Dock Helpers – No Help


Every time, we all hope for a pleasant docking, but it doesn’t always happen that way. Quite often, boaters depend on dock helpers when they come into a new harbor; or even their home port. Sometimes this works out okay; but, many times, it ends in disaster for the Captain’s ego. Why?

The intentions of dock helpers are good, but their level of expertise is always unknown to the Captain. The dock helper could simply be a passerby, but who knows nothing about boats; a boater who can dock his own boat, but knows nothing about the techniques required for your drive system. You could be lucky and have a dock helper, who has been trained to help boaters dock, thus knows what to do. But, how do you know when you pull up to the dock, that you can really count on this dock helper to actually help you dock?

The best solution is for you and your crew to always be in control of your boat and all your dock lines. If you do need a dock helper, explain exactly what you want them to do and how to do it; AND afterwards be sure to check their knots. Be prepared for them to screw up and do the wrong thing, sabotaging your docking plan. Most dock helpers have never been trained, so you are giving up control of your precious boat to someone who will likely not help at all.

A couple of circumstances where you may genuinely need a dock helper, are when you are coming in with one engine down, a medical emergency or in extreme weather. The rest of the time, be prepared to dock with just you and your crew. That way, you all know what to do as a team. In order for this to work, you need to learn how your boat and drive system respond to shift(s), throttle(s) and wheel, because each drive system handles differently.

Here are a few situations where the Dock Helper was No Help:

Dock Helper Knew Better


I captained a 45’ Motor Yacht (largest in the fleet pictured above) for a Manufacturer’s Dealer Meeting, taking media and dealers from around the world for short demonstration cruises on the Ottawa River.

As you can imagine, there were crowds of people on the narrow floating docks waiting their turn to board each time that we came into the dock, with not much room for those on board to get off. Our spot was the outside “T” dock in the Ottawa River, where we were dealing with a strong current and a strong wind. The manufacturer hired a dock helper to take our lines and help us dock.

My plan was to come in to the dock idling up current on our starboard side, have the dock helper tie the stern line to the dock cleat, so I could hold the boat against the dock, while my First Mate, Brenda pushed her way through the crowd to tie the bow line. The 6’ wide swim platform would allow easy passing of the stern line to the dock helper on the floating dock.

thumbs down

The first time in with the helper on the dock, Brenda placed the end of the stern line in the dock helpers hand and asked him to “tie it to the dock cleat”. However, the dock helper knew better. He said “No, I can hold it”. Brenda repeated her request to “tie it”, but the dock helper was simply doing what he had been previously taught by smaller boat owners and wasn’t about to take new instructions. This yacht, shown in the picture above, was 26,000 lbs. with twin 480 h.p. Volvo P75 TAMD EDC Direct Drives, there was a strong current and wind pushing the bow away from the dock. Can you picture the dock helper being pulled off the dock?

We aborted, pulling in the dragging line, then re-approached to repeat the procedure, but again, the dock helper would not tie the line. The third time we came in, Brenda simply and easily stepped from the platform to the dock and tied the line short, fast and tight to the dock cleat. Then, I eased the outside motor in forward idle. The boat hugged the dock, giving Brenda plenty of time to get through the waiting crowd to the bow, pick up the bow line from the side deck and tie it—as we had done many times the previous day without this dock helper.

Such a simple procedure, if the dock helper helps as requested.

Dock Helper Lost a Fender

Rod has a 34’ Twin Inboard Cruiser that he and his First Mate dock with confidence after following the lessons in “Docking Your Twin Inboard” e-Lessson.

They were able to dock very well on their own, even though they found other boaters to be very willing to help. Rod always checked the knots, after a dock helper tied any of his dock lines, retying where necessary. What he didn’t do, was also check the fender lines.

lost fender

At his last stop before crossing the bay, a dock helper had kindly adjusted a fender for the very low floating dock. That fender disappeared somewhere between that marina and his home port.

In Rod’s case, the dock helper was paid staff at the restaurant/resort. Rod expected more, you’d expect more and we’d expect more knot-tying ability from those, whose job it is to assist guests dock their boats, than you would from a casual volunteer on the dock.

The lesson for all of us is “Always check all your dock and fender lines, whenever you’ve been helped.”

Helper Ties Slippery Knot

slippery knot

Tommy was docking his mid-cabin cruiser in his slip with his crew prepared—at least he thought they were prepared.

Tom Jr. with stern dock line in hand was eager to get the line around the dock cleat as they came into the slip. Unexpectedly, he gave the line to a dock helper thinking he was doing the right thing.

The dock helper, an impressive looking older gentleman, just looped the line around the dock cleat, then ambled along the dock towards the bow. However, as the boat moved further forward into the slip to its final resting place, the stern line slid around the first dock cleat following the boat. The boat wasn’t secure at all.

Needless to say, Tommy now had no anticipated control in the slip with no tied stern line to pull against; thus his docking plan had to be aborted.

Dock Line Slipped Off Cleat Horn

Dan’s boat slowly and smoothly slid into his slip alongside the dock, as it always does. He and his First Mate had perfected their docking technique and could count on each other to do the right thing.

However, one day his First Mate wasn’t with him, so he let a dock helper take the stern line.

Dan edged his boat into the slip, threw the stern line to the dock helper and asked him to tie it to the dock cleat, and when he got the “thumbs up”, Dan continued into the slip planning to pull against the Stern FLIPP Line to bring in the bow, but it didn’t happen. His docking turned into a disaster.

The dock helper didn’t tie the FLIPP Line to the dock cleat. He only looped the line around the far horn of the cleat. As Dan moved further and further into the slip, the far horn became the near horn then the line simply slipped off the cleat horn. The boat wasn’t secure at all. When Dan put the boat in forward to swing the bow towards the dock, the stern pulled away from the dock toward his slip neighbor. The docking turned into a frenzy to keep from hitting the slip neighbor.

Here’s a detailed explanation of what happened

Dan’s slip is longer than his boat.

When his dock helper said the boat was secure, Dan assumed it was tied.

He was trying to pull against the stern line to bring his bow to the dock against the wind, as per the procedure he and his First Mate had perfected.

slip off horn 1

 The boat’s stern cleat is approaching from the left to the right.

The dock helper hooks the stern dock line underneath the “far horn”, which is actually the “near horn”, once the boat’s transom passes this cleat.

slip off horn 2

 As the boat’s transom passes this cleat, the dock line slips off the horn. (now the near horn)

slip off horn 3

 As the boat proceeds deeper into the slip,the dock line is off the  cleat  and the boat is not secure and continues deeper into the slip.

The dock helper should have wrapped the stern dock line counter-clockwise around this cleat to prevent the line from slipping off the horn.

Never Give Control to Dock Helpers

dock helper

Way too many boaters expect dock helpers to take their lines to help them dock their boats. We see it every day. Some days two or three well-intentioned dock helpers are shouting differing instructions, only confusing the Captain even more.

One of the duties of the Captain is to always be in control of his boat, including while docking. The Captain should have a docking plan, share it with his First Mate and/or Crew and be prepared to dock—without dock helpers.

Neither the Captain nor the First Mate should give up control to dock helpers by throwing lines to them then expecting the helper to dock the boat. When dock helpers are involved, it usually results in disaster as outlined in these four screwed-up docking situations.

If you must have help docking, be sure to communicate clearly to the dock helper exactly what you want done and make sure he/she understands. Still, be prepared for anything. With unrequested yet eager helpers, relegate their job to something un-crucial, like an extra spring line or the amidships rail or something else simple that doesn’t matter as much.

Never, ever should your First Mate give them your critical FLIPP Line i.e. your main docking line. You both need to keep control.

captain hat
First mate hat

In most docking situations, there’s only two people involved—The Captain and the First Mate. There is no crew and usually no dock helpers/hands.

You and your First Mate are the only two people, who you can really count on to execute your docking plan, without screwing it up.

Docking simply and safely, is what it’s all about.

NEVER relinquish control to a dock helper.
As Captain, you must always maintain control of your boat.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap