One Boat Docking Instruction Doesn’t Fit All Boats

help-boatAll those boaters who need dock helpers to dock their boats, might as well put a big flashing neon billboard on the roof.

“I can’t dock my boat. Help!”

They are snickered at by boaters who have learned how.

People who have taken lessons and learned to do something well, can easily spot those who have not—whether it is golf, tennis, dancing, computering, skiing, swimming, cards, etc.

Docking is no different. Boaters who have learned how to dock their boats can easily identify boaters who need lessons.

You will be pleased to know…..“It’s not your fault!”

Boat Manufacturers haven’t provided any handling or docking instructions with the boat and only a few marinas spend time with buyers teaching them how to handle and dock their boats. They tend to concentrate on electronics and other systems. Power and Sail Squadrons only touch on docking in the classroom but don’t cover different drive systems in any detail. There are only a few on-the-water instructors so finding one is very difficult.

Almost all internet docking lessons and some books are not correct and are very misleading because they are regurgitations of the original Single Inboard lessons written for boats of the 30’s and 40’s—not today’s power boats. They make too many assumptions and usually eliminate any wind or current that, as we all know, is more the norm than flat calm with no wind.

We found yet another lesson posted on the internet by a Captain who has made the assumption that it will “work for all boats no matter their size“.

The Scenerio is much the same as our last docking article “Docking at a Fuel Dock Against the Wind”. (Only one boater, Paul, emailed us a procedure that would work well. The rest made suggested approaches that wouldn’t work very well at all and made a lot of assumptions.)

In this Captain’s scenerio, two large boats are docked against a fuel dock. You are going to tie between them alongside the dock with only a foot on each end to spare. To dock your boat under complete control, the steps given by this Captain are:


  1. Aim for a spot aft of the forward boat equal to 1/3 your overall length (including projections like bowsprit or anchor).
  2. Point your bow toward this point. Once your bow arrives at this point, pass the long after bow spring around an aft piling.
  3. Steer hard away from the dock.
  4. Shift into idle ahead and use minimum throttle (except in heavy wind or current.
  5. Watch the stern. Keep an eye on the bow.
  6. Pass over the rest of the lines when done.

The Captain is using an after bow spring line to act as a brake and a docking aid to bring the boat alongside the dock. However, he made, but failed to mention, the following critical assumptions:

  • That all boats have side decks and flat foredecks with handrails and/or life lines. (But really, most power boats under 30′ have neither.)
  • That you have a crew as well as a First Mate on the forward deck to handle the line and roving fender in two different places. (But, in most docking situations, there is only two people—you and your First Mate)
  • That you have knowledgeable dock helpers who know what to do. (But, most dock helpers don’t know what to do, especially when you are visiting a new marina.)
  • That you have no wind or current. (But this is not the norm.)
  • That your First Mate calculates the exact length of after bow spring line to prevent collisions. (But in this case, each end is too close to call when the boat is still moving while the line has to be tied.)
  • That the dock is a convenient height relative to the deck height. (But in reality, boats have varying heights of decks and soles from ski boats to motor yachts and docks are also varying heights.)
  • That the dock cleat/piling is close enough to “pass the after bow spring line around an aft piling” on the first attempt. (However, depending on the size of the boat coming in at 45 degrees, the aft piling could be a long distance out, around and back from the First Mate’s position.)

Step 1 requires a calculation to determine the aim point – All Captains should be able to do this regardless of the size of their boat. All boats can do Step 2 – Approach at 45 degrees toward the aim point.

While this could work for some boats under certain conditions, it will NOT work for all boats. 45 degrees is too great an angle for most boats.

cowgirl-lassoThe instructions fail at Step 3 – “Pass the after bow spring around an aft piling.” When the boat is approaching the dock at approximately 45 degrees as shown by this Captain, the First Mate would have to be related to Roy Rogers to be able to lasso the dock cleat/piling with the middle of the after bow spring from several feet away, then attach the bitter end back to the bow cleat with the exact amount of slack to prevent the bow or stern from hitting the boat ahead or behind with only 1′ of space.

Provided Dale Evans, the First Mate was able to accomplish all of the above on the first try (she probably wouldn’t have a second try), it would depend on the drive system and boat configuration as to which instructions to follow next. Each drive system requires different docking techniques. See “Why docking a power boat is difficult”.


This procedure would work for some sailboats that are the right deck height for the dock height, with a safety cable and enough knowledgeable crew and/or dock helpers to carry out this maneuver. Add a little wind and the situation is a little more challenging. There are easier ways to dock a Sailboat.

Single Inboard Power

If you are bringing in a Single Inboard power boat, you would dock on your favored side; i.e. determined by your torque. If your torque requires a starboard docking, this wouldn’t work for you. It would require instead, a “beyond and back” procedure first.

For Single Inboard ski boats, it is difficult to attach a long bow line when you are not already at a dock. It is not convenient or safe to step off from amidships with an after bow spring because of the windshield and seating on ski boats and the distance in this scenario.

For a Single Inboard cruiser with side decks, the bow line can easily be attached to the bow cleat but the side deck may be too high and far away from a floating dock for your First Mate to “pass the line around an aft piling”.

Different Single Inboard power boats require different techniques depending on size and configuration. There are easier and safer ways to dock a Single Inboard power boat in this scenario.

Single Outboard or Sterndrive

Most Single Outboards or Sterndrives are bowriders or centre consoles that have easy access to the bow for attaching an after bow spring line.

Single Outboards and Sterndrives that are cruisers most often have no side decks and either a sloped or small forward deck for the First Mate to stand on to carry out this maneuver. Quite often, they have no or low rails so there is no handhold.

Following this Captains docking instructions could be very unsafe for the First Mate. There are far easier and safer ways to dock a Single Outboard and to dock a Single Sterndrive.

Twin Outboard or Sterndrive

Provided a Twin Outboard or Sterndrive has a flat forward deck and side deck (some don’t) and bow and side rails (some don’t) the First Mate would have to toss the after bow spring line up to 12′ while approaching the aim point on a 45 degree angle and be successful the first time. Even if she were successful, putting the motor in forward could pull the bow in and stern out if the line isn’t exact because of the shape of the hull.

There are far better ways to maintain total control in a Twin Outboard or Sterndrive. The Captain’s instructions here wouldn’t be a choice for docking a Twin Outboard or docking a Twin Sterndrive.

Twin Inboard

On a Twin Inboard, the deck is usually far too high from the dock for the First Mate to even attempt this procedure. The increased beam of most Twin Inboard Cruisers, Motor Yachts and Trawlers puts the bow cleat much further away from the dock increasing the leverage and, therefore, the likelihood of the bow spring line of pulling the bow into the dock thus forcing the stern away from the dock.

This is the most difficult way to dock a Twin Inboard power boat. There are much better, simpler and safer ways.


Docking a houseboat in this scenario with an after bow spring line would be unwise because the First Mate is down the port side deck out of sight and hearing of the Captain. If she falls overboard attempting this lasso maneuver, he’d never know. It also depends on the Drive System of the houseboat as to which technique to use.

There are far better and safer ways to dock a Houseboat in this scenario.


Different drive systems require Different instructions
because they handle Differently!

Following instructions like this Captain has posted on the internet is “Why power boat docking is difficult“. You can’t use one instruction that suits all boats.

Why waste time, effort and money, become frustrated and maybe even lose your First Mate in the process? Invest a little time to find docking instructions specific to your drive system. Learn together with your First Mate and avoid wasted time, effort, money and frustration, and keep your First Mate happy and aboard for happy boating in the future.

Don’t become the one snickered at. Be the one who can dock confidently and easily and spot those who still haven’t had any docking lessons.

captain-confidenceDawson’s Docking e-Lessons are specific to each drive system with step-by-step detailed instructions with pictures and diagrams and simple, proven techniques. 

Simplify docking.

Replace the fear with fun.

Become Captain Confidence!

Doug Dawson


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap