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Tips on Using Mooring Buoys

Editor’s note: this is the first in a new series for people considering chartering a boat in the Caribbean. Send your suggestions and questions about chartering to: editor@allatsea.net. This month: Worried about your anchor dragging overnight in unfamiliar waters? One simple solution: look for mooring buoys.

We have been sailing and chartering for over 20 years and welcome the sight of an available mooring buoy; we can anchor if we have to, of course, but prefer the convenience and assurance that our boat will stay where we put it and not collide with neighboring boats that are also on buoys.  

To pick up a buoy, begin by shortening the painter on the dinghy and watching it so that it won’t get fouled in the propeller. Send one of your crew to the bow with an extended boat hook. The helmsman and this person should have some pre-determined hand signals about forward, reverse, neutral, and “on the hook.”  (Shouting only gives other boaters more entertainment.)

As you come into the anchorage, note the direction of the bows of the other boats since this is the direction from which you should approach the ball. Do so under very low speed with the bow person pointing at the ball. Agree to a planned side to pick up the ball—but those on the bow should be ready to adjust quickly as needed. Come up to the ball, shifting gears slowly through neutral to reverse to stop the boat, and then return to neutral.

Meanwhile, the person on the bow leans over the lifeline and grabs the pennant, sliding the boat hook up the line until it can be caught in the hand. Pass the pennant line under the lifeline. If there is a permanent loop, secure it over the cleat and you’re done. If the end of the pennant has a hard plastic loop (less chafing), you need to be prepared with a bow line that has been secured on one cleat so that the bitter end can be passed through the plastic eye, around the bow of the boat, under the lifeline, and secured to the opposite side cleat to create a “V” bridle off the bow towards the ball.

An alternative attachment approach is to run a separate line under the lifeline from each side of the hull from the cleat, through the pennant hole and back to the cleat on same side of the boat. Alan Mallory, Commodore of the St. Croix Yacht Club, US Virgin Islands and charter captain on the catamaran Kindred Spirit, notes that catamarans should always use port and starboard lines to the mooring, and "be very aware not to significantly extend the length of the pennant with your bow lines!  This increases your swing radius to a point where you may contact nearby boats. Midnight acquaintances rarely respect you in the morning!"

Keep the engine in neutral for a few minutes and watch your surroundings to be sure you are secured, just as you would do with anchoring. Remember, too, that once the boat is secured in some way, you have time to tweak the lines. Do not attempt to hold onto the pennant and be pulled overboard if your boat is not adequately stopped or you cannot safely secure it. Just try again!

To drop the buoy when you are leaving, shorten the dinghy painter and don’t foul it, as you will be initially going in reverse. Point the boat into the wind and drift back, using the engine in reverse only as needed to travel away from the ball. Have someone on the bow let the ball off the line or just free the permanent loop and point out where the released ball is so that the helmsman knows where not to steer. The bow person signals “all free” to the helmsman when the full pennant is clear of the boat.

A primary safety issue after properly securing the mooring ball relates to integrity of the lines used in that process. Both the pennant and your lines should be reasonably free of fraying or cuts which make them vulnerable to not holding.

Remember that even well-honed teams of helmsman and crew will occasionally miss picking up the ball on the first try. Drive clear of all boats and their lines and come back to try again. Then settle back with your favorite beverage and watch the next boat crew come in with their eyes on that last available buoy.

How can that little ball hold my 50-foot sailboat in place?

Several factors relate to properly functioning mooring systems: boat length, anchor weight, length and diameter of the chains, length and diameter of the pennant (part you pick up and connect to), and water depth. Buoys transmit the strain of the boat’s activity through the ball, with the lower part of the mooring system holding the boat vertically and the pennant holding the boat horizontally. In most instances, the wind is sufficient so that all boats on the moorings point into the wind and therefore swing in the same general pattern, each within the limited maximum excursion allowed by the system. In effect, there is an invisible circle around each boat with safe spacing no matter which direction the boat is in at the time.—F. & D. Welk

Are moorings free?

Mooring buoys for public use are found in cruising locations throughout the Caribbean, installed and maintained by local authorities or private entities to make money, protect vulnerable reefs and encourage tourism by boaters. Check to be sure overnight mooring is allowed—some are for day use only. Though some places have a few free moorings, per-night fees usually range from US$10 to $25—less expensive than a marina, but more than a (free) anchorage. A fee collector may come to your boat or you may pay ashore – if in doubt, ask other boaters in the mooring field what to expect. And watch out for unauthorized “entrepreneurs” who may attempt to pocket your fee. In popular areas during peak charter months, plan to arrive at your destination by early or mid-afternoon before all the moorings have been claimed.—Editor

Fran and Dee Welk are longtime boat owners and charterers who divide their time each year between Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania and St. Croix, USVI.

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