I was having coffee with a friend in a harbor-side cafe as we watched a large, single-engine commercial-fishing boat dock stern-to in a slip against a nasty current and wind. I appreciated it much like I appreciate fine art, a beautiful dance or a graceful athlete. That captain and crew had mastered their vessel. My friend had no clue anything extraordinary had just occurred.
We've all encountered times backing into a slip or pulling up alongside a fuel dock when we've thought, "Uh oh. This isn't going to be easy!" - especially if we have just a few feet between our vessel and the boats fore and aft. Well, worry no longer. The knowledgeable use of spring lines can let you practically defy gravity - or at least nature.
The only thing you need to do is plan ahead. Stop well away from the dock. Look at the wind and tide to formulate your game plan. Then set your lines and fenders accordingly, remembering that you want bow, stern and one spring at the outset. Spring lines are lines that run from amidships either forward or aft and keep the boat from moving in those directions. They should be several feet longer than your boat.
1. Leaving when the wind is blowing you onto the dock.
Tie a spring line to your aftermost spring or stern cleat, loop it around the dock cleat nearest your stern and bring it back to the cleat to which your line is fastened. Release all other dock lines. With your engine in reverse (at idle), back up toward the dock. Your bow will swing away from the dock. When you have a clear shot to open water, let go of one end of your stern spring line and pull it aboard, being careful not to let it foul your propeller.
2. Pulling into a slip while dealing with a crosswind or current.
Pull crosswise to the slip so that you can attach an amidships spring line to the dock cleat at the open end of the slip. Idling in forward, turn your boat slowly into the slip while keeping the spring line taut. As soon as you are aligned with the slip, start driving in while simultaneously taking up slack in the spring to keep it tight. As you pass the cleat where the spring line is attached, slowly start letting it out again. Whenever your boat starts to get blown across the slip (away from your dock), snub the spring line. When it comes taut, it will pull your boat right back up against the dock. This takes some practice, but once you see it work and get the feel for it, you'll never worry again. It works when backing in too.
Virtually all of these maneuvers require good communication between the helmsman and the person handling the spring line. Eventually, both will understand what is supposed to happen and when, and the procedure will become almost automatic.
3. Docking when the wind is pushing you away from the dock.
Tie the spring line to your forward or amidships cleat with a loop on the dock end. Estimate how long you'll need it to be to give a modest scope. Now motor up to the dock slowly. As you pass the dock cleat where you want to attach your spring line, drop the loop over the cleat. Start gently turning away from the dock at idle speed. When the spring comes tight, your boat will swing sideways right up to the dock and stay there.
If the wind or current is too strong to maneuver against at idle speed, add slight throttle slowly and only after a spring line has come taut. Otherwise, you can snap the line, making it a deadly weapon, or yank a cleat out of your deck.
Never try to stop or fend off even a small vessel with your body, arms or legs. That's why we have fenders.
Four Ways to Look Like a Butthead
1. Yell at your wife when you screw up a docking, as if her standing on the bow with dock line in hand was done all wrong. An inept skipper always epitomizes the following rhyme: "When in danger or in doubt, scream and shout and run about!"
2. Start gunning your engine to make your boat move more quickly when maneuvering. This thrust compounds geometrically. Since you can never match the previous amount of thrust, each time you hit the throttle, you must add a little more. Before you know it, you're out of control.
3. Blow past your slip. Sometimes, wind or current will be perpendicular to your slip. Many novice skippers try to back in, gunning it when they're lined up with the space. Wrong! The only thing worse than putting big dings in your boat's gelcoat is damaging your neighbor's boat!
4. My biggest pet peeve: Throw the dock boy a line and let him pull your boat in. As soon as someone on the dock starts pulling your boat, you've lost all control. If he can't stop it in time or handle the reaction to his action, damage can occur. I always tell him (or her) to put the loop around the cleat and let me and my crew handle the docking.