Going Alongside (Docking)—12 More Tips and Tricks

Now we have covered the fundamental theory of going alongside in current, as well as digging into the details of turning around in tight spaces and backing in, let's finish this off with some tips that will make close-quarters manoeuvring in current easier, most of which are applicable to all docking situations:

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Dan Manchester

With our centre cockpit, my wife has perfected standing at the gate and dropping a big loop on our magic springline over the cleat as we enter our berth. If she misses, it still gives her plenty of time to jump off and hook it over as a backup option. Either way, it swings us in and then a little throttle holds us there until we’re tied off. Much less stressful now we’ve figured this out.

Dan Manchester

Hi John,
That’s exactly the reason; our bulwarks are 150 mm high and 50 mm thick, with a teak cap that overhangs both sides, and a smallish fairlead, she’d be on her knees with her head through the lifelines trying to feed it through and then cleat it off – an accident waiting to happen. Also, it allows me to set the right length beforehand such that it pulls us up just before the pile that our bowsprit would otherwise hit if/when prop walk from slowing down pushes our stern out.

Eric Klem

Hi John,

All good tips. The only thing that I don’t see explicitly called out that I think is very important but you have mentioned a bit in other articles is taking a moment to draw out the situation. I used to spend a lot of time on boats with long bowsprits which are super problematic especially in getting off docks due to losing a lot of your springing out options and this was key. I don’t remember ever getting myself into a bad situation when I had done it but I can think of several bad situations when I had not done it. While your illustrations are very nice and appropriate for these articles, most people could draw a much simpler picture and likely get what they need.

I am glad you mentioned throwing a line properly and I agree with you that it should be done facing sideways. And if you need real range, nothing beats a dedicated heaving line with a properly weighted end. The best I have ever used is made from ~75′ of old flag halyard that is often used by tall ships with a monkeys fist on the end filled with the heaviest dog ball you can find. I think the flag halyard that those boats commonly use is 5/16″ solid braid nylon like this: Sea Strand . Somehow the hand of the rope is really good and it lays out really nicely. We found that with some practice, the better crew members had no problem fully stretching out the 75′ length. We even found it was possible to almost extend the length vertically when shortly after 9/11 we were forced to check in through customs at the big ship pier in Eastport, ME at low tide where the deck of the pier was ~60′ off the water compared to our 8′ of freeboard and they would not let us row lines ashore and lower them. On a cruising boat, a single good heaving line should be plenty, you can always attach multiple lines to be pulled across at once by it. For bigger boats with large diameter docklines, even if you don’t have a heaving line it may make sense to throw something like a 1/2″ line first. This past summer I was helping a good friend dock a large schooner backing in with a big cross breeze and it took me 3 tries to get a 1″ dockline across. Good thing he is one of the best single screw boat handlers I know, I really should have gotten out a heaving line and I did know he had them as I made them many years ago. Some people like throwbags but as a former whitewater kayaker who has spent a lot of time practicing with them, a proper heaving line gives a better first throw and a much better second throw (the technique I have usually seen taught for these for a second throw is a butterfly coil but I always found I could outthrow that with the 2 coil technique).

Eric

Stein Varjord

Hi John and Eric,
I have barely used a proper throw line with a weighted end, but can confirm that it gives a huge boost to realistic distance and precision. This reminder has made me decide to make one.

I will think a bit about the details, but in my mind an unsheathed Dyneema line seems perfect. It’s very slippery, which reduces friction when throwing and dramatically reduces trouble with tangling. It’s also ridiculously strong and lightweight, even when wet, plus abrasion and light resistant.

I also very much like John’s idea to use the throw line as a temporarily loaded line during docking, which will speed up the process at times when that could be very useful. It’s true that unsheathed thin Dyneema is too slippery on cleats etc, but for temporary use it’s just fine, if we just put on a few extra turns. Also: The throwing weight could perhaps be attached at the outer end of a large spliced loop, which could be put over any suitable item? The load we could pull on such a thin slippery line by hand is severely limited, of course, but when attached at each end, It’s a lot more.

When throwing normal ropes, the double coil method is the obvious choice. However, with the very light and slippery Dyneema line and a weight at the end, I wonder if flaking it into a small bag or box wouldn’t be more than good enough for all realistic scenarios? Unsheathed Dyneema behaves really well with flaking, and it’s quick…

Have I forgotten something?

Eric Klem

Hi John and Stein,

I have never tried throwing a bare or covered dyneema line so I don’t know how well it would work. My bigger worry would be that it would take a very good helmsperson and person slipping the line to avoid high peak loads if used as a spring. I am curious if you have ever tried using a high modulus spring and if so, how did it work? Stopping a boat that is moving even slowly needs to be done over a distance measured in many inches to keeps these peaks down. My observation is that a lot of people hit their spring line relatively hard then allow it to bounce them back so that the cycle repeats. Ideally, you have reversed just before the spring loads up to almost stop the boat and then just before the boat comes to a complete stop from the spring, you clutch in and start ramping the power so that when the boat is stopped and the spring line at max stretch, you have ramped the power to wherever you need to be. The same thing goes for when the fenders start to load, no point in bouncing off them really hard. For people with boats smaller than 40′ or so, springing off a half inch nylon line is probably fine in normal weather and that is a reasonably easy size to throw. In truth, probably the majority of time I have used a heaving line is not for a dynamic situation but rather to do something like get a line in place to warp off of or to pull a hose across from another dock. Stein, if you do make something I would be curious to hear how it works, my design has been static for 20 years and didn’t use anything cutting edge then.

To Stein’s question if there is anything else, here is what I would list for requirements:

  • Line that tends not to tangle and can be coiled in a round coil rather than a butterfly without kinking
  • ~50-75′ of length depending on the user’s abilities and in a diameter that it can all be held in a single hand when prepping the coils
  • Line that is easy to tie knots, have the knots hold and then be able to untie
  • Strength probably isn’t a big deal, 500lbs would be more than enough for most applications unless you are going to spring against it when it would be determined by boat size. A bigger consideration might be deterioration.
  • Weighted end. Sorry I don’t know exactly how much weight is ideal, maybe you could look up the weight of an arborist throw ball to get an idea. The line itself should not be heavy.
  • Reasonably soft weighted end so it doesn’t damage anything you hit and is less likely to hurt a person as sometimes you do need to throw directly over the top of someone (this is why I like dog balls so much, great weight, durable and nice and soft when tied into a monkey’s fist)

The way I started drawing the situation out in the moment was when teaching people to dock. I found a mini white board was a great way to talk through what needed to happen and why and I slowly started drawing the surroundings more and more until I realized that I was really benefitting from it so started doing it outside the teaching environment. It can also be really good for a crew briefing prior to docking. Of course, people learn differently so this isn’t for everyone.

Eric

Eric Klem

Hi John,

Interesting about the Dashews and docking with dyneema. If they can’t do it without shock loading, I doubt anyone reliably could.

I tried to think back and I don’t think that I have ever used our heaving line while docking on our handy little 36′ boat but we also keep it on a mooring and don’t spend a lot of time in marinas. On the other hand, I have used them a lot on other boats, generally starting around 60 or 70′ or a few smaller boats with very poor maneuverability. Like Rob mentioned, the first use case is always when being blown/swept off the dock. You can swing in from way far out on a spring and nail a very tight spot but it is very hard to keep parallel to the dock so roving fenders and good communication between helm and spring are critical. The only dynamic situation I have used it in on our current boat is when passing stuff between 2 boats in a swell whether it be a tow line or simply a piece of gear. To Stein’s thought, one additional requirement that could be considered if it is to be used in dynamic situations is if the line needs to be easy to cut with a knife. This is another big debate and my general feeling is that you should be consistent, if you are going to make the heaving line cuttable, then all other lines used in those situations should be too and you need to be wearing a good sheath knife at all times. I lean slightly toward the cuttable camp but I also think you should put much more effort into making sure that you will never need to cut a line. I have had to cut a few lines over the years on bigger boats but I have also seen someone lose part of a hand when it went wrong.

Eric

Rob Gill

Hi all,

Big fan too of a heaving-line with a proper rope “monkey’s fist”. Approaching a windward berth in any decent wind, it really is our “go-to” option. The key as you say is a line that lays nicely – on big ships we used three strand polyester, which was serviceable. The 4 mm double-braid we currently use is problematic. Not so much the first throw as we use a small pouch to flake the line into and we have success launching directly from the opened bag (the bitter end exits the bottom of the pouch). But readying the second throw becomes slow as the braid coils twist into each other. So I really like the idea of using Dyneema – will definitely try it.

I am not convinced about using the Dyneema heaving line as a temporary spring, especially with causal helpers ashore – too much to go wrong. And if the Dyneema was sheathed, you would lose the throwing distance advantage from having the slippery Dyneema.

But since an AAC reader posted a YouTube link with a skipper demonstrating their spring line being run with a large bight from a side cleat back to their cockpit winch, I have become a complete convert. Love the way you can quickly winch in to adjust the spring length for exactly where you will end up berthed. And finally found the perfect use for our big self-tailing electric cockpit winches that I never liked much; these really help when single-handing the spring and the boat simultaneously.

Haven’t needed a heaving line with this new spring technique yet (an extended boathook works nicely), but we will tie a bowline around the bight so the helper can hold the heaving line whilst dropping the spring (bight) over the cleat or bollard, keeping their fingers well clear.

The two coil technique also gets my vote for the second throw Eric – this was how I was taught and how our ship’s crew would rig up for a long throw (navigating officer in a previous life). There was always pressure to quickly get the first line ashore, even from far out, close enough to the linesman ashore for them to grab, but not quite deliver a black-eye. Against the wind, we would have three or four heaving-lines ready to go – so crew members falling short would not matter, except for the shore-crews’ inevitable cries of derision!

Best regards. Rob

Edward Scharf

Having been on a 378 in the USCG in the 70s as a Boatswain mate I had plenty of experience with heaving lines. They were made of 1/4 inch braded with a steel nut inside. I think 100 feet long Padded by the monkeys fist. You did not want to hit someone with them. And as John said we would throw them a long distance to get big lines to shore. Single screw and never used tugs. So much different then small boats. But I could see see a shorter one useful if a wind was blowing you off the dock and you want to get a line to the dock. Not everyone can throw a 1/2 line very far. One can also be useful if you need to get a line to another boat and you can’t get too close.
And as a raft guide I have a lot of experience with whitewater throw bags. I agree every boat should have one handy since it’s a good way to get a floating line out there. We would say make you first throw count since it went further when in the bag. But with a little water in the bag you can heave it with a split coil. Also nice to float out with a fender on the end when swimming off the boat in a current.

Daniel Gabier

Hi John,

Really enjoyed your entire book and learned much! Thought I would share a video of some great docking for your entertainment! https://youtu.be/GzjaGc2EgrI