Docking or Divorcing

Written by Bob Arrington

How many times have you wondered whether the couple on the boat coming into the marina would be docking or divorcing first? Sometimes I think they are ready to call the attorney before they call the dockhand!

There is an alternative to this embarrassing display. Just like in our relationships, communication is the key and yelling from the helm “I said throw the line!” is not communicating. True communication involves understanding each other’s needs and expectations. The problem with most docking disasters is expecting to know what the other needs while being blown sideways seconds from hitting the pier.

Effective communication and the calm, successful docking that comes with it involves discussing the approaching technique well beforehand. It’s best to call the marina prior to your arrival to get your docking specifics. Hailing the marina on the radio is fine for letting them know that you’re approaching, but it’s probably not the best means for getting all of the detailed information you wish to receive. With the technology we have today, there is no reason one of you cannot call ahead to obtain this helpful information. When my wife and I first started calling from our mobile phones rather than radio in, the dockhands tended to be a little short with us. We learned this normally came from one of two reasons, either they weren’t used to answering so many questions or they were busy with other boats coming in. Call early enough that you have enough time to call back if they are busy. Let them know beforehand that you are going to ask several questions about their marina, once they understand your reasons most are more than happy to help. It’s equally embarrassing for the marinas dock hands to be standing on the pier while a couple is screaming at each other rather than simply tossing you a line. Listed here are a few questions that will help you be properly prepared for an uneventful arrival.

Are the piers floating or fixed?

Some marinas have both, so don’t assume based on what you see. This will help you hang fenders properly — if you’re going to hang them at all. Often fixed piers with large pilings outboard of the pier will mean fenders should hang horizontally, rarely will you be able to locate those correctly ahead of time. This can also be dangerous when pulling into a slip; the fender could get caught on a piling when backing in. This could distract one of you to free it when you need to be handling lines or the boat. In this case the fenders should be ready to deploy and then properly positioned after your lines are secure. When approaching a floating pier, especially a concrete one with the pilings inboard of the pier sides, it is best to have fenders hanging vertically at the correct height to cushion the boat from the pier.

Knowing if it is a slip or side tie will also help you set lines.

All lines of proper length should be positioned around the boat where they will be tied. There’s a running debate as to whether lines should be made fast to the boat first then letting the dock hand adjust the length and cleat it to the pier, or by throwing the line and asking the dock hand to make it fast to the pier while you then adjust the length and secure it to the boat. In an ideal situation with all parties properly trained, the proper method is throw the loop end to shore, requesting the end be made fast, while the crew adjusts the length and secures to the boat. The correct answer is either way can work depending on the experience level of parties involved.

If you are going to be in a slip, will you be stern in or bow in? If it is a slip, are there finger piers on both sides and how long are they?

These two questions are connected and both equally as important. We have often watched someone change their mind at the last minute when they realized they could not board or un-board the boat safely based on their original plan. This last minute change can be a real problem in the close quarters of many marinas.

If it is a slip, where is it in the marina?

There’s a big difference between being the first slip inside a T-head versus all the way at the end of a long fairway, especially with a stiff breeze on your beam. Traveling down a long fairway with any leeward movement can be very dangerous. You may have to hug the side upwind or current in order to maintain a safe distance from the boats downwind or current.

Is it high tide or low? 

You should ask this question in order to correctly tie your lines while allowing for movement. This should also alert you to any issues with the current, where in some coastal marinas it can run several knots. Knowing this ahead of time is critical to a your hopes of a smooth docking experience.

Knowing answers to questions like these can better prepare you and your crew to successfully tie up without incident. Save your boat, and your relationship by communicating your needs and expectations with each other. The more you learn about the docking details ahead of your arrival and the more communicate with each other, the less of a chance you will be the evenings “dock-talk”.