Coming Alongside (Docking) in 4 Easy Steps

Being in beautiful places like this snug harbour in Nova Scotia, where there's no space to anchor, is just one of the many payoffs for having good docking skills.

In the last chapter, which, if you missed it, you will want to read before this one, we introduced the magic aft-running spring line. Now let's look at how to use it to make coming alongside easy in both motorboats and sailboats.

One note before we get started: If your boat is not set up with a fairlead or cleat in the right place for an aft-running spring, and many (maybe most) boats aren't, it's still worth your time to read this chapter since most of it will still apply.

And, in the next chapter, not only will I explain how to determine where that fairlead should go, I will also cover work-arounds that will let you get many of the handling benefits I explain in this chapter, even if you decide that installing a new fairlead is not for you.

On with the show:


Let's start off with a short video showing the magic aft-running spring in action and then I will fill in the details with text and diagrams.

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Bill Attwood

Hi John

The midships cleats on my boat, and probably on most production boats are too far forward, just aft of halfway in my case. This also the point of maximum beam. A fix which works for me is to hold the tiller hard over with a loop of line steering away from the pontoon, and to engage forward gear at tickover. This holds the boat against the spring and snug to the pontoon.
Yours aye

Bill Attwood

Hi John
Excellent, clearly written sample of berthing best practice.
Points for future posts?
1. How the deckhand gets ashore, best place to stand by the spreaders, max beam or close, plus good handhold. How to deal with high freeboard.
2. Tide has a much greater effect than wind, and is a significant factor in many UK west country rivers (Salcombe, Dartmouth, Plymouth). Tide is King.
3. Most Baltic marinas are bows-to between two posts (dolphins), and berthing here with a beam wind can be a real circus. Fun for those already sitting comfortably in the cockpit with a G&T.


Bill “Tide is King” +1 for that.

My twin ruddered Southerly loses steerage <2kts (speed thru water), so heading into the current can mean the difference between the helmsman being in control until the boat stops or losing the steering just as you need it most.

UK marinas often have finger berths that are shorther than the length of my boat, and with a boat on the opposite side and a pontoon ahead you are parking in a tight box. I need to stop the boat dead and get a short aft spring on quickly to prevent it drifting off the dock, there are no second chances or go arounds!

Rob Gill

Hi John,
A quick survey this week of our marina pier counted over 50 boats, power and sail (including Bonnie Lass) and only one, a large Amel, had an aft spring cleat or fairlead that you suggest. Strangely the Amel didn’t have a forward spring cleat or even a central one. So “most” seems more accurate than “many” – at least down-under.
As Bill noted above, I was taught to approach into the stronger influence of the current or the wind, being both subjective and boat specific . Approaching downwind in reverse is still approaching into the wind, just about face, and we have found has the advantage of turning our single amidships spring into a useful first line ashore. But I am not sure I would be brave enough to approach stern first into a strong current by choice, as we have a semi-balanced spade rudder that can get feisty in reverse. Some thoughts on this would be interesting.
In a touch of serendipity though, we happen to have two sturdy, matching cap-rail cleats that have been sitting around in a cockpit locker for ages. I have new stainless mounting and backing plates on order. Thanks for the tip John and for continuing to surprise. So cool that we can discover new things in our sport/recreation after more than 40 years – and in something that I thought I knew a bit about.

Jeff Holt

I am looking forward to the chapter on single-handed docking. I currently use the spring line and winch method on most approaches, but based on your description, I probably have the spring set too far forward. This winter I purchased two adjustable cleats for use on the genoa track, which should give me a lot of flexibility for positioning. My boatyard is well up the Penobscot River, which can mean a very fast current to adjust for. I always try to dock at slack water, but sometimes the tidal shift doesn’t align with the tables. I am not sure I would feel comfortable docking with the stern to a three knot current.

Jim Ferguson

Well done John, once again it reinforces what we have been doing for years with one exception. We turn our our rudder away from the dock to allow prop wash push us toward the dock. Perhaps it’s because Maggie’s stern is wider or our spring is forward of yours, but it works well. We are both in our 70’s, we double-hand most of the time, our boat is 51′ overall, and we have no thruster so this is a require skill. We use the same technique to set up in locks where often spring off the ladder to hold the boat till in place till we set up additional lines if needed. Your video reminds me of Lunenburg. Many thanks, Jim

Marc Dacey

We make use of this, too, because a “shot” of throttle at the generally low approach speeds will tuck our stern in smartly. Otherwise, we already use this method. I realized once I saw the diagrams that our midship bollards are pretty well-placed for this. The refinement I have to made is a second throttle-shifter on the outside steering helm so I can see the dock better!

Drew Frye

One added tip, which you either mentioned somewhere else or assumed.

As a rule, engines don’t just fail randomly. Either a line was left in the water and you wound it up (happens to everybody–learn from it) or something was wrong with the fuel that will stop the engine within 10 minutes. All other failures are either widely spaced or prevent starting. Thus, the corollary is that and engine that has been in use under load for 15 minutes before docking is very unlikely to fail; it is warmed up, the fuel in the line and filter has circulated through, and it has been tested under load. Likewise, test reverse before you need it.

Nearly every engine or drive failure I have ever experience–and a few very nearly caused serious trouble–violated this basic reasoning. In one case I had changed the filters and forgot to open the valves, causing dual engine failure between jetties in a brisk cross wind–if I had run the engines a little while they would have failed before I really needed them, which is better.

Eric Klem

Hi John,

This is a very good summary. We do a few things differently but generally stick to the same thing. A few thoughts on what we do differently:

Generally, we have someone step off the boat like you do but when it is really blowing, we sometimes choose a different method. With the wind or current hard off the dock, we occasionally go bow or stern in to get someone on the dock then come around again and throw them a line. On larger vessels, it is very common to send a small boat in with a cremmember.

Watching the video, I noticed that you use the engine sparingly once alongside the dock. Unless the dock is very loosely secured, once the fenders are compressed and the springline is tight, I idle ahead (or more in high winds) and leave it there as the loads from this are actually quite low but it immobilizes you. I don’t like to have the helmsman leave for fear of the spring breaking (one of my more exciting moments docking was breaking a 1.5″ spring in high winds) so we lead all lines to midships and drape them over the lifelines so that the person on the dock can reach them.

And because someone has to say it, the direction that the first spring is taken around the cleat on the dock is “backwards” as it should have started by going around the horn closer to the stern. I would be curious to hear your thoughts on whether you should control the lines on the boat or the dock end. If we are throwing to someone on the dock, we always try to throw a loop and control from the boat end and if we are stepping on to the dock, we control from that end only (we feel comfortable slipping lines under high load).


Marc Dacey

You should put up a sign: “DEAR CANADIANS: Please stand by as we are shooting a demonstration video! Thank you for your co-operation!”

Polite signs go over well here.


Thank you very much for the education! How big a slot can you get into, relevant to your boat size, with this technique? I.e. Do you need much space ahead, beyond your bow?


Hi John,
I just returned from a week of skipper training, and in an offshore wind situation we did it similar, although reverse: we approached the dock stern first bringing a crewmember onto the dock who took a forespring that was hooked to the port midship bollard, then in reverse we turned the boat clockwise using the forespring, pulling the bow in, then securing the bow line. We had space that was approx. 5 feet longer than the boat. Worked like a charm.

jeff clark

John, New member here with a cat taking delivery in July. Not much experience in sailing as this will be our first boat. I did wonder if the techniques you describe will work equally well with a cat and two engines further spaced.

Apologies if this is outside the scope of the book. Still a lot of good information for me to digest on your site.


Hi Jeff,
my 2c – basically the same principle applies, although the “sweet point” John mentioned should be a bit farther in front than for a monohull as the lever between the mid cleat and the center of gravity of the cat is longer, due to its width. Thus the cat may tend more to point bow-to-dock when the aft spring starts to pull. But finding this sweet spot would be identical to a monohull, IMHO. Maybe there might be even two sweet spots, one for stopping ahead and one for going astern.

Conn Williamson

Thanks John for this series, I’ve found it very informative, and intend to set up our Amel Mango as you have described. Can’t wait to test it out. We have a thruster but I mainly use it once clear of the marina dock in reverse.

Peter Tobiasen

Hi John
I hope you will consider making another video example of you docking the boat with magic spring single handed.
I would very much appreciate that as I sail mainly alone.
In next chapter you write about magic spring and the ability to move the stern in and out by small adjustments. But single handling the boat you will have to go of boat at some point ☺️

Jeff Holt

I second the motion! The docking series has really been helpful in improving my skills, but a video of single-handed boat handling would be an excellent addition. So far, I have found that getting the balance point right for the aft spring cleat, is indeed a key task.


Re stepping off, I wonder why do contributors to this thread seem so coy about lassooing. Its not a difficult skill to learn to separate a coil of line into two halves and cast them (simultaneously) around the bollard/shore cleat. Stepping off always increases risk and in most circumstances should only be necessary in a minority of instances.

capt George Wall

nice articles. I’d be interested in your suggestions for docking in a 3-4 knot river current parallel to the dock.

Daniel Frey

Hi John

Today I had an almost perfect coming along side using and applying Your recommendations and techniques. I am very happy! Best – Daniel


How about providing docking strategies for us solo sailors? I know the principles don’t change, but perhaps a few new tips for us who sail solo.

Perhaps You can provide tactics assuming 2 scenarios for the solo artist:
1. Radio ahead for A dock Boy to assist. 1 guy on boat and 1 ashore
2. No assistance is available on the dock.

Planning Ahead Tactics and working out your sequences to your plan has always been vital to me. Appreciate any wisdom you can provide!


Terence Thatcher

Someone just shared a video of a variation. Not quite as safe and yours, but perhaps good for single handing. I have yet to find the right spot on my vessel for the spring location.

Alex Borodin

Hi John,

I have a question nagging me for a long time and couldn’t find a better place where to ask it.

We’re supposed to use 4 lines to secure the boat alongside. We’re also supposed to use one cleat only for one line performing one job. Most boats have only 3 cleats on each side: bow, midship, stern. What gives?