The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

14 Tips To Come Alongside Single-Handed—Part 2

In Part 1, I covered seven tips to get set up for coming alongside single-handed. Now let’s look at seven more to help with the tricky part: actually getting alongside alone, starting off with the most important task of all:

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Ernest E Vogelsinger

“Coming Alongside” a.k.a. “Johns Dating Tips for Singlehanders” – gave me some broad smiles, besides the invaluable thoughts and information. When I eventually get my little boat ready for sailing this chapter will certainly influence my end-of-day decisions heavily. Thanks!

Colin Post

I also found it very humorous (and enlightening). My wife ( who has zero interest in sailing) not so much. Maybe I’ll get her to read this with a view to spening more time with her hubby on said boat!

Mark Devlin

Most of the docking tips rely on the dock having cleats or bollards as are typically present on floating docks. Any tips for coming into a fixed dock with tall pilings where the lines need to be wrapped around the piling several times to be secured (i.e. pilings are too tall to easily slip a loop over the top of the piling)?
In particular, I find that the spring usually can’t be secured quickly enough or securely enough to use the motor in gear to control the boat at the dock.

Rob Gill

Hi Mark, rig magic spring on the dock. Find a young person fishing on the wharf. Offer them $5 (with promise of $5 more on completion) to bring in their fishing line and reserve your place with precise instruction to shout out to any boat arriving to take your spot that “there’s a mad single-hander coming shortly, with very little steering and NO brakes”. Then as you arrive quietly, youngster throws you the spring line. Secure other lines with your keen as helper. Hand over second $5 (plus a performance bonus). Put the kettle on. Probably cheaper than a marina.
BR. Rob

Marc Dacey

One of the hardest lessons of a self-sufficient (and cheap) sailor is to think of money as just another tool fit for purpose…and when to apply that tool. This is one of those times.

Rob Gill

Agreed Marc, in business we say that if you have a problem that can be solved with money, you don’t have a problem – you have a cost. Then the issue becomes can you easily justify it?

Ralph Rogers

Being an avid single hander, always have been, I find you have to have a ton of faith. Faith in yourself, and equipment. I have many unconventional and backassward ways of doing things. My homeport is on a river with a strong current and can have strong winds too. Real strong. You fall off, you aint swimming back to your boat. I have learned to use currents to help coming alongside. Takes faith. On the river there are all kinds of places to tie up. Parks, towns, abandoned docks, piles. Same in the bays on the upper west coast. (Gotta have faith going over those bars too) So, don’t roll your eyes, I keep my lines tied with the eye on the boat, loose on the end, never knowing if I’m going to stop, or not, or where, or what to, or how short a space. Heading into the current or wind, the easiest, I use it, not reverse, to slow the boat. Sometimes while still in gear, keeping zero forward speed, crab the boat over using the strong current. Other times, if space, slow down with the current while keeping alongside just off from the fenders touching until stopped. When I’m alongside I grab the spring, which is run back, put it in neutral, turn the bow in ever so slightly so the current pushes the bow in, step off and tie the Springer. Then the bow. When it works real well, and I’m fully stopped, before the current acts, I quickly and loosely tie the stern and then the bow. Then the spring. It’s practiced timing. Power boaters are impressed. I tell people when they want to help that I need the practice. And I do. So they stand and watch adding to the nerves.
With no wind into my slip, which is just a boat length, I turn so I’m approaching at a slight angle, bow in, neutral, slowly, steerage gone, step off and tie the spring and the bow swings in. Coming alongside with strong current or wind from the stern is trickiest. I have to be faster and have faith the spring doesn’t break or come undone as it’s the only thing holding the boat, and once I step off, it’s the only thing to keep me from looking an idiot. But when it works I’m the hero. In heavy times I tie a hook on the end. It’s shaped like a question mark, made of quarter inch steel with the eye for the line. In anger I drop it backwards over a cleat, so the line goes around the cleat and forward so the springer grabs, cocks the hook, and the bow comes in, then run to the bow and tie it. Around a bollard, or pile, and hook back to itself, lots of other ways. If I don’t need to use it, I don’t. But I don’t use it much. It has saved my bacon with a 20+ knot tail wind coming in between two long narrow slips with boats on one side, tying up to the starboard side. Realized too late wind was stronger than I thought, couldn’t slow down enough, couldn’t turn around, committed. Reverse kicked stern out and the wind would catch it. No one around to help, or watch, and the end coming up real fast. So, nudged reverse to slow and just as stern kicked, put it in neutral, and while still moving forward, stepped off and dropped that hook around the cleat, the spring pulled scary tight, and the bow slammed into its fender hard. But hey, it worked. Faith. The things I have learned here about using the motor to come alongside have helped a ton. I now pull in places and in conditions I would never have done before. I can crab in, facing the strong current, and/or wind, or from the beam, in a length an a half. And get back out. By myself. It feels so good. Think, learn, do what works, don’t be afraid to be unconventional, and have faith.

Ralph Rogers

It’s a calculated risk, right?
34 and a 29. Solo both. 34 is going to a buddy so now I just use the 29. Easier to maneuver and handle but wind and current move it quicker docking, and it’s not nearly so comfortable at sea. Not the same as bringing in a big boat I know but by yourself it can still be a handful. 30 years ago, I would have singled a bigger boat but 30 years ago I wouldn’t have had the experience to do it. Looking for a 32 a bit heavier with a skeg.

Ralph Rogers

Yes, I should have put the size in there. My apologies.
Thanks for the link. I’ll take another look.

David Shepherdson

My current technique is similar to yours but not quite the same. I come in to my port tie in with my aft spring attached to the magic spot. As I pass the end of my finger I put her in reverse, stop and drop the bite over the finger end cleat and bring it back to the port sheet winch. I can then bring it in tight and ease it out to the correct length (marked on the spring with tape) while in forward idle. I leave her in gear while I tie the other lines, if I don’t leave her in gear there is a risk that the bow will blow off into my neighbor. It usually works well.

The problem comes with a strong (much over 10k) wind blowing me off the dock. If I fumble the line and miss the cleat (it happens) don’t have time to redo it before the bow blows off and, unless I am very quick to get into reverse, I will hit my neighbors immaculately prepared boat. In practice if I think there is going to be a strong wind blowing me off I prefer not to go out which is not ideal.

Ralph Rogers

Same problem. Skinny slip and crappy boat next to me. Of course if I hit it, it’s a gem. If the wind is blowing good off the slip I come in under just enough power to keep steerage. I turn the bow towards the slip just as it passes the end if the slip. I put it in neutral at that time, walk foward to the cabin with the spring and stern line in hand, step off, toss the stern line and tie the spring to the end cleat of the slip. As soon as it’s tied I begin walking forward, boat still moving forward, faith that the spring is tied. The bow swings in hard, but not hard enough to break anything, I have a big fender at the right place on the boat and the slip. The boat springs back as it draws up on the spring line, and I jump forward for the bow line, which is blowing out, but springing towards me. Quickly get a couple of turns, but not perfect, just to hold. Then back for the stern, which is now swinging out. A couple quick turns on the end slip cleat, over the top of the spring line on the cleat, it stops, and I have time now. Only two cleats on the slip so have to double up. It’s a dance, but it takes seconds. In the slip if I miss, it runs into a big fender tied onto the slip, and bounces back, again I have time. If it’s real windy I’ll let the boat spring back more, even pull a little, so the spring is shorter before tying off. This keeps the bow from blowing out too much. Tricky part is with current from bow, like out in the river, wind off the dock, slip, etc. Now if the bow blows off a bit the current catches it and it goes bad quick. I never step off (ok, once) if the boat is going too fast for a pivot and a quick step forward. And I never jump. Bad knees anyway. Sometimes if timed right, I step off at a cleat, or whatever I’m tying to so the spring g stays short and then I have plenty of time for the rest. Sorry for long replies.

David Shepherdson

That might work, I will try it. Thanks

Eric Klem

Hi John,

These are all good tips and I think it is good that you pointed out that it is riskier no matter how you do it. A few additional random thoughts:

The reverse of your magic spring works well too going from a point ~1/3 aft from the bow and leading to a point on the dock approximately equal with the bow that can be backed against. For a singlehander, this means that if the situation dictates docking upwind or upcurrent, if you just get the boat stopped, stepping off with this spring and making it off will mean that the boat gets pinned against the dock by the wind or current (but make sure neither are pushing you off the dock).

I think knowing how to spring off the dock solo actually gives you a lot more options when docking as people are often afraid of going on a dock they are being blown onto for fear they won’t be able to leave. If the boat has enough shape aft, is aft cockpit and conditions are moderate, it is often easiest to spring the bow out first as you can trip a doubled line from the helm. With crew I rarely go this way and usually spring the stern out first but I find it tricky to handle the line without a fouling risk when solo.


Grenville Byford

Dear John,

A situation you have not covered : Tying up to a commercial dock when the top of the dock is a long way above your boat’s deck. A similar situation occurs when coming into a lock with the water out.

This is my solution :

  1. Look for a ladder with enough space either side to let you put the mid-point of your boat right on the ladder.
  2. Prepare a short length of dock line. No longer than 10-15 ft. Attach this to the mid ship cleat if you have one, or tie a bowline around the shrouds. Coil down with the loose end clearly visible. (If attaching to a midship cleat run the line outside the lifelines.)
  3. Bring the boat alongside and stop her.
  4. Walk down the side deck. Grab the loose end and pass this round a ladder rung at any convenient height.
  5. Bring it tight and hold on until the boat stabilizes. (It may be good to wrap it round the rung a second time if you think more friction is called for.
  6. Secure the midships of your boat to the ladder tightly. The boat is now going nowhere. At least for the necessary few minutes to take the next step. (Rearrange fenders as necessary to keep boat off the ladder.)
  7. Take bow, stern, and other lines up to the top of the dock and tie off.
  8. Remember to leave a good bit of free line on your deck so you can adjust the docking lines without climbing back up to the dock. This is particularly important if you think you might have to go forward or back to let a dinghy (say) access the ladder.
  9. Do not forget to untie your boat from the ladder rung.

Evidently wind and current can make this harder. I would always opt to head into both wind and current if this is an option. Or to head into the stronger of the two. Based on its effect on the boat. Not its velocity. One good thing though is that you will never be blown off. You are after all, in the lee of twenty feet of solid dock or lock.

Evidently this works just as well with a crew to tie up the ladder. Just make sure your crew knows that his/her only job is to secure the boat to the ladder. They are to ignore “helpful” strangers until this done.

Best regards,


Richard Elder

Already tested that one! We were delivering a 55′ sport fisherman down the Mexican coast.. Pick up crew was a newly minted 100 ton licensce holder who had earned his ticket as a bait boy in Florida. Bait Boy was tending the lines and fenders while we went ashore to arrange to take aboard fuel for the run down to Panama. So he tied the boat in nice and tight with the fenders against the floating dock. A panda wake came by and the boat surged, caught the deck edge on the dock roof, and popped about six feet of the hull to deck joint. ( held together with sheet metal screws— what more did you expect)

James Evans

Good stuff, John. I’ve done most, and used some other methods with alarming results. Usually sailing a little boat I’ve relied on muscle more often than I should, sometimes ending in a boat lying 100 feet from the wharf on the end of one line and a long haul before I could make a cuppa!

William Procter

Hi John, i recall your recommend not to splice an eye into one end of mooring lines, but to wrap off at both ends, yet many of your tips involve an eye using a bow line. Given that a knot decreases the strength of the line can you explain or point me to the section as to why you recommend not to have a splice eye