Tying up your boat

While visiting the Virtual Dockside is as easy as a click on the link, visiting a real dockside is a much more intricate task.  Much has been written and there are how-to articles and videos by the score (here’s one by Cap’t Steve Russell that’s good) that describe methods and reasons for tying a boat to a dock, yet it still amazes me what some folks do.

We were sitting at a breezy dockside cafe, where we had tied up to grab something to eat near sleepy BoaterRated Central.  There was a good amount of space at the dock for a couple more boats to fit and enjoy a similar time as were we.  Into the canal pulls a 40-something foot sportfisher, and aims for the space to windward of our boat.  With a head of  steam on.  Ruh roh, I thought, as I feared the sound of crunching fiberglass was imminent.  The lad on the bow of the incoming boat had two lines in hand – one tied to the bow and one tied to the spring cleat amidship – and I jumped up from my chair to retrieve them.  A soul from another table (who we chatted with and found to be a long-time member of the marine industry) had jumped up to grab a stern line from one of the ladies in the cockpit.  The breeze was behind our new neighbor, and the imagined crunch got louder and louder.

I took the bowline and tied it off on a piling near where the bow was going to end up.  I took the spring line and brought it from the bow to the transom and tied it off to a piling there.  Whew, the crunch noise was now out of the realm of possibility.  Our table friend tied off the stern line at pretty much the right spot, not too loose, not too tight, and we returned to our respective tables to giggle about the narrowly avoided carnage.

While we sat, the skeipper got onto the dock and checked out all the lines (the spring was pretty well frayed near to the ship’s cleat).  He untied the spring from the piling by the transom and retied it to a piling no more than three feet from the boat’s spring cleat.  Whaaa????

OK, here’s the concept. Tying up a boat accomplishes two things.  One, it doesn’t drift away.  Two, it lets the boat ride in close proximity to an object (like a dock) without allowing for that object to damage the boat. Things will change while the boat’s tied up – the tide will go up and/or down, the wind direction and/or strength will change, people will get on or off, somebody might raft up outside of you, etc etc.  So it’s important that however you tie it up, the boat rides comfortably and allows for most of the changes to occur.

As with anything on a flat surface (or a plane), there are two main directions of movement (axes). Any direction can be broken down into two components (vectors).  Tying the boat up seeks to comfortably restrict the movement of the boat on the surface, so restricting it from going in and out perpendicular to the dock is as important as restricting it from moving parallel to the dock.  All movement the boat might make relative to the dock can be broken into some combination of the above two.

The bow and stern lines should restrict the in and out motion.  Springs will restrict the foreward and aft motion.  It’s important to leave enough length in each individual line to allow for any changes in the forces that might cause the boat to move, and to allow the maximum springiness in the line to absorb any shocks.  This is why you prefer to have stretchy docklines at least as long as your boat is.

Courtesy TropicalBoating.com

The favorite position for attaching bow and stern lines is on the opposite side of the boat from the dock.  On a monohull, you’re usually restricted to the centerline cleat at the bow, but you’ll want the stern line to come from the outboard side to a piling or cleat on the dock aft of the boat, so there’s nothing to rub or chafe the line on.  Springs should come from as far away from the dock fixture as possible, often from the same fixture as the bow and stern lines to the center cleat on the deck of the boat.  While it’s nice to have a full boatlength spring line, it should never be less than half the length of the boat.  This allows for changes in tide level to be more easily accommodated should you decide to stick around for that last bit of dessert.

Tying her up correctly involves a little planning.  You’ll need to assess how the effects of current and wind will affect your landing at the dock and which lines will be more critical to the process before you get there.  For example, our friend above had a stiff breeze following him into a canal that doesn’t have much current anyway.  His first line to shore should be a spring from the midship cleat leading aft, that can act as a brake should something go wrong.  The next line would be a stern line, to prevent the boat from pivoting on the spring and putting the bow into the pier.  Since the wind was pretty stiff, there was no weather around threatening a sudden 180 degree shift, and they were only going to be there for lunch, a spring line led forward was the least important.  Once they got a bowline made fast, the boat would ride comfortably on the spring line, the bow and stern wouldn’t stray too far from the pier, and the boat will comfortably bounce off a couple of well placed fenders while her crew enjoys a fine lunch!

Once they’re done with lunch and it’s time to go, the lines come off in the reverse order they went on.  Once the engines are fired up and the crew is ready to go, take a minute to look around and see which lines are working hard and which are just kind of hanging.  The hangers will come off first.  In this case, where there was no forward spring, the bow line can likely come off first, then the stern line, at which point the stern will start to drift out, and then, the pilot can engage the close-to-the-dock engine in reverse as the spring comes off.  A shot in forward with the outside engine will kick the stern out into the canal, where the skipper can make a safe exit from the dock and the other boats still there.

While we get good entertainment out of watching various foul-ups, we are confident that there was a time when others got a kick out of ours – and we have the bills to prove it!  Nobody was born knowing how to do all this, boat handling is an acquired skill.  Perhaps there’s a course offered near you that can walk you through the finer points of some maneuvers, take a look for one on BoaterRated.com.  If you’ve been to one that has helped you with YOUR boat handling prowess, review them on the Virtual Dockside!


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