Coming Alongside (Docking)—Backing In, Part 1

Up to now in this Online Book, we have laid down a foundation of the basic skills, gear, and techniques we need to bring our boats alongside in good order.

In this chapter I'm going to share how we can apply all of this to one of the most intimidating of docking challenges: backing in and then coming alongside in a confined space.

And here's some really good news: The techniques in this chapter will make it so we no longer fear backing in, but rather look forward to it because...oh, OK, I'll admit it...it's such a fun way to show off.

Now at this point I can hear many of you saying:

This is not going to work for me, because my boat does not steer in reverse.

or

Yeah, fine for you fin-keel boat owners, but I have a full keel, so none of this will work for me.

And yes, I know that's general wisdom, and repeated over and over again on wharves, in sailors' bars, and on the forums, but it's just...dead...wrong.

Sure, some boats are easier to back in than others—our boat with her long fin keel and skeg rudder is about middle of the pack in difficulty—but if you shelve your scepticism, read this chapter and the next, watch the video—yes, we have visual aids—and commit to a bit of practice, you will be able to back your boat into confined spaces.

And yes, even with a crosswind.

As usual, I'm assuming no bow thruster. With one, much of the next two chapters won't apply since backing in with a bow thruster is simply a matter of moving the bow back and forth with thruster bursts to steer the boat and is very easy. That said, thrusters do break, and many that are fitted to yachts are too weak to do their job properly when it's blowing, so these techniques will still be useful.

Revision

Before we get into the details, it's good to know that backing in well is simply a matter of applying the basic skills we have already learned in this Online Book, so please make sure that you are absolutely clear on:

  • Prop walk
  • Prop wash
  • And how we use them to put our boats where we want them.

(I will use, but not explain, these terms in this chapter.)

Subscribe
Notify of
52 Comments
Oldest
Newest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
richard

my 30-some yrs of experience with three different sail cruisers says this is more intuitive than most articles of this ilk often imply do not be intimidated by their seeming complexity and just do it…the more you do it the easier it will become understanding that some are more intuitive than others and will pick it up quicker…sooner or later you will begin to wonder what all the hubub was about…cheers

Stig Ursing

I would like some thoughts on docking. I have a place för my HR with bow at qay and stern is moored on poles. I have big difficulties docking singehandled with wind from side. The space between the poles is not much wider than my boat and very often the boat or a fender get cought on the leeward pole with a rotation round the pole as effect. From my position at helm I have preparered stern docking lines to the poles. It is very hard to maneuver with engine forward and bear off the bow that is now against the neighbor boat. Any tips are wecome.

michael

I look forward to learning solutions to this exact problem.

I recently entered such a slip double handed at a marina new to me with a crosswind and lost control of the bow briefly within the slip. Afterwards I thought a better entry would have had the crew midship windward side to place lines on the windward piling to serve as one “magic line” or a midship spring and a stern line, allowing the helmsman to drive forward against these lines or one “magic line” and keep control of the bow.

If single handed, I would approach the slip in the fairway with wind astern, pause when the windward piling was abeam the helm, and place line(s) on it. Then back up enough to allow a turn into the slip, using the line to assist the turn if needed, and then using the line as a “magic line”, or two lines as stern line and midship spring, to control the boat in the slip till additional lines are placed.

I am not offering advice. I am adding my questions to yours and looking for criticism and guidance.

Stig Ursing

Thank you for advise. Some neighbours in our harbour have installed permanent lines between the pilings and the quay. There is mooring line sliding across these lines connected to a schackle or ring. When entering your berth you pick up the crossing mooring line and attach it to a bow cleat. The bow is now under control and you can concentrate on the stern mooring lines. These should be arranged in a crossover.

Stig Ursing

Hello. In our Country (Sweden) it is tradition to moore bow in

Stig

Rob Gill

Hi Stig, Michael,
We own a shiny Beneteau 473, fibreglass, French built production yacht with cap rails but no rubbing strakes. We also have a marina finger with two wooden poles on the outside between us and the neighbour’s boat. Dick suggests fitting rubbing strakes which is certainly one solution (many of the US built B473s I have seen indeed have rubbing strakes). Rubbing strakes are popular down-under and North America, but in Europe I believe not so – perhaps due to mediterranean mooring where strakes can cause more problems with neighbour’s fenders than they solve.
Our solution was to protect the poles – so on the odd occasion we get caught by the wind or inattention on my part, we have fenders ready in exactly the right position. The pole fenders can be seen here: http://www.marinefenders.co.nz/pole-fenders.html
The fender free floats on top of our mooring rings, and have a large diameter section of tough but light PVC conduit on their inside (around the pole) with a padded circular pad fastened around this core. Covering this pad is a very neatly stitched, very tough (white) woven polypropylene covering. It was a simple job to drop the cylindrical fenders down over the poles at high tide. We have had them in NZ for at least 10 years and we have had ours for 4 years and they show no signs of wear. They work an absolute treat – a fraction of the price of a bow thruster and really stand up to the harsh UV we have in NZ.
I am working on installing magic cleats on my cap rails, but I would still not be without our “magic” pole fenders. I mostly need them exiting our berth in strong wind, particularly when single handing where the prop walk takes over before we can get steerage in reverse.
Rob

Rob Gill
Rob Gill

Haha – I guess this comes from our geography and history (being two small islands miles from anywhere)! You just had to make things yourself – often referred to as our “No 8 wire” approach to things (not always a compliment). No 8 refers to the most popular gauge of fencing wire in rural NZ and frequently used NZ accessory – not unlike Canadians and duct tape, yes?
My favourite piece of NZ No 8 ingenuity for cruising at the moment is our dinghy wheels that allows me to pull our 2.6 m alloy RIB and 8HP Yamaha motor over almost any landing surface – they are so beautifully designed I even love deploying and stowing them – how sad is that? https://www.beachmaster.co.nz/demonstration-videos
Rob

Paul

Hmm. It’s all good advice, but there’s an assumption that doesn’t apply to all boats (mine included): “Things go well for about a boat length and then our much beloved boat totally ignores our commands with the rudder and her stern veers off….” For some boats (mine again), the stern veers off BEFORE there is any reverse movement whatsoever. A way of looking at it is that “reverse” gear is more about turning the prop another way; it’s not above fore-aft movement, and better called “stern-to-starboard gear” (on my boat). In other words, there’s no way to get the whole process that is described started without lots distance, including much movement to the side. No way can this be done between piers in a normal marina. (Here’s where the book on spring lines and such comes in handy.)

As a humorous aside, I once had a “Yachtmaster” (RYA cert.) skippering my previous boat, which had enormous prop walk, literally throw up his hands and shout “the f-ing boat won’t do what I tell it to do” (or words to that effect). I subsequently learned that lots of people with Yachtmaster certificates have never been aboard anything but a boat with a spade rudder (the kind that does actually back up like a car). He was an impulsive sort who wanted the boat to follow his commands at the wheel. One moral of this story is that backing on some boats is best done very GENTLY. It may require big bursts of throttle and full movement of rudder, but the whole process needs to be done slowly. But even this won’t always work. When I sold that same boat, the new owner’s delivery skipper — a very experienced guy in his 70s — wanted to back the boat into its slip in preparation for an early-morning departure. I told him it could only be done with some difficulty using lines. He scoffed at this and said it was easy. I hesitated, but then realized it was no longer my boat, so I stepped away from the helm. Long story short, after much grunting, this skipper got the boat close enough to the peer so that his mate could jump onto the dock and got a line fast, and he did it exactly as I recommended from the start. Sorry, but some boats really don’t back up in close quarters. Have the lines ready…

Paul

I believe that any scenario like that in the drawing at the top of the article (showing the boat backing) is fanciful for many boats. Of course it’s just a drawing, but you don’t want everyone assuming that it can be done in such close quarters. I would never never never attempt such a thing in my boat, even on a calm day with no tide. And with a wind or tide, there might not be any escape if things go badly. (My boat is 20 tons, so the consequences of things not working could be significant.)

But my boat can back up; it just needs lots of space to do it. A point for some boats like mine is that the very prop walk that we’re interested in can be very powerful. We mustn’t forget that to get prop walk, which we want to use effectively here, we need to turn the prop. But the prop wasn’t designed to make prop walk; it was designed to make thrust. So every time one uses the prop walk or indeed the prop wash for directional control, one may also be creating thrust in the opposite direction of what’s desired. I think there are many circumstances where physics rule against backing as described in the article.

My boat has so much prop walk that I often don’t need to touch the wheel when maneuvering in close quarters. The throttle becomes the wheel, in effect (prop wash forward, prop walk reverse).

I’ll await Part 2 to learn more, but in the meantime, I will remind myself of what I said earlier about experienced skippers who thought they could do what John describes. (They couldn’t.) And keep the lines ready…

Matt

Even the most ornery prop-walk-prone boats usually do make sternway eventually.
Can you figure out just how much the boat will spin due to prop walk before she’s making sternway? i.e. if you start off facing due north, you’re on a heading of, say, 50 degrees by the time you’re really moving.
In that case – strange as it sounds – you might try lining up, initially, pointing 50 degrees to port of where you want to be aimed while you’re moving backwards. Let the boat work out that first bit of prop-walk in the open, then once she builds momentum and is moving astern at a good clip, coast back in neutral and put the helm hard starboard to kill the yaw.

Dick Stevenson

Hi Stig and all,
I believe a design characteristic of the boat that is often ignored when looking for your dream boat is a robust rubbing strake (and many, I suspect, find them ugly). Properly designed, they can save your topsides a multitude of small (and large) bad judgments and bad luck and make entrance to the situation you described far less anxious.
When you can just allow the boat to lean against a piling (or pivot around) and not worry about fenders (which often are impossible to position on a post when moving or they get hung up) everything gets much less anxious and easier.
Some EU boats used large hauser as a rubbing strake: I am not sure successful they were, but I found them universally ugly after a few years of age. I do not know if anyone has retro-fitted a proper rub rail.
It was an under-appreciated part of my boat until I started messing about with pilings.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Marc Dacey

With a steel full keeler and the windage of a “stern castle” and a pilothouse, I have to be at times fairly assertive with the throttle. That said, I spend most of my time docking (arrival and leaving) in neutral as indicated. If I have to pivot against a piling or just have a brief pause while bow or stern is reaching the desired direction, I will. Where possible, I will also back out against a warp line, keeping in mind this too is a delicate operation. Lastly, I will back out of a corner slip a few metres and then push the stern out with the stouter sort of boat hook before jumping on and adding a shot of reverse with the helm countering as you’ve said. But again, most of this is in neutral and I too have needed to “berth if there’s a gap” to get out of snug situations. I certainly agree that finding three boat lengths of empty sea wall and practising this on both sides with crew and all fenders out is a great way to experience the peculiarities of one’s own vessel. And most of ’em are peculiar.

Colin Speedie

Hi Dick, John

I agree, too. One thing we did when he had our Ovni built was a welded rubbing strake. They import strength and stiffness in the area and take the brunt of any errors, requiring only a touch up with paint at the end of each season – hopefully…
Best wishes
Colin

Dick Stevenson

Hi Michael (and all),
It should always be an option (which, in my observation too few employ) to decide the likelihood of damage to boat or self is too great to take the assigned berth at that time. And please do not underestimate the likelihood of personal injury, especially singlehanded, running around the deck handling lines, push off pilings etc. It may be good judgment to stand off, anchor or go to the fuel dock or some other side tie and get help. Better yet, wait an hour. What can be a 20-knot late afternoon cross breeze (when most arrive) will be dead calm an hour later.
Next, I have never done the kind of berthing being discussed single-handed. I agree with John, you got it. A couple of thoughts: I really like your getting the midship’s line attached first while in the fairway. That said, my experience is that the sterns of boats stick out at adjoining berths making this more difficult. That and handling line while you back away and then make your approach sounds like it might be a recipe for getting line around the prop.
I would also like to reiterate: when you get the windward stern piling, most of the work is done. You can control the bow by powering ahead on the “magic” line or sitting idle and letting the cross breeze blow the bow back to where you want it. The next challenge is to get a stern line on that same windward piling so that as you move forward on the midship’s line, you can control the stern.
If we are talking about this being one’s permanent mooring, then there are a handful of set-up options that can make berthing far easier and safer.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Jo

Here‘s another owner of a boat that moves in reverse first to port a good way before moving in any other direction. So backing out of the slip with mooring lines (no pilings here) is always a nervewarcking experience. Specially when the moorings are placed in a way, that you have a good chance to catch the neighbor’s mooring with your keel or screw if you don’t leave very straight in the middle from the slip.

Up to now I had somewhat decent results by using the starboard mouring line to contol the stern until the boat stars moving enough to get free of the neighbor’s mooring at port. And also not to die of shame, if I get entangled. As I helped enough of my neighbours getting free of their messes, it’s a shared pain.

Jo

It’s a Mediterranean style bow-first slip with no kind of structure on the side of the boat. To the left and right just neighboring boats and two moorings coming out of the water. The only place to mount a spring would by on your neighbour’s boat.

Adam Lein

I’ve tried backing my boat, a ketch with a longish fin keel and skeg-hung rudder, into my slip just once. I applied the technique you recommended but ran into a lot of problems.

First was that the effort to realign the boat would usually overcome whatever sternway i had.

Second was that i get it hard to cancel the momentum of the realignment turn. In other words if i needed a clockwise rotation to light the boat up with the slip, often we’d overturn and I’d need another correction in the opposite direction. This is really just part of the first problem, since all this extra correction was killing my sternway.

Finally as a result of the above problems, by the time I’d have the boat lined up and not rotating, i would no longer be in position to back in, and is have to leave and start over. Prudent but discouraging.

Maybe i just need more practice. I will definitely take your advice of trying a long, straight back up in clear water first.

Henning

I spent much of my boating career with piling berths and agree that it is very helpful to be able and willing to lean onto the leeward piling. There is usually just my wife and me on board and with much of a crosswind, there is a good chance you will end up on the leeward neighbor as you need to go in fairly slowly to have any chance of getting both stern lines over the pilings as you pass then and before they are out of reach. After 10 years of doing this, I would tend to completely stop the boat and lean on the leeward piling the more crosswind there is. Try to stop the boat as close as possible to the spot where it will lie to the wind balanced and not rotate much and then only slowly. It did not take long for me to find out where that spot is. Then, in a relatively stable position, sort out the stern lines (if the slip is significantly longer than the boat, you will want the stern lines crossed – that takes extra time). In 30 knots of crosswind, I would then, with the help of others, get a bow line to the windward cleat on the dock. It wouldn’t matter if that took 10 minutes as it’s not hard to realign the boat while leaning on the leeward piling every minute or so. In less crosswind, I can usually keep the boat centered and pointing straight by giving a hard burst forward, then throttling back to idle but staying in forward gear and using the stern lines to guide the boat in and then stopping all forward progress while still in gear. I don’t handle the wheel at all while moving in, just concentrate on controlled slipping of the stern lines, which are run around the stern cleats.
But by saying that it IS possible to dock your boat in a piling-slip does not mean that I think they’re a good idea. Often, the pilings are spaced too closely for us and I will then aggressively try to ram the boat in, pushing the pilings apart. Once or twice, I got seriously stuck that way – requiring mooring lines on both sheet winches to get back out…
This summer in the eastern Baltic I was introduced to stern buoys and found them a good idea. On the way back we met a boat from Scotland who complained heavily about piling berths, asking “how could they make it any more complicated?” There’s a point.

Hans

Hi John,
like Henning I did all my early boating in the Baltic and just took pilings as a matter of fact only realizing what a pain in the neck they really are when I moved further afar. I absolutely agree with Henning in what he says about leaning to the leeward piling on the balance point of the boat, which really works surprisingly well even in a strong breeze. I then fix a spring from the windward piling to to my boat’s “magic point” which is nearly midships. Next come the windward sternline and the leeward sternline(the latter could be left for later to minimise hassle) both of which are left completely slack. Very important: I am using floating lines here to avoid prop fouling.
It then is possible to motor slowly against the magic spring and work with throttle and rudder to keep the boat perfectly lined up. Fix the windward bowline (mostly with the help of people ashore), tighten the windward sternline and you’re mostly done. If I want the sternlines to be crossed I do it afterwards. This maneouver works well, although doing it singlehanded is tricky, to say the least.

Hans

I should have mentioned that the spring has to be led aft to a snubbing winch in the cockpit and it has to be long enough as some piling boxes are far longer than one’s boat.

Charles L Starke

If your boat has too much prop walk, I understand the flexofold prop has minimal prop walk and more thrust. You may benefit from a prop change.
Best wishes,
Charles
Charles L Starke MD
s/v Dawnpiper

John Brown

My boat (Rustler 36) has a long keel and a transom hung rudder. The propeller rotates in the small space provided by a cutout in the leading edge of the rudder. Prop walk is negligible when moving astern but significant when motoring ahead. In a crosswind the bow will always blow off to leeward when moving astern, with or without input from the prop. As you recommend, the only real solution to this unwanted effect is to straighten the boat up with full rudder and bursts of ahead power without gathering headway, if possible. However, the net effect of this is often to move the boat bodily sideways in the same direction as the bow is moving. Fine if you want to come alongside the nearest boat parked in a narrow channel, but otherwise undesirable. Use of anchors or lines to assist the manoeuvre are assumed to be unavailable.
There are a lot of good technical reasons why this happens , mostly involving the centre of lateral resistance in a boat’s hull and the changing positions of the effective pivot point as it moves through the water.

Eric Klem

Hi John,

Good technique and good description of how to do it. I learned by observing a good friend who owns a 92′, 150 ton, single screw, full keel schooner who is a real master of this technique. The first time we went to back in I thought that there was no way it would ever work so you can imagine my amazement as he backed into a fairly tight spot in a nice controlled fashion. To your point about sometimes not spinning the wheel all the way when shifting into reverse, I have been pleasantly surprised at how many boats don’t require any wheel input at all once it is hard over, just engine controls.

One caution that I have for people just starting this and your turning technique are to make sure that the transmission has shifted and the prop unfeathered/unfolded before revving up. I have twice seen feathering props fail and I attribute it to being behind a very harsh shifting Twin Disc transmission and the user getting on the throttle too quickly. On most boats, you can either hear or feel the shift take place so you can learn how long to pause before winding it up. Luckily, the mechanically shifted transmissions in most sailboats shift pretty quick but as you get into bigger engines, it can be a noticeable pause.

Eric

Brian Russell

A few notes from our (very limited) experience, which most already know: Feathering 3 blade props give better “traction” in reverse with less walk than fixed 3 blades so it is easier to quickly develop sternway. Also, one small detail that helps is to always know the position of the rudder. It’s easy to lose track of it when backing in and turning it back and forth, then trying to quickly find center position. Our B&G plotter, when on an autopilot screen, graphically shows the rudder angle. I had hoped to be able to have this information available on a dedicated 3.5″ display, but the feedback device only works through the autopilot – better than nothing. We just have to remember to select this screen before beginning the maneuver. Note that the AP is not engaged, just using the display. We always discuss and visualize the planned sequence of moves before committing. Since Helen is usually at the helm I must learn not to offer too much free advice and let her drive the boat without distraction. If things go awry we then reevaluate, preferably calmly! Lastly, the value of practice cannot be overemphasized. When we first started operating our new Dix 43 we spent hours in a quiet lagoon backing into a makeshift “dock” made of 4 milk jugs anchored to the bottom with string and rocks, learning how the 16 ton boat behaved. We’re looking forward to the next installment in the docking series!

Chris

John, to be overly simplistic, it sounds like your telling me to move the boat in reverse (apply power to move her) and steer her in forward (apply power to get her stern pointed in the right direction). The steering forward part is a bit counter-intuitive (“won’t she stop?”); otherwise, it sounds pretty straightforward. Famous last words. Thanks for your interesting strategy – I will try it on a calm day with a dozen of my friends lining the rail ready to fend off. Best, Chris

Ernesto Hueso Monis

Hi John, great article; thorough, sufficiently technical and clear. Many thanks.
I lived confused until I worked out my own trick on how to think about the steering inputs in forward versus reverse: when moving forward I steer the bow in the direction I want (turn the wheel right/clockwise for the bow to go to starboard). When reversing I steer the stern in the direction I want (turn the wheel to the right/clockwise to have the stern go to starboard). So my mental model is: in forward steer the bow, in reverse steer the stern. Maybe this helps somebody that like me, that still couldn’t make sense of the 2 tricks you suggested under “Messing with our minds”.
Cheers

Jack Chadowitz

John,
Congratulations on such an excellent guide for maneuvering.

I bought a Mayflower (George Stadel) 48′ sailing yacht and spent 2 years refitting her. Steering and bow thruster issues kept me from taking her out until recently especially as an engine failure coupled with south winds when entering the marina means that the yacht will be joining the surfers in shallow water and breaking waves.

We are in the Tel Aviv Marina, berthed stern to, Med style with a breakwater 27m from our bow and our stbd neighbour’s port bow lines entering the water 3m ahead of us.

The slip is narrow, our fenders almost touch our neighbors fenders.

In the current season we have predictable 10-15 knot winds from the NNW in the afternoons. The breakwater runs N to S. The slip faces W.

Anyway, after studying your coming alongside guide and understanding the concepts, yesterday we went out and returned in 10 knot winds to put theory into practice.

It took 3 attempts to dock. Each attempt required going past the slip and turning around in the next fairway so that the approach would be correct.

The first 2 attempts were bad because of mistakes I made because of inexperience with the throttle movement. Throttle in the wrong direction, (Very bad) and too aggressive in reverse with the very powerful stbd prop walk. The reverse rotating prop adding to the confusion.

Take away points:

Careful planning ahead of doing, communicate with the crew.

No touching lines until the boat has stopped and engine in neutral!

No jousting with boat hooks or pulling on lines. It’s a 38,000 lb boat, pushing off is dangerous and won’t work. Use a fender to prevent damage.

Have messenger lines, also known as slime lines, used to pull up sunken forward lines, available for pickup with boat hook.

Have stern lines on the dock, available for pickup from the boat with a boathook.

Using prop wash to move the stern to either side was amazing.

Getting momentum in reverse then putting in neutral is very important.

Your techniques worked so well that I forgot I had a bow thruster even when I screwed up two attempts at docking.

If you screw up, exit and start from the beginning. Great advice. This required turning around in the next fairway. Your directions on turning around worked perfectly. The audience was amazed by this 48″ boat doing a 180 degree turn in a space of about 65′. I received compliments especially as I had to do it 3 times.

Ignore advice from others. Unlike previous attempts where I had people yelling advice, in this case the 180 degree turns in a small space by a 48′ boat stunned the audience into silence and there was no yelled advice.

It’s a great feeling to not have the nagging worries of how to get back into the slip with the afternoon breeze, or worrying that the 5.7kw, 600 amp bow thruster will fail, or the batteries will not have enough energy.

One again, thanks!

Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
It is certainly my observation that there is less space in recent design marinas based on the assumption that bow thrusters are ubiquitous. And I had one marina operator in England confirm this (5+ years ago) when I commented on a recent winter re-configuration of his pontoons/docks.
When I contact marinas now for slips, I say that I have no bow thruster and would appreciate a reasonably easy slip to get into.
BTW, marinas are not usually really quiet places, but the sawing/grinding sound of bow thrusters is astounding: those that have them lean on them a lot. Especially those who depart at dawn and, even when flat calm, have dozens of bursts of their thrusters to get them on their way.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

John Cobb

I was at a smallish marina just off the ICW back in June and about sunset a large powered yacht of maybe 150 to 200 ft in length stopped in for the night. It was a super modern design and the noises it made maneuvering onto the transit dock were both loud and weird IMO. To me it sounded like a hot-air ballon that was cycling it’s burners off and on. Almost like it was breathing. Did I mention it was loud?

Philip Merlier

John:
When trying to make progress in reverse, is it best to use higher or lower rpms in order to minimize prop walk while covering the greatest distance, before moving to a forward burst to straighten things out.
Thank you, Philip