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Docking Etiquette

Launching and docking are both an art and a skill. Here are some helpful pointers for both large and small motorboats, along with best-practices for an optimal experience.
Large enclosed cabin boat tied up on the long dock at the Port of Siuslaw Docking in Changing Conditions

Whether a novice or advanced boater, docking is considered a perishable skill. It can be like riding a bike for some, but for others, if "ya don't use it, ya lose it." 

For many people docking their boat is one of the most trying experiences to be had on the water, next to launching from a boat ramp. Attempting to tie up to a busy boarding dock on a windy summer weekend can test anyone's piloting skills.

The things you need to notice when you are about to dock are:

  • where do you intend to tie up? 
  • where other boats are in relation to you? 
  • what the wind is doing? 
  • what the current is doing?

Look and see how much room you have to maneuver your vessel around the area where you intend to dock.

Docking next to a long open pier is usually easier than backing into a narrow slip in a confined marina, especially for bigger enclosed cabin boats and sailboats. Bigger boats need the dock space to tie up. 

Are other boats leaving or entering the area you need to turn? How other boats tie up or move can greatly alter your intended steering and docking.

Knowing which way the wind is blowing can greatly aid your docking. When coming alongside a pier with the wind in your face, head in at a steep angle to the pier and turn sharply at the last moment to avoid being blown out by the wind. If the wind is at your stern, come into the dock at a narrow angle and let the wind do the work of pushing your boat up against the dock.

Current can also affect your docking similarly to wind, and in some areas can prevent you from docking at all in low water. Consult your tide tables, especially when in tidally-influenced waters.

At all times, maintain no more than steerage speeds and try and have your crew ready with lines to tie off immediately. Using your lines to assist in docking can save a great deal of time and energy. Lines can be used as simple fulcrums to help bring either end of your boat to the dock. Let the lines do the work.

Like the people who run them, all boats differ in their docking characteristics to one extent or another. The distinctions are particularly significant among three different types: single-screw, keel-equipped powerboats and sailboats; single-screw planing hulls of moderate draft powered by a single outboard or stern drive; and keel-less powerboats driven by twin engines, whether inboards, outboards, or stern drives.

Suppose you are routinely experiencing frustration and anxiety when entering slips or tying up to docks. In that case, the very first step is to give yourself a break: handling a boat - any boat - in tight quarters is difficult, particularly if you've got an audience and especially if you have to deal with wind and/or current.

As you enter into a docking situation, it's better to relax and admit to yourself that you're probably going to make a mistake. That step should help you calm down and, more importantly, slow down. Only good can come from your being more deliberate and more forgiving of yourself and your crew.

Next to patience and self-control, your biggest ally in docking maneuvers is the line. If, early on in the process, you (or a crew member) can connect your boat to the targeted dock or piling, and if you know what to do with the throttle and steering wheel, you've got it made.

Spring Lines

Here are some examples, all involving "spring" lines, a much-misunderstood term that simply means lines against which the boat can "work," thus ending up in the correct position.

a diagram of bow lines to dock docking

Situation: You are heading for a fuel dock consisting of a bulkhead of pilings and rip-rap. The problem is you have to hit a gap between a 32' power cruiser and a 20' sailboat already tied up. And, to complicate matters, there's a 15-knot wind blowing directly off the shore.

The dock attendant is on hand and looking nervous because you aren't going to have more than 8' of clearance fore and aft. Don't worry! Ask one of your crew to throw him a line that is already cleated and coiled at the port rail forward (preparation is 75% of the battle). As the dock attendant grabs the tag end of your line, ask them to attach it to a piling or courtesy dock railing of the space where you must fit.

Now, with the line secured at the dock and your wheel turned hard away from the dock (to starboard in this example), just put your boat in forward gear at idle speed.

a diagram of spring line docking

Miracle upon miracle, the boat will start moving sideways into the allotted space. If you're working against current or wind and your progress is too slow, just advance the throttle slightly. You can also make small adjustments in your approach angle and speed by turning the wheel slowly one way or the other.

And, if it looks as if you're going to be too far forward of "the slot," momentarily shift into neutral, take up the slack that will immediately develop in the spring line, tie off the line again, and put the engine into reverse once more. If you're too close at the stern, carry out the same maneuver, but slack off the spring line.

Suppose there has been a 90 to 180-degree wind shift while you fueled up and went for groceries at the store down the block from the marina. When you return to the boat, there's a 15-knot wind blowing directly down the dock.

a diagram of spring line docking

You can't go ahead or astern very far because of the boat behind you and the one ahead of you. How are you going to get out of this fix? Again, spring lines are the answer.

If circumstances favor your pulling out and moving ahead, run a long spring line from the railing (or cleat) on your port rail astern to a piling or railing on the fuel dock well forward of your position.

Let go of your bow and stern lines. With your wheel hard to port, put the engine in reverse and back the boat down. Like magic, your bow will swing out to starboard, clearing the boat ahead (you may need additional throttle if you're battling wind and current). You - perhaps aided by the dock attendant and/or a crew member now release the spring line and proceed out onto the water.

When, on the other hand, circumstances favor your backing out of your spot, the spring line should be run from your bow to a piling, railing, or cleat well aft of your position.

In this case, let go of the dock lines, turn the wheel hard to port (the side against the dock), put the idling engine into forward gear, and watch as your stern swings miraculously out of harm's way.

When it clears the boat behind you, momentarily shift into neutral, release the spring line (or ask that the dock attendant free it), shift into reverse, and back away smartly. Again, the peanut gallery will be very impressed.

Five Rules for Avoiding Injury

Before each docking maneuver, ensure everyone understands what they will be doing. The corollary to Rule 1 is that you should know where your crew is and what each person is doing.

A woman in California was securing a spring line to a cleat when the skipper suddenly backed down hard with his two 200 HP engines and she got her fingers crushed. Another man was standing on the dock holding onto a trawler's bow pulpit when the skipper gunned the engine and yanked him into the water. In both instances (and many others) the skipper and crew acted independently.

Don't encourage your crew to make Olympian leaps onto the dock. This is one of the most common types of incidents. A California man, to cite one example, broke both his heels when he landed on the dock after jumping from the bow of a large sailboat.

Whenever possible, hand dock lines to someone on the dock. If that isn't possible, wait until the boat is safely alongside the pier before instructing someone to step ashore. Your crew shouldn't have to make daring leaps across open water to compensate for sloppy boat handling.

Keep fingers and limbs in-board! As a boat gets close to a dock, passengers tend to gravitate toward the rail and drape fingers, legs, and arms over the side of the boat. If the boat suddenly swings into a dock or piling, the consequences can be painful.

A woman lost a finger when a passing boat's wake slammed her boat into a piling and pinched her hand between the piling and the boat.

Make sure everyone is seated or has something to hold onto. The owner of a 20' runabout asked his inexperienced nephew to jump onto the dock with a bowline. The young man eagerly climbed out of his seat and stood precariously on the bow as the boat approached the dock.

A few seconds later the boat glanced off a piling, only slightly, but without a handhold, the nephew lost his balance and fractured his elbow.

Don't use bodies to stop the boat. A Florida man suffered a separated shoulder when he tried to keep a 38' Sportfisherman from backing into a piling. Instead, slow down and use fenders.

What's the pecking order for launching? Launching at sunrise at Willamette Park in Portland
When the driver leaves the boat to park the trailer and vehicle, it's common courtesy to move the boat to the end of the courtesy dock so others have room to launch. Boating with others who can hold the bow line to walk a boat down the dock when the trailer driver goes to park helps keep everyone moving. 

Here's a common scene at the boat ramp: A boat is launched quickly (that's good), the boat is then tied to the dock (also good), and the tow vehicle pulls away and is parked (triple good!). The next person in line backs down the ramp with their boat trailer but stops mid-way because the boat at the dock is in the way (not-so-good). 

All boaters are encouraged after launching to move the boat as far back to the rear of the dock as possible, so others can also launch efficiently.

Boating facility engineers at the Oregon State Marine Board design and improve parking areas and new boat ramps with staging areas and plenty of maneuvering space in mind, so a boater can launch safely and enjoy their day on the water. When possible, multiple lanes with a boarding dock in between is the ideal design for busy facilities. Boarding docks are also designed to be wide and long enough to accommodate maximum capacity for heavy-use days. 

Remember, the boarding dock is simply for temporarily tying up the boat. It's not the place to load gear and supplies or walk away from for extended periods. The ideal timeframe for launching and retrieving is 15 minutes or less. 



BoatUS Study Guide - Docking

BoatUS Expert Advice - Sitting by the Dock in the Way

Why Manners Matter - BoatUS 

Docking and Anchoring Tips

  • Have at least one anchor set up and bent-on to your anchor line.
  • Carry two or three extra dock lines if you encounter unusual dockside conditions.
  • Visually inspect the lines you use for chafe or wear.

Carry at least two fenders on board for docking or towing if required.


  • Check to be sure bilges are reasonably dry and that pumps are not running excessively.
  • Clean up any spilled oil or waste in bilges to prevent overboard discharge.

  • On any powered vessel or auxiliary powered sailboat, or vessels using LPG for cooking or heat, check that all interior spaces are well-ventilated before departure.
  • If fuel smells are detected before ventilating, check after running the blowers for several minutes before starting.
  • If the odor persists, shut down the engine and look for the source of the leak.
  • For any enclosed or semi-enclosed area, ensure you have at least one properly installed and working carbon monoxide detector.
Pre-departure Passenger Safety Briefing

The Captain's primary responsibility is for the safety of the vessel, passengers, and crew. A prudent skipper always conducts a safety briefing prior to departure. Cover the following with all passengers:

  • Boarding and disembarking safely.
  • Location, proper adjustment, and use of life jackets.
  • Location and use of fire extinguishers.
  • Deck hazards such as cleats and slippery surfaces.
  • Underway safety including the location of secure handholds, proper seating (no riding on the bow or gunwales, seat backs, etc.), and dangers related to vessel motion such as powering up, slowing down, stopping, and turning.
For passengers with little or no boating experience helping as a crew member on the boat:

  • Assign responsibilities and fully explain how to safely perform their duties
  • Explain and demonstrate line handling safety measures
  • When casting off, fully explain the process and the undocking plan stand do the likewise when docking
  • Demonstrate the proper use of fenders and the dangers of fending off with hands, feet, etc.
Make certain someone other than the skipper knows how to: 

  • Use the VHF radio properly to get help or assistance if necessary (MAYDAY Procedure).
  • Start and stop the engine.
  • Engage forward and reverse with the shifters/clutches (if applicable).
  • Operate the throttle.
  • Get the vessel back to and alongside the dock.