The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

14 Tips for Coming Alongside Single-handed—Part 1

Four years ago we published a twelve-chapter Online Book on how to come alongside easily, based on the things Phyllis and I learned over 25 years of doing just that with our 56-foot boat with no bow thruster.

When writing said book I assumed a crew of two. But what happens if you are alone and need to get alongside? Good question but one I have never got around to answering, despite many requests.

Time to fix that, particularly since, even if you sail as a couple, there may be a time when one of you is disabled and getting alongside safely could be vital.

Also, even for couples like Phyllis and me who sail together most of the time, knowing how to get alongside alone can be very useful. For example, I do this at least a dozen times a summer on trips to and from the boatyard and to bring the boat in from the mooring.

And, finally, being able to handle our boats by ourselves is kind of freeing. For example, I did a bunch of very satisfying and fun voyages by myself BP (before Phyllis) that would just not have happened if I had been scared of handling my boat alone and so waited around for crew to join me.

And I’m expecting to single-hand our new boat quite a bit since Phyllis is finding new and interesting things that will keep her ashore at least some of the time.

A few things before we dig in:

  • I’m only going to cover add-ons and modifications for single-handers to the core information on docking in this Online Book, so if you have never read it or it’s been a while, please do so now, otherwise what follows will make no sense at all.
  • I’m assuming no thrusters, bow or stern, both because I think that the techniques in this book make them unnecessary for most boat sizes and types, and because it’s a good idea to at least know how to manage without them.
  • I’m not going to cover my ass by telling you obvious stuff like wear a lifejacket when docking single-handed—I’m assuming that, like all AAC members, you are smart enough to make those sorts of decisions for yourself.
  • As with the rest of this book, most everything will be of use to both sail and motorboats.

OK, all done reading the rest of the book? Great, let’s do it, starting off with boat and skipper preparation tips:

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Michael Lambert

Concur on the separate levers for throttle and shifter. PITA.

Speaking of trip hazards, my furling line runs along the port side(which I put on the dock) through sheaves mounted right above the stanchion bases, so it’s ~3” above the toerail at the gate. No bueno.

And another prep I could add is moving the boom over to starboard to aid in movement between helm and side.

Matt Marsh

Our boom gallows has three notches, and I agree, it’s *much* more convenient to have it in the one that’ll be farthest from the dock.

As for single vs. separate lever controls: While I definitely prefer the single-lever type, we are stuck with the dual-lever type on Maverick V and changing them out does not look easy. It’d involve either replacing the whole pedestal assembly ($$$) or a significant amount of custom fabrication ($$). That’s filed as a “maybe for some future date” project. That situation is the norm for a lot of boats like ours; the old controls could be changed out, but only with considerable difficulty and expense, which must be weighed against other improvements we’d like to make.

Of more immediate importance: I’ve been trying for months to find a good fairlead for the midships “magic spring”, which our boat is currently not equipped to accept. She has good spots to mount them, but I am having such a hard time finding suitable off-the-shelf hardware – from anywhere – that I am sorely tempted to carve a custom pair out of basswood and then have them sand-casted in aluminum by a local metalworker.

Matt Marsh

I’ve been told a few times “don’t tie loaded stuff to the toerail”, but that’s always been on boats where the toerail is a thin flimsy thing for hanging fenders on and stopping dropped winch parts from falling overboard. The C&C toerail is a beefy aluminum extrusion; the genoa and spinnaker sheets all get led back to it, and it’s through-bolted all along the hull/deck joint. I think we’re going to try a couple of big Garhauer single blocks shackled to the toerail, rather than snatch blocks (1/4 the price, and I can never quite bring myself to trust snatch blocks – maybe I’ve just not spent enough time with good ones!)

Dick Stevenson

Hi Matt,
I have been using our Garhauer snatch blocks for a couple of decades now. At first, I purchased them because of the rather incredible price difference at the time to the “racing” gear everyone seems to gravitate towards.
Pretty soon, I felt the Garhauer snatch blocks were just a better design. For one, the sheave size was about twice the diameter of the comparable snatch blocks: not a big deal if just deflecting direction, but an increasingly big deal the more the direction is changed as rope does not like tight curves. More importantly, other snatch blocks “folded” open (and were often a challenge to open) where the Garhauer snatch blocks integrity was never dependent on a hinge as it is opened and closed with a side panel (its “cheek” if you will). This cheek is not integral to the block’s strength and the only danger (as with all blocks) is if the block gets jammed in place and the block becomes side loaded.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Dick Stevenson

Hi Matt,
I am not a fan of attaching shackles, especially if they may be rattled around under load, right to aluminum toe rails. Not only can the noise drive you crazy when loose and lying comfortably moored trying to sleep, but the aluminum will dent and get weakened over time.
This seems to be a perfect place for a lashing or soft shackle (or a couple strategically placed) and I would also shy away from using one of the high modulus ones that are so popular these days. Too often a little “give” in a system is not a problem or is even wished for and these HM soft shackles have no give.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
No, HM soft shackles would likely be no problem, but may be over-kill. It is very true that, in this application, the nylon dock lines will absorb and dissipate loads. I know I was also reacting to my observation that HM soft shackles and line is being used and promoted for applications on cruising boats where they add no benefit and may, with their impressive resistance to stretch, be contra-indicated. And it may be that something else, perhaps less forgiving, will be attached to this block at some point and a little extra “give” is likely to be appreciated and will certainly be no problem.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Marc Dacey

Matt, one of the better modifications I made to my first sailboat, a C&C-designed 10 metre sloop, was to fabricate teak bases slightly curved to the camber of the deck and about as hig as that famous toerail extrusion at midships.. I through bolted a mid-sized cleat to this base with a backing plate inside the cabinets below. This allowed me not only to have a solid place from which to run a spring, but avoided the issue of tying off to stanchion bases and the like, which were weaker and harder to release from until load than an actual cleat. Another vote for Garhauer, by the way. They appealled at first as “cheaper”, but have proven themselves better, as well, due to their durability and construction, in my view.

Carl Johanson

The (genua) furling line does not always have to run through blocks on the life line stanchions, several inches above the deck. I am not sure of the English word. Does “bail” make sense here? I.e. a curved steel rod between the deck and the stanchion support. If your stanchion base have such bails (?) on the inside, the furling line may run through the eye formed by the bail. There is hardly any friction here since the line is deflected only a few degrees. Would this solution bring your furling line down to 1 -2 cm above the deck?

Jakob Vedefors

with the risk of stating the obvious here… we spend 200 bucks on the hook and more ( device. It might work if you have a small boat and have 6 to 8 mm mooring lines, does not work so well with bigger siezes. It also had the feeling of always being on the edge of breaking, which it did after 3 months.

Spend your money on something else.

Evan Effa

I have one of these. It works really well for putting a line through a mooring ball ring; but, I agree it is not particularly robust. I have rebuilt ours at least 3 times because the little nylon beads get shifted around and the hook gradually closes itself off or seizes up. Silicone spray usually keeps it lubricated enough.

We’ve had ours for 5 years and it is still serviceable and despite its shortcomings, it is still the first tool we reach for on those rare occasions when we are taking a mooring buoy for the night.

I wouldn’t trust it for reaching for a dock cleat or something requiring more finesse.


Evan Effa

I should add that we have ¾” dock lines for our 22,000 lb displacement vessel and the hook & moor is OK with that. I wouldn’t want to go with lines that are any bigger though…

Carl Nelson

Despite the vendor’s videos of 101 and uses, I only find the the hook-and-more useful to tie to a buoy mooring ring which has no pennant. For that I use a 1/2″ line to tie up temporarily. It’s plenty strong for the purpose. The dinghy is then available to rig proper size lines for the night.


Worst case experience was coming into port after a 10 hours cruise. Wind has picked up. You called ahead and the Marina said they reserved a spot starboard side slip for you, Great. You prep your boat for what you expect.

Some big Yacht is in your assigned slip. All that is left is the end half of a port slip and your in tight quarters the wind is blowing and no port fenders or lines are deployed.

As you suggest… Time to go around and restart.

It was not one of my prettiest of landings. There were a couple of skilled boat owners on the slip to help as I maneuvered close and then tossed lines.

The spring line is really magic. I use a Stern Spring Bridle to manage the boat when solo. Tossed over the slip’s outer most dock cleat I can secure it to the boat cleat. With the boat in gear at idle it snuggles up against the slip and stays there. Allows the skipper or crew to step ashore. No Jumping.

David Steele

Hi John, I hope you will address docking to bull rails, which are common here in PNW and being from CA we’re still trying to figure out how best to even tie up to them! I saw one single hander tie a J hook to a line but it took him 4 tries and you don’t always have the luxury of that much time.

Regarding devices, the Docking Stick is simple, cheap, and works well. The Hook and Moor and Happy Hooker work well but can’t handle thick lines and can’t handle a lot of force. Here’s a metal version I found on Amazon but haven’t tried it yet. TIP- use a long leader line (mine is 15 feet of 1/4 inch line) tied to your heavier/thicker dock or mooring line, it’s easier to handle with finesse instead of force and your Hook and Moor and Happy Hooker will last longer.

Dick Stevenson

Hi John and all,
Too often, I have found, that these types of rails are indicative of pontoons where “quick and dirty” was the standard of build adhered to: so I am quite wary when going alongside. Many have been put in with nails and I would worry that a grapple might “lever” the rail out from the dock. Also, these seem to proliferate in areas where there are lots of small boats: again a warning to bigger more weighty vessels.
I try, when I see these rails, to come aside very gently where there is no or little need for lines at all and we can step off to secure. It is also one area where we will accept help from bystanders (we are very directive: 2 or more loops around the rail at the outboard end, no ties and just hold. We will do all the other work necessary.
And, while I am at it, we are in the habit of dressing both sides of the boat with fenders (and we have 8 big fenders- half are the lightweight blow up type); when things start to go pear shaped is not the time to be hauling fenders to strategic locations, especially if double handed.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
I followed the url given in the original question and found a picture of the all-to-familiar “rails” which are essentially 2x4s on plinths (often merely nailed in place) and that is what I was referring to when I suggested the grappling hook might lever it loose. I am quite familiar with the yellow painted timber substantially fixed to wharfs in Atlantic Canada and they are quite a different order of beast and present their own challenges for securing recreational vessels. Usually, it has been my experience, with the government wharfs and their yellow timbers, there is a good deal of maneuvering room for coming alongside as opposed to marinas where their design is becoming more and more predicated on the assumption of thrusters.
The government wharfs with their yellow timbers often have substantially fixed ladders embedded in the structure. These ladders can frequently be a help. We have a “hook” left over from when we were in Northern Europe which we can easily catch a rung, but it is almost as easy to reave through some small stuff: enough to keep us in place while we climb up to attach dock lines to the yellow timbers.  
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Les Medley

This is probably too late for David, but perhaps someone else will find it useful. When I learned to sail in the PNW, many boats that sailed short-handed used an EZ Docker. It looks a little bogus, but it really works. We had the one sized for the 6-inch bull rails, and I never remember it not catching. It would usually catch on the 8-inch bull rails, too.

I tried to look up the company that made them, but they are no longer in business. If you see a lot of bull rails, it might be worth fabricating one. If you do, pay attention to the angles; they are what makes the thing work consistently. It will probably take some trial and error.

When single-handing, I was taught to have the EZ Docker tied off to the “magic spring” cleat and to rig a breast line [a relatively short line made fast to a midship cleat]. Come alongside dead slow and toss the hook. When it catches, the boat will snuggle up to the dock. Once she is tight to the dock, step off sprint forward, and secure the breast line as fast as humanly possible. Once the temporary breast line is secure, you return to your calm skipper persona and secure the rest of your lines.

Two other ideas:

I once saw someone toss a big Bruce anchor on the dock, and it caught the rail like the hook above. Not sure I can recommend that.Look at end of the dock. The first vertical support for the bull rail is usually set in from the end of the horizontal rail. If there is room for your boat, you can lasso the end of the bull rail with your “magic spring” line.
Best, Les

Les Medley

John — I have not given bull rails much thought over the past 30 years, but your comment about the breast line makes a lot of sense. But anyone using a hook like this needs to remember that although the hook acts like a spring line when it catches, it is not actually attached to the dock. It can work loose if the line is slack. You need a real line rigged as quickly as possible. Les

PS I also want to say this is a great book. I am using it to teach a young sailor in the family. Much better organized than my top-of-mind instruction would have been. And so far, my hair is a little greyer, but no damage to the boat or docks.

Robert Andrew

I can certainly see the value of the single engine control system rather than the separate levers which I have. From what I can find though it seems the change is neither simple nor common in an older boat. I could certainly use some advice on where and how to go about this. Is it even doable by a (relatively) skilled but non professional mechanic?

Matt Marsh

If you already have a dual-lever control assembly where shift and throttle are side-by-side on one binnacle-mount unit, swapping them for single-lever is often not too hard. A few cuts and a few drilled holes in a piece of 3/16″ aluminum plate is often sufficient to fit the new mechanism onto the old spot. Then it’s just a matter of moving two teleflex cables and finding a good way to clamp them. If the cables are getting to the age where you need to pull and replace them anyway, it might not be *that* much more work to retrofit the lever.

Others (like our Edson pedestal), where the shift and throttle are on opposite sides and their housing is integrated into the pedestal, are much harder to modify You pretty much have to remove and discard the whole old mechanism, then find or fabricate new hardware to mount the single-lever unit, and then remove and re-route the teleflex cables. At that point you may be looking at a couple thousand dollars in parts plus several person-days of cutting, drilling, fabricating, and fitting.

Eric Klem

FYI, Edson actually sells a kit to convert. It is kind of ugly and super expensive to me but if you don’t have fabrication skills yourself and you want to convert, it is probably the best option.

Drew Frye

A variation on #7 is turning down a slip assignment. One example, common to a marina I use in New Jersey, is a strong tide running under a floating dock. Once the current gets a grip on your keel, you are GOING to hit the dock, with little control over the speed. After one bad expereince, I now feel free to ask for a different slip if I see something I can’t handle, even if they say “people use that spot all the time.” Anchor out. Know your limits.

Dick Stevenson

Hi Drew,
My MO in a marina I consider challenging or conditions that are challenging is to say to the marina that I have a boat with a bit of a mind of its own and that I have no thrusters and could I have an easy to access berth. Often that gets me a hammerhead: if not that often an easier berth.
Worst case: they were warned.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Craig Howard

Thanks for this topic!

One thing I struggle with is catching the first cleat on the (low) finger pier from the high freeboard on our boat. Once I get the spring line on that cleat, I’m golden. However, if I toss a line and pull it back, the line often just lifts vertically, rather than running along the dock and catching on the horn cleat. I’ve tried a few gizmos, but have mostly given up. This has put a serious damper on my single handed docking. This is one case where I wish my marina had pilings, as throwing a loop over that is much easier.

If I get this sorted, I’m pretty confident that I could handle things solo. And by solo, I mean double handed while my wife wrangles the toddlers. 🙂 Tips on how to catch that first cleat from up high?

Ernest E Vogelsinger

Hi Craig, this is a topic I am pondering about as well since my (new to me) boat has a high freeboard as well. So no hands-on experience at the moment, but I’d try to catch a low lying cleat with an intermediate line with a dockside bowline to catch the cleat horn, for a first fixture only. This line would use Johns deckside “sweet spot” – and once you have the boat moored _somehow_ you have time to replace the bowline with a better system.

Michael Lambert

Sport climbers have a tool called a stick clip, with varying levels of sophistication but the simplest is a spring clamp attached to the end of a pole. These are used to “clip” the first draw of a climb which are often fairly high up because otherwise they’d become useless after a few feet of climbing.

The way it works is a bight of the rope is passed through the clamp so the outer strand is held in place by the clamp, while the inner part of the bight can run free, so by pulling that strand, you make the bight smaller. By holding the bight around a carabiner when doing this, the rope clips itself into the gate.

In our application, you wouldn’t need to pull it, just use the stick to drop a line over a cleat and pull it off like the tape idea but reusable, and I bet can be made into an alternative end to an existing boat hook?

Michael Lambert

That’s a fancy one that can be used to clip a draw to a bolt, a simple spring clamp on a stick works for our purposes. And with tape and a small twig to hold the gate open you can clip a bolt anyway!

Craig Howard

Thanks for the feedback and suggestions! Any idea on a wild ass guess for the loads for springing a 40′ cruiser? I figure it can’t be that high, since I’m moving so slow, but I also don’t trust my intuition. I keep talking myself in and out of something like a carabiner. 🙂

I also wondered about the boat hook technique to catch the cleat directly, and something like a kellet to fight against the upward pull on the line when I’m capturing the cleat. Obviously, once the line on the cleat is snug and the boat is pulling on the spring, the kellet would not have any effect.

Michael Lambert

One other consideration about separate levers, and maybe a future article topic IDK.

When backing in and trying to turn the boat, the position of the rudder must quickly change as/before you give a forward pulse. Otherwise prop thrust will very effectively push the stern, say, towards the dock/hinckley you are trying to come away from. I think this is where having two levers sucks the most.

I don’t have much to compare to since I’m on my first boat I get to drive. Sail Caribbean doesn’t count since it was policy to always let the kids drive, even backing into slips. Before that summer I had never been aboard a boat bigger than 42’ or docked anything bigger than my sea sprite. But there is was, guiding 13yo’s through backing 52’ of boat into slips. But at least they were single lever! Good times.

Carl Nelson

I’ve used these simple docking sticks for years to get a first line on a dock cleat. I typically use a 7/16″ light braided line and replace with a proper dock line after I am secure. If grabbing a piling that’s not reachable from the dock, I don’t use a bowline – instead I bring both end of a 3/8″ line back to my hand and tie them together with a bit of light string where the bowline would normally be tied. After snapping the string, I then pull a larger line around the piling.

Mark Wilson

Have just ordered a pair from Amazon UK. Will report back if and when I finally get to the boat in Italy.

I too am bemused by the pilings method.

Alistair Miller

Great pair of articles on mooring -answered a couple of issues we were having in scotland last week . well done and keep going as these are the reasons why I love this site !! Brilliant Stuff

Al Miller

David Zaharik

Your techniques were taught to my wife and I very well by Colin Speedie when we were “training” with him in Tréguier. The challenge we face (or I) face these days is many of the docks we come along to now, do not have cleats or bollards but rather a beam of wood with space underneath to run the line… makes agility and speed a requirement. The spring still works of course but it is the securing of it that is a challenge.

Hans Sponberg

When I single-hand, I use the docking stick as some others have mentioned. It works really well as I can reach the dock cleat even if the side the boat is a couple feet off the dock.

I use the “magic” spring to the stick, but I also bring the bitter end to a stern boat cleat, to form a “spring loop”.

That way, once I drop the stick over a dock cleat, it’s a 2-for-one: I’m attached to the dock in two places (1/3 beam and stern)… so even without applying throttle, my stern can’t swing over and hit my neighbors boat.

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Dick Stevenson

Hi Hans and John,
I have found, at least with my boat’s underwater configuration (conservative fin keel and skeg hung rudder on a 40-foot hull) that forward gear in idle and playing with the rudder will quickly find a sweet spot that keeps the stern from swinging out and lays the boat nicely along the dock. I would be concerned with having an extra line to keep track of would make for an increased possibility of something going pear shaped.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Hans Sponberg

That’s a great question.
I make the spring and stern lines to the stick a fixed length, due to a bowline at the stick. (I’m not great at drawing but I’ll post one describing this)
So when I go ahead on the spring, the stern line actually becomes slack and has no effect; it only picks up tension if the stern swings out before I apply throttle. The lines are carefully adjusted for this.
Another benefit is if the line falls into the water, it cannot reach the prop (it’s very close), however it could reach the prop without this variation.
This works on my boat, and I agree with you, it may not work on all boats.

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