Watch this video to learn dockline handling’s key techniques and concepts; become invaluable to your skipper when pulling into the dock.
This video that doesn’t allow embedding shows you why you should never sacrifice yourself to save the boat: the boat will be OK!
Docking is very challenging and can take a skipper a long time to master.
Dock line handling is simpler; we’ll teach you the key techniques and concepts so that you’re a skippers best friend when pulling into the dock!
We’ve got a lot to cover so let’s jump right in!
This video breaks those techniques and concepts down into 6 sections so you can be an effective line handler the next time you step aboard
The dock line handler’s job has four distinct phases. First you prepare the boat as instructed by the skipper. You can fill in the gaps with your own knowledge but if you’re unsure about anything ask for clarification.
Once the boat has been prepared the skipper will assign jobs and positions for docking. Your responsibility is to make sure that you understand your job and are prepared to do it as instructed. Again, if you are unsure about anything ask for clarification.
The third phase is the act of docking; the skipper brings the boat alongside and the line handlers secure the boat to the dock. Usually the skipper will only require one line combined with the wind, throttle and rudder controls to make the boat fast to the dock.
The fourth and final phase is cleanup. The remaining dock lines will be tied on. The fenders and dock lines will be adjusted so the boat is tied on properly and the skipper can turn of the engine.
All four phases are important to drama free docking; if you skimp on preparation or understand your job phase three is sure to be stressful.
The two main tools you’ll use for docking are the cleat hitch and bowline.
We’ll start with the cleat hitch. We’re going to assume you understand the basics of a cleat hitch; instead we’re going to demonstrate some of the finer points of cleat hitches that are important for busy, heavily loaded dock lines and cleat horns.
People often make the mistake of starting their wrap on the near end of the cleat horn. It’s important to make sure that the wrap is at least a 270 degree turn. That means that you start your cleat wrap on the far end of the cleat horn which gives you at least 90 degrees. Then you wrap all the way around the opposite horn giving you 270 degrees. Then you start your cross. If the line is coming in perpendicular to the cleat either end will do as long as your wrap is at least 270 degrees.
More than 360 degrees is a problem as well.
In preparation for docking I always use bowlines to secure the dock lines to the boat. The bowline is just a standard bowline tied through the horn, not around it so that it can’t slip free. Bigger bowlines are better because they keep the horn free and easier to use for cleats later.
If you double two lines back to the same cleat horn using four cleat hitches you’re going to have a large tangle of lines. It’s much easier and tidier if you start the doubled back lines with bowlines and finish them with cleats.
Dockline nomenclature is very explicit: every line used for docking has a specific name. Knowing each line by name will make you much more valuable coming alongside.
The name of each line starts with where the line begins from aboard the boat. There are stern lines, mid-ship lines and bow lines.
The direction in which the line heads to the dock makes up the second half of it’s name. A “line” simply goes directly from the boat to the dock. A “spring” line is led to the dock either forward or aft of where it is tied to the boat. The direction the line is lead to the dock finishes up it’s name.
We’ve been showing a mid ship line. This is a midship spring forward. This is a midship spring aft. Now you try.
This is a bow line. Cleats won’t always be directly across from dock lines; roughly speaking a line isn’t a spring until it exceeds and angle of 45 degrees; generally the further forward or aft the spring the better.
As you prepare for docking the skipper will tell you which lines you’ll need to tie where. You attach the lines using bowlines the skipper says otherwise.
Make sure the dock lines are run OVER the lifelines. This way they can be heaved overboard or carried ashore without fouling the lifelines and possibly damaging the lifelines or the stanchions.
Picture picking up the line you’ve tied on and handing it ashore; if it would be wrapped around anything or foul on anything try to re-tie it a way that it’s almost certainly going to pay out cleanly.
Another thing to keep in mind while staging lines and as lines go ashore is keep keep the dock lines OUT OF THE WATER and clear of the PROP
Next you get the dock lines ready to go ashore. Any line you’re going to throw or step ashore with should be coiled up cleanly. Secondary lines should be setup so they’re accessible from the dock. One handy way to make lines easy to reach from the dock, especially bow lines, is to drape them over the lifelines. Then even when the bow is more than arms length from the dock your line handlers can easily reach the line from the dock.
The last, often forgotten, preparation before pulling alongside the dock is to open the gate.
Take a moment to consider how much we’ve already discussed. This doesn’t include your skippers instructions for how this specific docking should be performed. There is a lot to keep straight; this is why experienced dock line handlers are invaluable to their skipper.
You’ll work as a team to dock the boat; your skipper will explain the process and steps to dock successfully. Trust the skippers judgement and follow their instructions.
When the boat is alongside the dock and you’re standing there with a line in your hands and a cleat at your feet you have a lot of power; using that cleat you can take control of the boat from the skipper. This can really throw things off.
Don’t deviate from the skippers instructions. The only time you should stop the boat using a dock line is the skipper tells you to or a collision is imminent. When the skipper stops the boat they chose the moment they lose control of the boat. When you stop the boat using a line you take control from the skipper when they might least expect it.
The most important thing to remember about collisions is NEVER get your body involved in a collision. A minor collision, one that might not even leave a mark on the dock or the boat, is more than enough force to break bones or cause deep lacerations. The boat will be OK but you could be seriously injured; if it seems like a risk don’t take it.
Now that I’ve properly emphasized not to unexpectedly take control of the boat using your dock line and follow your skippers instructions here are a few powerful tools for controlling the boat using the dock lines.
Holding a line is not very powerful when you’re trying to control a boat. When you skipper asks you to hold a line in your hands it is intentional. Conversely, if the skipper tells you to cleat a line don’t try and hold it by hand. When you use a cleat as a force multiplier then you can manipulate the boat easily. Even half a wrap is very powerful.
Your first wrap is very powerful. A 270 degree wrap can definitely stop a boat. When you add the cross to the 270 degree wrap you’ve got more stopping power than can be overcome by full throttle. This can be considered made.
When a line is secured to a cleat say or yell “made” loudly enough so you’re sure the skipper heard you. Remember it can be noisy at the helm near the engine.
Now let’s talk adjusting a dock line using a cleat: sweating a line and surging a line.
To adjust a line on a cleat you’ll want to untie as little of the cleat as necessary. You’ll always have to untie the finishing hitch. You’ll rarely remove the 270 degree wrap. The cross is the variable; sometimes it will keep you from easily adjusting the line so you’ll remove the cross while other times it will make your job easier and you’ll leave the cross in place.
Always pull perpendicularly to the line, as if you were drawing a bow string. Many boats I sail on sweat their halyards to haul their sails up without using a winch.
Easing a line is the opposite of sweating a line. Again only untie as much off the cleat as is necessary. Surging a line is easing a line where you push and pull the line through a partial cleat hitch. You use surging when a line wouldn’t go through otherwise; it let’s you keep the line more secure on the cleat while still easing the line. Make sure you push and pull as you surge a line; starting the push a split second before the pull for best results.
As a review let’s discuss the process of leaving the dock. The last dock line that will be untied is usually doubled back to the boat so it can be untied from aboard. Then you remove all but that single doubled back dock line as instructed by the skipper. You release the final doubled back line as the skipper pulls the boat away from the dock. Once you’re clear of the dock you stow the dock lines and fenders
That was a lot of material; you deserve a cheat sheet for making it to the end. Always run the dock lines so they don’t foul the lifelines or the boat. Use cleats and dock lines judiciously and as instructed; don’t take control of the boat from the skipper unless a collision is imminent. Use sweating and surging to multiply your strength when adjusting the boat using dock lines under load. Keep the lines out of the water and out of the prop.
As a skipper I’d like to thank you for watching this whole video; I really appreciate crew putting time into making docking go more smoothly. So thank you. What I suggest my crew do as they’re learning is go back through this material shortly before they go out from a dock and then review it again afterward. This helps them retain the material because it adds “doing” to “hearing” and “seeing”.
As long as this video is I actually cut out a lot to keep it this short. Part II will include more dock line techniques that I hope you’ll find useful. If it’s not linked here then it’s not done yet; subscribe and you’ll see it once it’s posted. I’ll be sharing more instructional material on this channel and at savvysalt.com – if you found this video useful have a look around and hopefully you’ll find more material that helps you grow as a sailor.
See you out there!