Most of us know the feeling of standing before the helm with the expanse of the foredeck and polished hulls awaiting the impending crunch as you prepare to enter a narrow dockage slip. A sweat breaks out and your legs turn to jelly. The yacht length seems to triple and your once swift boat in the open ocean becomes a sluggish tank left to the mercy of chance. As with everything in sailing there are too many variables for one easy solution to bringing a boat to rest, but understanding these variables will at least give you a chance.
Brief yourself and your crew: Bring the crew into the cockpit long before reaching the mooring field, anchorage, or dock and brief them as best you can. This is a good time to elaborate on your intentions and also go over what to do should something go wrong. This relieves huge amounts of strain and pressure off your crew while helping you think through alternatives. For example, if a crewmember happens to miss a mooring ball, just relax because you have already planned to come back around and try again.
I was taught by my father, a sailing instructor, that shouting not only demoralizes your crew but is also a clear indication of your own incompetence and lack of planning. Nothing brings out the other boaters in the harbor faster than someone shouting; I know because I have a deck chair especially for the occasion. My personal favorite is to see the captain at the helm yelling at crew on deck for missing the mooring ball when he’s moving six knots past the ball with the wind behind him. Even the most efficient mate is only as good as the helmsman so your job at the wheel is to make it as easy as possible for everyone else to secure your boat. For a mooring buoy, always approach into the wind and keep your boat speed as slow as is possible to maneuver; this will give your crew plenty of time to secure the line and save your engine from a ‘full astern’ emergency stop.
A sailboat’s turning radius is determined mainly by the size of its rudder and type of keel. A traditional yacht with a full keel has a wide turning radius, modern fin-keeled boats can turn on a dime but even these easy to maneuver vessels are governed by rules that apply to all boats in confined waters. You can only steer when there is water movement across the rudder. You don’t have to be doing 10 knots, but some speed is necessary to turn your boat. The more power you give the tighter the turn radius becomes.
When reversing there is a period in which your rudder becomes useless and you will notice the stern tracking to either port or starboard turning the rear of the boat away from where you want to be going! This effect is commonly referred to as propwash; until your boat starts making headway astern your propeller essentially works like a paddlewheel churning water and pulling the stern one direction or the other. The direction is determined by the rotation and pitch of the prop, so every boat will be different. Practice with your boat long before entering a dock so that you know which direction your stern pulls and how much. Allowing the boat to drift almost to a stop at the time you put the engine astern and revving only enough to overcome the prevailing wind will reduce the amount of propwash you feel. Practice in calm waters with plenty of room, learn your turning radius, practice going astern and note the direction and amount of propwash.
When coming into a dock stern-to give yourself plenty of room and turn your stern the appropriate angle and direction away from the dock so that once you engage reverse, the propwash will in effect pull you toward your desired path. Once you have movement astern you can steer with the rudder and aim yourself the rest of the way in.
Whether docking astern or forward, guide yourself toward the slip using the widest point of your boat as a reference. Major damage can only occur at major speed so keep it slow; the boat should be drifting into a slip with the engine in neutral. Alert your crew as to which line should be secured to the dock first depending on wind and other obstacles, bring the boat close enough so they only have to step off to the dock, and if all goes as planned you will have neatly docked your boat. Now go down to the bar and gloat about it!
Following these guidelines leaves a little less to chance and puts the boat back in your hands. Learning and practicing these skills will improve your confidence and ability the next time you come into the marina.
Craig Norton has been a First Mate/Engineer aboard the same luxury charter yacht for five years, has spent his entire life on the sea, and owns his own sailing boat currently cruising the Western Caribbean.