I spend a lot of time in marinas and around docks, and I’m often surprised at how few people seem to have any method or system of tying their boats up.
It seems that often the skipper pilots the boat into the slip and people leap over the side, grab lines and just randomly tie them in any way they can. Hopefully someone thought to put out fenders.
The skipper can often hold the boat to the dock with thrusters and the main engine(s) but often he or she just stands there watching (and sometimes screaming). These folks have plenty of skills and are certainly trying to do it as well as they can. What these people are lacking is a METHOD. They need a system that works every time, something that can be tweaked just slightly as conditions change but gets you to the dock safely, without the screaming (or any damage to the neighboring vessels).
The method I’d like to suggest I call the Spring Line Docking Method. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not the only way, and there are as many ways as there are mariners. I’d just like offer this to those who don’t have a method or aren’t very confident in their docking skills. On the M/V David B we use this almost every time we dock, and that regularity is a big part of why it cuts the stress of docking.
This method uses the spring line and the engine together to help get the boat to the dock and hold it there. Then you and your crew can easily tie up the rest of the lines. Using the main engine to gently push the boat ahead, and a spring line leading aft, will suck the boat right up to the dock and hold it in place so that there is no rush.
The six steps to do this are pretty simple:
Rig an aft-leading spring line
Rig a spring line from a cleat that’s about halfway back from the bow. Make it as long as you can. (On small boats it sometimes has to be secured at the bow, but the middle almost always works better.) This line is going to end up as the aft-leading spring — the line that starts on the boat and goes aft to the dock.
The deckhand steps off with the spring
As you approach the dock, a deckhand needs to step off with the end of your aft-leading spring. On power boats with a swim step, that’s a good place to step off from; on sailboats, it’s often from about amidships. The deckhand makes the line secure to a cleat or ties it around the rail on the dock. It’s super helpful at this point if the dockhand calls out, “Spring’s on.”
Gently move forward until the spring is tight
Here’s the critical part: gently use the engine to move the boat forward until the spring is tight. REALLY GENTLY! It’s not uncommon to have to put it in gear and out of gear to just “bump” it ahead until the spring is tight. Little tiny bumps of power, in gear, then out, until the spring is tight. I like to think of it as “leaning” on the line. Remember — really gently.
Engage the engine
Engage the engine in AHEAD with it running as slowly as possible. I can’t emphasize the slowness enough. Never go above just idling in gear.
Use the rudder to keep the boat straight
You’ll need to use some rudder to make the boat stay straight in the slip. On flat-sided power boats, turning it hard over away from the dock often works best. On sailboats, it usually takes less rudder.
Keep the engine engaged
This will gently bring you up against your fenders and hold you there. Now you can tie the rest of the lines with the boat held in place by the spring line/engine-in-ahead combo.
That’s it. It’s that simple. There are, of course, all kinds of variations based on the conditions and the dock, but that’s really the basis of the whole system.
Practice it at the dock beforehand
While you’re in your slip with the engine running, have someone take all your lines off except the aft-leading spring line. Try putting it in gear and watching the spring line pull you up to the dock.
See how much rudder it takes (usually a lot). See how much power it takes (usually not very much). Take it out of gear, wait a couple of seconds, then see if you can gently ease the boat forward using the engine until the line is tight again.
If you can, take it out of gear and let it drift away from the dock. Then see if you can get the spring line tight again.
You really want to practice at the dock to know how little power it takes, how much rudder, how long to make the spring line, the best place to jump off from and other variables, but once you have those things down, the whole thing is a snap.
Variations and some notes
We often use the procedure in the opposite order as we leave the dock — power ahead on the spring line, take the rest of the lines off, take it out of gear, untie the spring, back out of the slip.
At docks with correctly placed cleats, we sometimes throw a loop of the spring line over the cleat, and that way no one even has to jump to the dock.
I’ve even seen a case where it was really windy, blowing off the dock, and a skipper was able to get a deckhand onto the dock with a really long spring and used this method to get the boat up against the pier. It was ugly but it worked, and it was super slow motion, so it was really safe.
On a vessel with two (or more) main engines, you’ll want to use the one on the side you’re docking on for the whole procedure.
Be super careful on old rickety docks and docks with weak cleats or rails. Sometimes you can only power ahead in little “bumps” or sometimes not at all. If your boat idles with lots of power, this method might not work for you.
Make sure there is enough room ahead of you for this method to work; it’d be embarrassing to hit the front of your slip before the spring was tight.
This may not work at all in some boats. You’ll have to experiment with yours.
There are a lot of ways to come to the dock. If you’d like a simple, safe way, this might be worth a try.