Learn how to dock a boat with this step-by-step guide
Very few things can get a boater’s heart pumping faster than a tricky docking situation. On a good day, docking a boat is relatively easy: You just pull into slip, tie off a couple lines, and get on with your day.
But experienced boaters know that things can go sideways—and fast—when it comes time to dock (most boats have a few dings and scratches to prove it—mine included).
So, it’s important to learn the basics of how to dock your boat properly. Here’s what you need to know.
Boat slips vs. boat docks
First things first: Let’s talk about the two most common types of docks you might encounter during your aquatic adventures.
- Slip: A boat slip is like a designated parking space on the water. When docking your boat in a slip, you’ll secure your vessel by tying off on both sides of the dock.
- Dock: A boat dock or end tie slip is usually T-shaped and only requires that you tie off on one side of the boat (the one that’s facing the dock, not the water).
Knots to know
Once you’ve safely arrived in a slip or beside a dock, you need to be prepared to tie off.
A cleat hitch is the most used knot in docking, so be sure to master it if you haven’t done so already. It might also be useful to learn a clove hitch if you’re planning to tie off on a post or piling.
Be aware of your surroundings
Here’s what to look out for as you approach a dock.
- Weather: It’s especially important to pay close attention to wind, fog, or rain when you’re preparing to dock. Is the wind pushing your boat? Can you see the dock clearly? Accounting for the way weather might interact with your ability to steer or see is essential for boating safety.
- Tides: Is there a strong current pushing against your boat? Will a lower tide impact your ability to approach the dock? You may need to alter your course or approach to account for a lower water level or tidal push.
- Other boats: It’s always important to be aware of other boats on the water and in the harbor. Be sure to give everyone plenty of space to avoid close calls.
- Visibility: What can you see from your steering station? And what can’t you see? If you know you have a blind spot, ask a passenger to be your eyes and ears.
- Audibility: Can you hear other passengers giving directions? What about people on the dock who might need to communicate with you? Be sure to keep unnecessary noise to a minimum while you’re docking. The fewer distractions, the better.
Take extra safety precautions
Most of the time, your docking experience will be smooth sailing, but it never hurts to take extra precautions—just in case.
- Drop your fenders: Be sure your fenders are in place before you approach the dock. Ideally, you won’t be bumping into anything, but if you do (it happens to all of us), you’ll be glad they were down.
- Consider a roaming fender: If you have an extra fender laying around, it never hurts to ask one of your guests to hold onto it. If things go sideways, they can drop it in between your boat and whatever it’s about to bump into.
- Communicate: If you have another person on board, ask them to call out distances from your boat to the dock. This will help you to better gauge your approach and make adjustments if needed. If you’re docking solo, don’t be afraid to radio into the dock for assistance. Fellow boaters are always happy to help!
- Have your lines ready: Be sure to have your lines ready to go before you begin your approach. Double check that they’re secured to the boat and ready to throw or grab as soon as you’re close enough.
Tips for safely docking your boat
Every approach will be a little different, depending on the boat, the dock, and the conditions. But here are some best practices to keep in mind.
- Line up your approach: Position your boat so that you can pull straight into the slip or alongside the dock. Don’t try to come in from an angle.
- Take it slow and steady: Once you’ve lined up your approach, pull in slowly and gently. As a general rule, you should never pull into a dock any faster than you’d be willing to hit it.
- Don’t force it: If you get blown or pulled off course, don’t be afraid to back off and try again. Starting the process over is better than hitting the dock (or worse, another boat).
- Take your time: It can be tempting to rush—especially when other people are watching. But, trust me on this: bailing on an approach 100 times is less embarrassing (and less costly) than botching an approach one time. If it’s not right, just back out and reset.
Docking a boat can sometimes be intimidating (even for seasoned boaters), but you’ll get more comfortable the more often you practice. You’ll be a pro in no time!