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What now, Skipper? Five top tips on docking without an engine

by John Jamieson on 18 May 2011
Docking can be fraught with difficulties if your engine dies at the wrong moment .. .
You are entering a crowded marina, ready to dock your boat when all of a sudden--your engine coughs, sputters, spurts, kicks once, and dies with a shudder! You push the start button once, twice...but nothing happens! What now, skipper? Here Captain John Jamieson gives you five easy tips you can use right now that could save you from embarrassment, damage, and costly repairs!

1. Prepare your boat ahead of time.

Docking a boat like a pro begins with well thought out preparation long before you arrive at the marina entrance. That way, when the unexpected happens you are ready. Make these preparations first, before you start your entrance:

* Attach bow and stern lines on both sides of the boat. Rig spring lines equal to two-thirds of the boat length on both sides. If you have just bow cleats, make each bow line about two-thirds of the length of your boat.
* Rig fenders on both sides of the boat.
* Assign one crew member, if you are lucky enough to have spare crew, to a roving fender. This single fender should have a three to four foot line attached to one end. The crew member walks (roves) about the deck to cushion any contact points throughout docking maneuvers.
* Break out the boat hook and extend it to the maximum length. Set it onto the coach roof so that it's ready for action.
* Make the bow and a stern anchor ready for 'letting go'. These should be light, easy to handle anchors that can stop your boat, or break the momentum to a crawl in an emergency (more on this below).

Why make up lines and fenders on both sides of the boat? In a non-emergency, such as tying up to a fuel dock, you may find that you need to switch sides. In an emergency, you will not know which side you will come alongside. In either case, you are ready for stress-free docking and maneuvering anywhere in the world.

2. Brief your crew and make assignments.

If you lose your engine, put your emergency action plan into play. Brief your crew on each step necessary. Assign each of your crew a position--line, fender, boat hook, and anchor. Remember you may have just seconds to execute the plan. With clear communications ahead of time, your crew will understand right away what to do if the unexpected happens. If, like many cruising couples, you have only one crew, assign the tasks in order of their importance.

3. Use bare steerage and feathering.

The moment your engine dies, you will continue to drift at a certain rate of speed. That's one reason to slow down as much as possible in restricted areas. You will have more time to take action, do less damage if you impact against another vessel, piling, or seawall, and still maintain positive rudder control.

You must maintain steerage--the slowest speed at which you still have positive steering control--in order to maneuver at slow speeds. That way, you can move out of the way of boat traffic, make a controlled approach to a pier, or make a sharp turn into a slip.

Remember that sailing vessels have larger rudder blades than their powerboat cousins. At extreme slow speeds, use lots of rudder to make sharp turns, or use the 'feathering' technique--or powerful rudder sweeps--to maneuver.

To feather a sailboat with a tiller, shove the tiller handle hard and fast over to that side opposite the turn; then bring it back to the center in a slow, smooth motion; then shove it again hard to the side, then bring it back to the center. Repeat this process until you have completed the turn.

To feather a sailboat with a wheel, turn the wheel hard and fast in the direction of the turn, then bring it back in a slow, smooth motion to the center; then turn it hard and fast again in the direction of the turn, then bring it back in a slow, smooth motion. Repeat until you have completed the turn. You can turn a sailboat with feathering in almost her own length, through 90 degrees or more!

4. Choose the safest method for control.

You have three ways to get to safety. Drift over to an open pier, into an empty slip, or anchor. Choose the method based on which gives you the most control with the absolute least amount of damage should something go wrong. Keep in mind that once you commit, you might not have a second chance.

Pier:
Look for an open space at least 3X the length of your vessel at a pier. At all costs, you want to avoid contact with another vessel. You must put over a stern line aft of your boat as soon as you get alongside to stop the forward momentum of your boat.

Slip:
Unless you are quite experienced with docking in a slip without an engine, this should not be attempted unless you have no way to dock at a pier or deploy an anchor. In that case, drape two spring lines that are two-thirds the length of your vessel over each outer piling as your bow enters the slip. The shortened spring lines on each side will act like a 'brake' to stop your boat before it makes contact with the seawall at the end of the slip.

Anchor:
Use the anchor methods described below based on the wind and current relative to your beam. Take care that you have room to swing and that the other two methods above are not practical.

5. Turn your anchor into a brake or 'dredge'.

If steering into a strong wind or current when you lose power, you will drift to a stop and then start to drift astern. Use large sweeps of the tiller or wheel to keep the bow pointed upwind or up current. Lower the bow anchor right away. Don't worry about scope; put out just enough anchor line to get a bite into the seabed.

But what if your anchor drags? Dragging anchor at a slow, controlled pace could help you slide over to a pier, piling, or alongside another vessel. Then you could 'walk' yourself in to safety (move your vessel by hand with fenders and help).

For centuries, large sailing ships used this exact maneuver--called 'dredging'--to work the ship into a pier or wharf. They would lower an anchor on short scope, but not set it into the seabed. The anchor slowed the ship to a crawl and bounced along the bottom as the elements (wind and/or current) pushed the ship downwind (or down current) to the pier or wharf. Often they deployed this 'dredging' anchor from the side of the ship opposite the pier or wharf. The ship would pivot on the anchor rode--much like a boat pivots on a spring line--to work herself alongside.

You may have too much forward momentum to drop the anchor from the bow. Drop a stern anchor right away. Put out enough scope to stop the vessel or to slow your forward momentum to a crawl.

Now you know five fast ways to get your small sailboat or power boat under control fast if you lose power in a crowded marina or other tight spot. Follow these tips for confident docking and maneuvering and you will be able to handle any situation that comes your way!

About Captain John Jamieson:

Captain John teaches sailing skippers the skills they need for safer sailing anywhere in the world. As a SkipperTips member, you will receive fresh articles and videos to your inbox every week about a wide range of subjects. You might want to check out his website for all it has to offer at www.skippertips.com.

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