross, don’t they?

    • John Mar 26, 2017, 10:54 am

      Hi Sterling,

      The way we do it, the springs do not cross. All will become clear in the next post with diagrams and video.

  • Marvin Mar 25, 2017, 10:55 pm

    I’m looking forward to this series. Hoping you’re going to cover solo docking, docking in short slips and docking were there is no help, no bollards and no cleats. The majority of what I get to tie up to is those dodgy stacked 2×4 rails or else rails on concrete/steel peers made of 8″ (or so) pipe held a few inches off the ground. All stuff that takes more than a bit to tie up to. None of this “drop it on a cleat” stuff. I wish!
    Marvin

  • Hans Mar 26, 2017, 2:15 am

    Hi John
    Looking forward to your drawings which I’m sure will clarify several things. A point of interest in my case is the prop location. Sounds strange maybe but on our Sweden, the engine is located above the keel with the prop shaft exiting at the back of the keel. As such, I actually installed an extra cleat slightly forward of center ( approximately 2-3 meters forward of the prop) to assist in docking. I totally agree, we always first tie off the spring and use engine thrust to do rest.

    Looking forward to the follow up
    Cheers

    • John Mar 26, 2017, 10:59 am

      Hi Hans,

      I think you make a good point: prop locations is the governing factor. More in the next two chapters.

  • Anders Clemensson Mar 26, 2017, 5:50 am

    Hi John!
    Great summary that brought a lot of laughs to me and my wife, recognizing all we learned on our first year, sailing from Sweden to Gibraltar!

    In addition to your 10 step list, we have one additional that was key to us as rookies: the debrief post mooring. Mooring is stressful if you’re new at it and the debriefing session made us rapidly improve and clarify what we could have done even more perfectly.

    Looking forward to additional readings!
    Anders

    • John Mar 26, 2017, 11:01 am

      Hi Anders,

      That’s a good suggestion. Even when you have been docking for years there is always more to learn. Phyllis and I didn’t really figure out how to get the best out of the aft running spring until a couple of years ago, and that came from discussions after coming alongside. Let’s make it number 11.

  • garry crothers Mar 26, 2017, 7:56 am

    Looking forward to upcoming articles, always keen to pick up tips, especially when any error could be very costly. I do a lot of single handed sailing these days and use the technique you describe, but with a loop from the aft pivot point back through the stern cleat to a winch. There a cheesy youtube video here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-v-KCVmrwMA&t=417s showing the technique. I’m not sure how you feel about links to other sites, I have no association with this one, so feel free to delete/amend this comment,

    • John Mar 26, 2017, 11:03 am

      Hi Garry,

      No problem with links to other sites. One thing I know for sure…I don’t know anything for sure about boats.

      We will have our own video in the next post.

  • Peter Mahaffey Mar 26, 2017, 2:20 pm

    Nice set of tips, but can I venture to simplify that apparently contrarial advice about the first line being the aft spring. When single handing, I have always stood at the mid cleat to get the first line on the dock (I havn’t got a cleat one third of the way forward from the stern on a 37 footer). I usually aim to bring the boat to a near as possible stand-still (but perhaps with slight forward motion remaining) so that this mid cleat is opposite the bollard on shore. The lasso goes over the bollard and back to the cleat at my feet. The boat’s residual momentum takes it forward perhaps another metre or so, and hey presto, this line is now the aft spring. And you’re quite right . . . . once this is on, the rest is usually simple.
    The point I’m trying to make is that its probably less confusing, especially for those of us who dont have 56 footers, just to recommend that a mid-point cleat to shore is the best line to get on first.

    • John Mar 26, 2017, 4:16 pm

      HI Peter,

      If it works for you, great. However, for most boats, particularly in big breeze, a cleat further back works better in more different circumstances. More in the next two posts.

  • Ramon_Jesus Mar 26, 2017, 8:50 pm

    Dear John,
    I am very happy to read your recommendations on docking. By the end of last years season, my skill improved to a point that coming into Brewers Boat yard at my dock space was fairly natural.
    My Nevins 40 does not have cleats, so I’ve used the stantions of the lifelines. I’m going to ask the shipwrights that take care of Meiga to do something instead of running the spring line aft then around the Stantion and back to my winch. I’m not interested in putting in cleats so I can break my toe. Any recommendations?
    Thanks in advance,
    Ramón

    • John Mar 27, 2017, 7:53 am

      Hi Ramon,

      I would definitely stop using the stanchions. If you don’t want cleats the answer is a good strong fairlead let into the toe rail (if present) and then lead the line through that and back to a winch. In the chapter after next I will have detailed instructions on how to determine where to site said fairlead.

  • Drew Frye Mar 27, 2017, 12:05 pm

    Tip #2 was pure deja vu. Familiar and funny, in an ironic sense.

    Tip #11. Refuse any slip that presents safety hazards. I frequent several bulkheads where the tide runs under the dock, perpendicular to the bulkhead, some times over 1-knot. When the tide is away from the dock it is easy to attach a bow line and then winch her in. But when the tide is toward the dock, it will grab the keel, push you toward the dock, and there is no way to avoid a hard landing. I made that mistake only once, and fortunately, the boat was strong. The cure is to refuse the slip. The other obvious cause for rejection is a bulkhead that will be exposed to waves. Negotiate for a better slip or anchor-out, but like tip #6, never force a bad situation.

    • Reed Erskine Mar 27, 2017, 2:32 pm

      Good observation. Too often marina offices are staffed by people who don’t have a clue about what’s going on with weather, wind, tide, vessel traffic etc. They seem to take an almost sadistic joy in impossible slip assignments. It took us a few years to learn how to “Just say no” to ridiculous and/or hazardous docking directions and propose alternative approaches. Sometimes the skipper has to defy all instructions, and do whatever is best for the situation. It’s generally better to piss off the dock master than smash up someone else’s (or your own) boat.

    • John Mar 28, 2017, 8:48 am

      Hi Drew,

      I agree, and will have more on that in a future chapter on the actual approach. I also have one coming (with video) on maneuvering in reverse, particularly in boats that don’t steer when backing up.

  • Dick Stevenson Mar 27, 2017, 3:32 pm

    Hi Reed,
    I often say ahead of time on the radio (or phone nowadays) that I have a boat challenging to maneuver in close quarters and that I have no bow thruster and could I be assigned an easy to get into and out of slip. More often than not, this seems to make a difference. Marinas, in my observation, appear to be moving toward making design decisions based on the expectation that one has a bow thruster.
    My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

    • Marc Dacey Mar 28, 2017, 2:46 am

      Dick, that’s exactly how I got my dock at the end of the finger at my club. No bow thruster, no outside helm throttle shifter and a big arse on her made for some interesting first docks. Despite marked improvement, the club has not requested I move to an “inside” slip, so if I am not completely comfortable with my approach, I happily go around again. Not for me, but for the nice couple with a Mainship 36 off our bow. They don’t need our sprit through their patio doors.

  • Dan Manchester Mar 28, 2017, 7:44 am

    Hi John,
    I read this with interest as I am currently 2/3 of the way through a RYA competent crew certification in Brisbane, and can attest to Dick Stevenson says above; they use bow and stern lines only. The way you describe makes considerably more sense to me, so I’ll ask the question on the next weekend I’m out with them. (I’ve already challenged their instruction on tethers with your methodology!)
    Dan.

    • John Mar 28, 2017, 8:40 am

      Hi Dan,

      Since I am generally a big fan of the RYA courses, that’s disappointing to hear. On the tethers I sort of get that they would be doing things differently since our way is both fairly new and a bit of a radical change, but using a spring is pretty basic stuff.

  • Dick Stevenson Mar 28, 2017, 8:43 am

    Hi Dan,
    I am sorry your course was as described, but, I assure you, the methods John is espousing (and will continue to illustrate) are really quite easy to learn and use. Once done a few times, it just falls into place and makes sense.
    With regards to the RYA, every organization has their blind spots and I am largely admiring of their efforts to get people on the water in a safe way. I have wondered about whether there is a prescribed curriculum by which the instructors are “instructed” to adhere. Perhaps you will find out.
    Good luck on your continuing sailing education,
    My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

    • Dan Manchester Mar 28, 2017, 9:09 am

      John, Dick,
      Actually, on the whole I have found the course to be really informative and a great learning experience. I tend to be one to challenge things that don’t make sense to me, and have found the instructor very open to discussion and exploring different points of view. The discussion on tethers was well received and expanded upon with the others on the course, so definitely not a prescriptive attitude.
      As a beginner, I don’t know what I don’t know, so whilst the RYA course is great experience I am definitely balancing it up with the information and advice on AAC from people who are actually doing what I am still planning.
      Cheers, Dan.

      • John Mar 28, 2017, 9:54 am

        Hi Dan,

        Great to hear about the open attitude of the instructors. And I agree with Dick, you are going about this in just the right way.

    • Neil Mar 28, 2017, 7:49 pm

      Hi Dick, Dan

      Yes RYA courses are taught to a defined syllabus. Courses are also structured to be evolutionary – ie building on knowledge imparted in earlier modules.

      I can also vouch that we were taught to use a midship spring when coming alongside – as a single hander technique – in the RYA Coastal Skipper practical/ Yachtmaster course. Rather than being fixed, it is led back to a winch to allow the solo helm to adjust as needed. I have found that the ideal length of spring is dependent on the boat setup – using a longer spring can compensate for a midship cleat actually placed at midship.

      • Dick Stevenson Mar 28, 2017, 9:08 pm

        Hi Neil,
        Interesting. Thanks for the report. I would suggest it is a shame not to learn the easier way first (evolutionary with extra crew) and then be able easily to transfer one’s knowledge to single-handing rather than un-learning a bow and aft approach.
        My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

        • John Mar 29, 2017, 8:31 am

          Hi Dick,

          I agree: Since I have found using springs make pretty much any docking go better, why not start out that way.

  • Dick Stevenson Mar 28, 2017, 9:29 am

    Hi Dan,You sound like you have the attitude to take you places. Dick

  • John Visser Mar 28, 2017, 12:07 pm

    This is article (particularly tip #10) and the subsequent comments are really helpful.

    I have a 35′ Jeanneau that I often single-hand. I use an aft spring line secured at the mid-ship cleat stop stop the boat when coming into my slip. But, as you may guess, the bow always swings in towards the dock. I’ve developed some mitigating strategies, but none work great.

    My challenge (and that of other readers) is that we don’t have a cleat 1/3 of the boat forward of the stern – and we’d strongly prefer to not drill more holes in our boats and install toe-catching cleats. So are there other options?

    I agree that fastening the aft spring line to the mid-ship cleat and then turning it around the appropriately placed stanchion might highly stress said stanchion. But how about turning it around the main winch in the cockpit, which might approximate the 1/3 forward position? The winch (size 40 on my boat) should be able to handle the loads, right?

    Or alternatively, fastening a line between the mid-ship cleat and the aft cleat, then attaching the aft spring line at the appropriate point along it?

    I’d appreciate any thoughts.

    John
    s/v Reverie, Toronto

    • John Mar 29, 2017, 8:27 am

      Hi John,

      In the chapter after next, coming in about a week, I will deal with exactly this problem.

  • Dick Stevenson Mar 28, 2017, 1:37 pm

    Hi John,
    Depending on your toe rail configuration and strength, you might consider a Johnson bail or cleat (on toe rail or jib track) 1/3rd way forward and use lighter nylon 3 strand with some stretch (to mitigate loads) for initial positioning of the boat and then put out the everyday dock lines when settled. The loads if done correctly, are usually not high, but if things go pear shaped, the loads can go up quickly so you must be wary of the conditions and circumstances. The winch you mentioned should be more than enough if this lighter line is lead back to it and then you can do all functions from the cockpit area. We often go in with a lighter line as it is so much easier to handle, but the everyday springs, bow, & stern are always good to go and I will be quicker to bail out and try again if I find greater current than expected or a gust of wind emerges.
    In the longer run, (and once you have figured the optimal placement by moving the bale mentioned above or using the line you mentioned) , better to have strong dedicated equipment. There have been a couple of mentions of cleats being toe stubbers and this is certainly a concern. It is really quite easy to make inserts, held in place by bungee cord, which can make the damage of stubbing less likely and prevent snags of the sheets and are easy to remove when needed.
    My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy
    Ps. If there are worries about equipment/toe rail etc. strength, you might consider a block at the end of a short line attached to the mid-ships cleat. You could then adjust the pivot/turning point of the after spring fore and aft to determine the best position for a cleat.

  • Melissa White Mar 28, 2017, 6:18 pm

    S/V Galapagos here, reporting in from Tacoma, WA. Cutting our dock lines on our 1974 Ted Brewer Olympic Adventure 47, which has given us some very fun moments docking. You have my attention….

    • John Mar 30, 2017, 9:07 am

      Hi Melissa,

      Thanks for the encouragement.

  • Matt Boney Mar 30, 2017, 7:54 am

    After 10 years as two handed liveaboard we have never used a spring to come alongside but always use a mid-cleat around a bollard and straight back to the mid cleat with no slack. This holds the boat perfectly to the quay whilst other springs are attached.

    The advantages are:
    Easy for the crew to step off mid position. maybe holding the shrouds.
    You can use a lightweight SHORT line.
    You don’t have to motor or use the rudder to balance the boat. Its sits balanced around fenders either side of the cleat.
    The bow or stern can easily be pulled in or pushed away, or you may have to use a small amount of forward or reverse thrust, with no need for the rudder, to keep the boat parallel to the quay.

    This always confuses any marina staff so we always get off and do it ourselves.

    • John Mar 30, 2017, 8:50 am

      Hi Matt,

      Sure, that can work, That said, I prefer our way for several reasons:

      • It does not presuppose a cleat in exactly the right place.
      • If the boat drifts out while getting the first line on, there is no need to brute force her back into place. More on that in the next chapter.
      • In any swell or wake there is no snubbing on the spring, as there would be on a line pulled tight. (A bad wake could exert colossal loads on a short line that could pull a cleat right out of the deck, or, worse still, hurt someone).
      • In high winds the load on the magic spring is far less.
      • The magic spring still works in cases where the crew must climb a ladder up a fixed wharf. (Common in big tide environments or commercial harbours).
      • As we will see in future chapters, the magic spring works in many more circumstances (backing between pilings is just one) so getting rigged for it pays over and over again.
  • Petter ;-) Apr 2, 2017, 10:36 am

    Hello John,
    This is off to a good start, and I am certain comments will flow in abundance. This is not anchoring, but pretty close, so there are exists a range of opinions; and in this day and age of fake news it has been stressed that everybody is entitled to his opion, but not his own fact.

    I am interested to hear your thoughts on the following method compare to the one you advocate (given two more persons onboard); having been trained by a professional fishing boat captain – my father in his early days – not using a spring line as both first in and last line off was not a discussable item. (Maybe possible if hell freezes over, but so far it has not.) But in 90% of the cases, for us, this implies a line running from the BOW of the vessel lead backwards and secured at approx. midships on land and sometimes even further aft. Preferable with the bowman slowly paying out rope and securing it at the bow cleat when the helmswoman signals. If we deem that the person on the pier – if any – is not dependable to secure it the way we want, we secure said line at the bow and jump ashore with the line. The crew ashore then controls the length of the rope with a turn around a bollard and secures it when helmswoman is good with the length.

    If there is solid off-shore wind, I tip a little bit of the forward part (well fendered) of the vessel towards the pier, get the line ashore and fixed, and then use the engine/propeller combined with rudder to ever so slowly and gentely inch the rest of the vessel parallell to the dock. Iris does not have a bow thruster, and so far things have worked out well without one.

    I feel that this method with the bow spring running aft provides very good control even in adverse conditions and when space is at a premium. I do not see how I could have the same degree of control with your spring running aft from a place positioned somewhere between the middle and aft of the vessel – unless I can slowly glide up along the dock. I am, however, ready to learn some new tricks, so bring it on.

    Greetings,

    • John Apr 2, 2017, 1:28 pm

      Hi Petter,

      That will certainly work. That said the key point here is that a spring from the bow is not at the balance point of the boat so there is no way to move the bow out from the wharf with the engine. Going ahead will always bring the bow into the dock and swing the stern out. Add an onshore wind and/or onshore current and the bow will slam hard into the dock. Yes, that’s acceptable on a floating dock with plenty of fenders but on a high dock the result will probably be a bent stanchion or pulpit (fishing boats have neither, so different case).

      And further, with the spring that far forward the only way to get the stern in is to muscle it. Whereas with our spring at the balance point just turning the wheel away from the wharf will keep the bow from slamming in and also allow the crew to adjust the stern line perfectly without having to pull on it.

      So, in summary, a bow spring will work, but a balance point spring from the point we show is much more flexible in many more situations, particularly in big breeze.

      I will have more on exactly this in the next chapter.

      • Petter ;-) Apr 3, 2017, 10:13 am

        John,
        While I am patiently waiting for further installments, one comment;
        you say “Going ahead will always bring the bow into the dock and swing the stern out”. In my experience that depends of the position of the rudder. With the rudder blade turned away from the dock and engine in ahead, the bow swings outwards – being held by the spring – and the stern is pushed towards the dock. With the rudder in that position and engine ahead, we pleasurably and at our own pace secure the remain three lines.

        As for leaving the dock, we keep the rudder in the same position with engine ahead and screw turning, while releasing the three last lines attached, attach fenders at the bow, then turn the rudder blade towards the dock, which pushed the stern out. When far enough away, we let the spring go and reverse out of the area.

        However, as you wisely point out, with a high quay this procedure is more than challenging as the pulpit protrudes from the bow. I guess that that you have a procedure that works for these situations. Hence a bit of excitement in the air.

        Monday greetings!

        • John Apr 3, 2017, 2:14 pm

          Hi Petter,

          Wow, that surprises me, but since I have not tried a spring from the bow like that, my surprise means nothing.

          If you can move the bow and stern in and out at will just by going ahead against a spring rigged that way and turning the wheel back and forward in all circumstances including a strong onshore wind, then that’s all that matters and all is good.

          I just posted a test for people to run on their boats. If your boat passes, it really does not matter how you accomplish that.

          As to getting off the wharf, that’s a future chapter.

        • John Apr 3, 2017, 2:37 pm

          Hi again, Petter,

          I just realized what’s making me unhappy about using a spring from the bow fairlead: I’m pretty sure that if the boat has any forward momentum when the aft running spring comes tight that the bow will tend to swing in hard regardless of rudder position. This is, after all, exactly what happens when a wharf rat cleats a bow line off before the helmsperson has stopped the boat—always ends in crash.

          Now let’s assume, as often happens that some slack gets in the spring while we are getting sorted out. At this point going forward, even very gently, will build momentum that will yank the bow in as soon as the spring comes tight. And of course keeping the stern in with prop wash on the rudder (that must be what’s happening in your scenario) requires going ahead. It’s a no win set up.

          On the other hand, with a balance point fairlead none of this is a problem, even in the worst scenario where the wharf rat cleats the spring off before you are stopped, all that happens is the boat stops without swinging bow in or out.

          • Eric Klem Apr 3, 2017, 7:12 pm

            Hi John,

            You are absolutely correct that with any way on, a spring lead from forward will bring the bow into the dock. I learned this the hard way several times on boats with headrigs before I finally sat down and did a freebody diagram and moved the spring aft. If you have any speed at all when a spring lead from the bow comes up tight, the spring will try to stop the boat and since it is applying an arresting force to one side, it will apply a torque which will rotate the bow in. Once your momentum has been stopped, if you apply power straight ahead, you will have this same torque. If you put the helm hard over, there are very few boats that can actually direct their thrust enough to eliminate this torque until the fenders are bearing. Presuming that the spring from the bow is lead along the dock mostly, it does not apply any force pushing the vessel towards the dock so the only thing pushing you in is your thrust vectoring.

            Ideally, if you have momentum on, you would have a spring which pointed approximately at the center of mass of the vessel which is presumably also near the pivot point. Having spent a lot of time running boats that were not my own to modify, I have to admit that I have found on many boats that you can get away with running the spring off the stern cleat if you get the angle right although a little further forward is definitely better.

            Eric

          • John Apr 4, 2017, 6:57 am

            Hi Eric,

            Thanks for confirmation.

  • Kath, S/Y Yarona Apr 6, 2017, 1:53 pm

    So true about female skippers having problems with male dockhands! On so many occasions I’ve been on the helm giving clear instructions when they look to Barrie for confirmation. One guy on the Portuguese coast struggled to make eye contact with me even after Barrie said ‘please listen to Kath, she’s the skipper’. Neutral on our throttle is at 10 o’clock so sometimes I get shouted at when slowly coming alongside ‘Neutral, neutral, neutral’ to which I have to resist saying ‘I am in xxxxxxx neutral! ‘ Rant over.
    One of the best things we did on buying Yarona was to pay for some on-board lessons with a good RYA instructor in Scotland, and one of the first things he taught us was how to berth with an aft spring. As you say- magic! It does work with our mid-ships cleat providing I turn away from the dock and keep some power on until Barrie has the other lines tied.

  • Chad Jul 6, 2017, 8:52 pm

    Ha! yesterday when we were testing out spring line setups… for almost an hour… We decided that moving our bolt on toe rail cleat to about 2 feet aft of the mast was a good spot because it does bring the bow just slightly in, but considerably less than before. It’s possible we should move it back slightly more. We had this setup all ready to go at our slip so all we had to do was grab the line and hoop it over our cleat. But even after explaining the plan to a friend on the dock, to just hand us the blue line, They didn’t… someone hooked on our bow line and round round she goes. It was frustrating to have a plan that we worked on for so long, and have it go out the window. I think had no one been around we would have docked flawlessly. But out inexperience and lack of confidence allowed us to be guided by someone on the dock with years more experience. And after talking to a few more experienced friends, It is really surprising that none of them use or recommend spring lines as a first line. It seems crazy?! Looking forward to finally successfully docking without loss of control this week when no ones around 😉

    • John Jul 8, 2017, 11:14 am

      Hi Chad,

      You have identified an issue that never ceases to amaze me too: why recreational sailors, even those with tens of thousands of miles of experience don’t use springs. It’s just plain weird!

      • Marc Dacey Jul 10, 2017, 4:20 pm

        On my first 1970s sloop, there were no midship cleats, which I rectified early for the very reason of wanting to have aft springs. But it did demonstrate to me that the presence of such attachment points was not a given and this is why a shackle on a toe rail served (inadequately in my view). So that might be part of your answer. No midship cleats, less likelihood of realizing the value of springs.

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