Safe Boat Handling

Safe Docking

At Tradewinds, we like to stress handling lines from the boat, not the dock, whenever possible. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn how to properly step on and off a boat because not all line handling can be performed from the boat. Because of the discussion this topic always seems to generate with our instructors and members, we thought we’d address this topic as a Skipper’s Tip and share our official policy on the matter.

Can you dock a boat with one mid-ship spring line and some good helmsman-ship on the downwind side of a dock in 30 knots of wind – ALL from the boat? Yes, you can! Does everyone have the water-time and polished skill set to accomplish this on the first try? Absolutely not! Even for experienced skippers with experienced crew, this can be a challenge when it isn’t something you practice every day, and may take more than one pass. Would it be easier to cruise in and have your crew step off properly and grab a cleat so that you don’t miss? Definitely… but in our years of operating a sailing school, we’ve seen 3 broken ankles. None of them happened while people were handling lines from the boat.

At times, you will run into a situation where you have no choice. We can recall docking in a 30 knot cross-wind in a beat-up marina that had no cleats, only rings on the dock. In this case, you still have to be close to perfect at the helm AND you must safely put some crew on the dock to get you secured.

So what’s the bottom line? As a skipper, you should have all of the tools available to you. Learn how to handle lines from the boat and teach your regular crew how as well. Learn how to properly step off a boat in as safe a manner as possible and be able to train your crew the same way. Learn to lasso cleats from 10′ away and learn to use the boat hook to hook a line on the cleat. Most importantly, work on your boat-handling skills so that the line handling is easy for the crew! Here are a couple of tips that will help you practice:

  1. During any docking maneuver, there should be a point where the boat is at a complete standstill – between the point where you are approaching the dock and the point that it’s going to be swept away by current or wind. This is when a line should be applied to a cleat by the crew. All of the slack should then be taken out of the line before the boat is put back in gear. The lines should never be used to stop the boat (except sailing into slips in an emergency and even then only as a backup to proper speed control). If you love water like we do, you’ll also enjoy an affordable boat, check out this list of inflatable boats where you can choose the one you like the most.
  2. Once the line is on a cleat and the slack removed, power can be applied to maneuver the boat into position. Power should be the minimum needed for the maneuver and crew should be warned exactly how much it will be and whether it will be safe to hold the end of the line or whether it needs to be re-cleated back on the boat.
  3. The same rules apply when using spring lines to maneuver clear of the dock. Determine how much force you will be using and warn the crew appropriately. Never leave slack in a line before you apply power – only taut lines should be used to re-direct the engine force into leverage in the desired direction.
  4. If you are in a situation where the decision is to put crew on the dock to handle lines, make sure that there is a point in time when the boat is completely stopped next to the dock. When making the final approach, always scan the dock for any obstacles and discuss them before anyone steps off. Cleats, faucets, and seashells & wet surfaces can cause a trip or a slip.

What’s our official policy? The skipper should know what tools are available to him or her and judge based on the boat, the crew, and the conditions which tools to use. They should be properly trained to step on and off the boat the right way and properly trained to handle lines from the boat. We prefer to see the lines handled from the boat whenever possible, but we understand that in some cases it’s not the most comfortable or safe way to solve the problem at hand.

If you are headed to the pump-out dock or to your slip and we are available, we are happy to come down and give you some docking tips if it helps you to learn our favorite line-handling techniques. Just give us a call with a few minutes warning and if we are available, we’ll be there.

Be safe, keep your crew safe, and practice enough to take the stress out of the equation!

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