Fundamental rules of the boating world (I either just made these up or am pulling them from some musty corner of my unconsciousness with apologies to the original author.)
1 — The odds of docking perfectly are directly inverse to the number of people watching you dock.
2 — The number of people watching you dock will increase in exponential proportion to your desire to impress the passengers onboard.
Nope, this is not yet another “how-to” article. The internet is filthy with articles about methods of docking, how to use spring lines, etc. Instead, I’m going to pimp the American Sailing Association’s Docking endorsement class (known as ASA 118) and, sight unseen, any other boating course that focuses on docking and gives you a full day of practice. Theory, articles, and videos can only give you an intellectual understanding of the basic principles, but that is a world away from actually doing it. In fact, reading about docking without practice is about as effective as reading about how to swim.
Practice- preferably on somebody else’s boat, will actually bring those fundamentals into focus.
My Recent Experience
I recently took the ASA 218 at Modern Sailing in Sausalito, the instructor-level qualification evaluation to teach the ASA 118 docking endorsement. Although it was an evaluation/test, it was also a fun day of practicing docking under adverse conditions. Two other instructors and I were put through the wringer.
We docked alongside under various wind and current conditions using spring lines, left a dock with a strong current, heavy traffic, and wind keeping us on the dock, tied up to moorings (which on the SF Bay is an unusual pain in the butt), and did several med moorings. While I am normally pretty good at docking, doing so under other instructors’ watchful eyes and those of an instructor/evaluator in traffic, variable medium wind, and a strong current (as opposed to inside the protected fairway full of slips) was a bit nerve-wracking.
Probably the biggest lesson from the day was our group was good under normal conditions, but we needed more practice under adverse conditions. (Seriously, who goes looking for adverse conditions to dock in. 118 students of course.) We all got the boat to the dock safely in each situation at the beginning of the day, and by the end of the day, we did it elegantly. Overall, the day was even more fun than taking the 118 because we started at a uniformly high-level and still kept challenging ourselves.
Lessons to Keep in Mind
So that this short article has some redeeming quality, here are 10 suggestions from a newly minted ASA 118 instructor worth keeping in mind when docking:
1- Asses the situation and decide on an escape plan before you commit. (Good life advice really)
2- Bailing on an approach is the sign of a pro, not cause for shame.
3- Be mindful of your crew’s skills and physical abilities. Stepping off of a moving sailboat’s high deck to secure a spring line may challenge unskilled sailors or older backs/knees.
4- The boat needs speed through the water for the rudder to control steerage.
5- Boat speed through the water is not the same as speed over ground.
6- Prop wash and prop walk are your friends.
7- Prop wash can be used to move the bow and stern in both directions while prop walk only moves them in one.
8- Both prop wash and prop walk can be used with barely any forward or backward movement of the boat.
9- All boats handle a bit differently so test a maneuver in open water before you do so in tight quarters.
10- A roving fender is usually a good idea.