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The Tricky Art of Rafting - Safely

by Swayne Hill, Middle Harbour Yacht Club on 21 Apr 2006
Raft up . .
Most cruisers' on-water events are as much social as practical, and rafting up to a moored yacht is something we do regularly. While our more senior yachties can make this look like a trivial exercise, I expect I'm not alone in feeling a little anxious until I have a glass of wine in my hand with all lines safely secured to the raft.

With practice, rafting will quickly become second nature to you and your crew. However, as with learning any new skill, you first need to become 'consciously competent' or develop an awareness and understanding of the process.

Before looking at the process in detail, it’s useful to consider situations where you may not want to raft-up. These may also be conditions where you should expect to have 'permission to come along side' denied for safety reasons.

Consider not rafting when…

Wind and swell opposing each other at right angles. We’ve encountered this several times – a light southerly breeze, say, holding the raft broadside to an otherwise benign northeasterly swell. It’s amazing the discomfort this causes with all the pulling, jerking and potential rigging issues. It’s hard on yachts and people and best avoided.

An additional yacht on the raft would create swing-room issues with other yachts or shallow water. It’s just simple geometry but worth mentioning. If you think your boat (or the one tying up to you) will not clear other yachts at anchor as the wind shifts or the tide changes, you my want to anchor off. The same consideration should be given to proximity with shoreline (or shallow water).

Forecasted high winds (30+). High winds alone may not be an issue, depending on the location of the raft, but the concern is with dragging anchor.

Remember, the forces applied to the ground tackle will increase exponentially with the wind. When in doubt, increase the scope and set additional anchors well ahead of time.

Communication

Good communication with your crew (even if it’s just two of you) and with the host vessel, will insure everyone shares the same information. This is probably the single most important factor in reducing crew stress.

Brief the crew on the preparation, strategy and their jobs. If everyone has a job to do, they will feel some sense of control over the situation. It’s more rewarding to have the crew feeling productive and well-informed than fearful and anxious.

Contact the host vessel on VHF when approaching; if unsuccessful with the radio, motor past the host vessel close enough for a brief verbal exchange.

This is an important courtesy but it’s also practical.

You’ll need…

Permission to come along side – and always be prepared for permission to be denied for safety or comfort sake

The preferred side for tying up, there could be reasons you are yet unaware of for the host’s preferred

To confirm that you have lines and fenders ready. It is your responsibility as the guest to supply all lines. In our experience four fenders is not too many.

Preparation

Note the expected effects of wind and tide. In our part of the world, unless the air is dead calm, tidal effects will usually be over-powered by the effect of wind on your (and the host’s) vessel. You’ll know what to expect from your own boat but observe your host’s. Is it held steady bow-to-wind? Or, does it tend to fish-tail in the gusts? This is different than approaching a dock which usually to stays put.

Mooring lines ready. This can be done after you’ve made contact with the host vessel You’ll need four lines to secure a raft: bow, stern, forward spring and aft spring. Most people however use two lines which are at least 1.5 times the length of your boat. And once you’ve received permission to come alongside with a 'starboard-to' or 'port-to' request, secure the eye end of your lines to the bow and stern cleats respectively –more on this technique later.

Fenders on deck ready to deploy to the appropriate side of the boat. Pay attention to the height of the host vessel’s deck relative to yours. Again, it’s not a dock and you won’t always have the fenders in the same position. If the host vessel has a higher freeboard, set your fenders so that there is plenty showing above the deck. If you have the higher freeboard, set fenders so that the top of the fender is even with your deck. Remember to cover the widest part of the boat and have a floating fender ready (unsecured) just in case. It is useful to have a fender that is not tied to a stanchion so that it can be slipped into the correct position by sliding it along the lifeline as you tie up.


Strategy

The basis of any sound strategy is minimising reasonable risk and developing a planed response to change. Much of the risk will be minimised by good preparation and communication but additional risks will be avoided by asking yourself some key questions. Remember, your goal isn’t to eliminate risk; rather to reduce reasonably foreseeable risks and have an exit strategy – a plan 'B'.

Questions to ask...

Is the side I’m expected to tie up tending to be windward or leeward of the host vessel? If windward, you’ll want to slowly approach the host vessel in parallel leaving appropriate room for drift. If leeward, you’ll need a little more power and you’ll want to approach with the bow in a little tighter until it gets under the lee of the host vessel.

If drifting (approaching the host vessel) too fast, is your plan to motor astern or ahead and which will minimize the potential for unintended contact?

Speed is bad. Always use as little power as is required by the situation for you to retain control. If you need to abort, take care not to turn too quickly as you add power. If you’re pulling out forward take care that the stern clears the host vessel; if going astern, watch the bow.

How many people will be assisting from the host vessel and how experienced?

Will you focus only on driving the boat or will you have to assist with the lines as well? And at what point will you be comfortable leaving the helm?

Is my crew experienced or do they need instruction before we approach the other vessel? Is my crew person far enough up forward to pass rather than have to throw the line? (Note: whenever possible be close enough to pass lines rather than throwing them, which increases the chance of mistake)

Tying up

Once the your yacht is safely alongside the host vessel with bow and stern lines held firm, you can set about securing yourself into position. The first priority is to set the length of the bow line so that the yachts will sit roughly parallel to each other. You’ll need to allow a little more line than you first think but don’t worry, take your time and if you have to redo it, that’s fine. No one will mind. Having dedicated lines for this purpose is important so you can have a mooring springer built into the line, usually affixed close to the end of the line you will attach to your boat. That way, the jarring on the line through wind or wave action is reduced.

Your next priority is to set the forward spring line. This is probably the most important line for two reasons – one, it takes most of the pressure as the wind/tide conditions build and two, its length determines the position of your mast spreader. You’ll run the line back from the host’s bow amidships on your yacht and set the length so that the spreaders will not come in contact with each other if the vessels roll in a swell. It is proper etiquette to have the host skipper verify that the spring line is an appropriate length.

Now, move on to the stern. The process is similar – first secure the line to the stern of the host vessel. This time, the line will need to be a little shorter than you first think. Again, the goal is to have the boats settle in roughly parallel to each

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