It’s a very, very, rare occasion that requires surging the throttle back and forth from low to high to low to high to … (I’m sure you get the idea.) Sadly, you see it all of the time. For example, while pulling into a slip, too much throttle is applied in reverse bringing the boat to a stop with only a third of the boat in the slip. To correct, a burst of throttle in forward gets the boat moving again, only to realize things are going too fast and a burst of throttle in reverse is needed to get the boat to a stop! Wouldn’t it be much easier to know how much throttle is required to smoothly bring that particular boat to a stop in a specified distance from a given speed? Here are some great practice exercises to help you gain the transmission and throttle control to make docking appear effortless.
Following the rule of always learning new skills in the safely of open water, the first exercise uses the practice buoys set up inside Marina Bay. At a speed you would use to approach a slip during docking, set up on a course to pass five to ten feet away from the buoy. When you are about a boat length away from the buoy, shift into reverse, leaving the throttle at idle. Now sit back and see how far it takes to bring the boat to a stop. The goal is to stop with the buoy directly beside you and the helmsperson. If you stop too soon, try shifting a little later the next time. If you slid past the buoy, a bit of throttle or an earlier shift to reverse should help. By using an object in the water, you are much more likely to be able to tell when the boat reaches that point of being fully stopped and not yet beginning to back up.
Once comfortable bringing the boat to a smooth stop in open water, move to a side tie. The “D Dock” pump out station is a perfect spot. Again establish a good fairway speed. Set yourself up to travel parallel to and five or ten feet off the dock, and try to stop directly beside pre-chosen spot on the dock, such as the second cleat. Do this exercise on the leeward side of the dock and the wind will help you depart so you can come around and try it again.
Move back out to the practice buoy. Pretend it’s the end of a dock finger. Set up on a course to pass the buoy 25 or 30 feet away (about the distance from the dock in a normal fairway approach to a slip). Make a 90 degree turn “into the slip” represented by the buoy, and smoothly bring the boat to a stop with the transom directly beside the buoy. If you have been making your turns into an upwind “slip,” try several times approaching from the other side, turning into a “downwind slip”. When you feel you have it nailed, transition to the same maneuver down a fairway and into a real slip.
Once you are feeling good about your skills, repeat all of the above while operating astern propulsion … that’s boat talk for backing up.
Try different variables … e.g. different boat speeds and/or wind conditions. Practice and experimentation will show you the best combination of shift timing and throttle control to smoothly dock in any set of conditions. No more transmission crunching, jerky, hair raising revs of the motor!
Note from Matt: Speed control is critical and covered very well by Don in this article. Here’s another tip to help you with that perfect docking when you return: Before removing any lines from the boat, while it is resting in it’s slip, get a point of reference for your return. Is the cleat on the dock lined up directly with a stanchion, a boat cleat, or a bimini frame? Getting this reference point before you leave will help you when you return, so that you know exactly where to stop the boat in the slip. Object to your side are much easier to see and use as references than points out in front of the boat.