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Docking and Mooring

When it's time to leave your boat, you need to know how to dock or moor it safely.

Docking Your Boat

When you have to tie your boat up to a dock, you want to know what you're doing. Not only can you damage your boat if it hits the dock, but you also want to look cool as you expertly tie those knots. To keep your boat from crashing into the dock, you'll need to know how to use dock lines and fenders, which are the cushions you put between your boat and the dock.


You should have at least six dock lines: two for the bow, two for the stern, and two spring lines, which are pivot lines that keep the boat from moving forward or astern. The dock lines should be at least 2/3 the length of your boat, and the spring lines should be at least the same length as your boat.

The diameter of the lines depends on the size and weight of your boat. If your boat is less than 20 feet, use lines that are 3/8-inch in diameter. For every 10 feet of additional boat length, add another 1/8 inch to the diameter. Your boat won't be damaged by having its dock lines too large, so when in doubt, choose the next larger size.

Nylon rope makes the best dock lines. Nylon line comes in two types. Three-strand twisted rope, also called laid line, is strong and stretches to help absorb shock. Unfortunately, it kinks easily and is hard on the hands. If you coil a laid line clockwise, it will kink less.

The other type of nylon rope is braided. Although it rarely kinks and is much easier on the hands, it costs more.


Once you buy your lines, you need to take care of them. A chafing guard around it. You can buy chafing guards or using a piece of old garden hose can prevent abrasion of the line.

Inspect the lines for wear and replace when necessary. Also check for knots in the lines. A knot can reduce the breaking strength of the line by as much as 50%. If you find a knot in the line, untie it before you use it.

To tie a proper hitch knot:

  1. Wrap the line that is under load around the base of the cleat (b). Wrap the line around the opposite base (a) and back over the top in a figure-8 pattern.
  1. Wrap the line around the base again (b) and bring the line back over the top so that you see a figure-8 pattern on the top of the cleat.
  1. Make an underhand loop, making sure that the loose end of the line (also called the bitter end) is on the bottom. Slide that loop over the horn on the (a) side of the cleat.
  1. Tighten the bitter end of the line. You should see one line crossing over two lines

Preparing to Dock

Before approaching the dock, determine if the wind or the current has more effect on the motion of your vessel. If the wind and current are going in different directions, the one that has the stronger effect is the one to primarily consider when planning the vessel's drift.

  1. Be sure at least one bow and one stern line is attached to the boat, (outboard of any railings), and the fenders are in position.
  2. Slow down.
  3. Pay strict attention to the conditions at hand whenever docking or undocking. Your safety and the safety of your passengers depends upon attention to boating traffic, water current and depth along with the strength and direction of the wind.

    Always use the wind and current to your advantage rather the using the engine to fight the elements.

    If the drift is toward the dock, stop your boat parallel to the dock about two feet away. The drift will carry you in. Throw the bow line onto the dock and secure it; then toss the stern line and secure that line.

    If the drift is moving the vessel away from the dock, slowly head for the dock at a slight angle of about 20 degrees from parallel. This is actually the preferred docking configuration, if you have a choice, since the drift (wind or current) will hold the boat off the dock. Approach very slowly. The drift will be braking your speed, allowing you to very slowly inch toward the dock. When you get near enough to the dock, throw the bow line onto the dock and secure it. Once the bow line is secured you can use the motor, to drive the vessel in toward the dock.

    • If you have an outboard motor, turn the engine toward the dock and put it in reverse to bring the stern into the dock.
    • If you have an inboard motor, you will use the rudder to bring the stern in. The bow line that is attached will be used as a forward spring line to keep the boat from moving forward. Then with the engine idling forward, turn the wheel away from the dock. The rudder will push the stern in.
  4. Secure the rest of the lines as shown below. Be sure the lines run cleanly from the cleat or chock to the dock.

Mooring Buoys

A mooring buoy is a float in the water that is attached on the bottom end to the ground, either by an anchor or by being drilled into the ground. The top end of the buoy has some way of connecting a line to your boat. There are advantages to using a mooring buoy instead of throwing out the anchor from your boat:

  • Your boat is less likely to drift and end up running aground, hitting another object or drifting into an unsafe area.
  • The mooring won't cause damage to the ground like your anchor would if you anchored near a reef or other fragile area.

Docking to a Mooring Buoy

  1. Slowly approach the buoy from downwind and/or down current. If the wind and current are going in different directions, decide which one has more effect on your boat and approach against it.Since you are being pushed away from the mooring buoy by wind or current, you should be able to very slowly inch toward the pick-up line floating in the water.
  2. Retrieve the yellow pickup line with a boat hook. Put your vessel in neutral.
  3. Secure one end of your boat's mooring line (or bow line) to a cleat on the port or starboard side of the bow of the boat, outboard of any bow railings. If you have only a single bow cleat, use it.
  4. Use a boat hook to bring the pick-up line on deck (outboard any railings) once you are close to the pick-up line, and quickly pass the bitter end of the mooring line through the eyelet (loop) on the end of the pick-up line and toss the pick-up line back into the water. Secure the bitter end of the mooring line to the other cleat on the bow of the boat. The mooring line should now be fastened to cleats on both the port and starboard side of your vessel with the pick-up line running to the center of the mooring line and lying along the center line of the vessel. Do not tie the yellow pickup line directly to your vessel.
  5. Check to see how your boat is pulling on the buoy. If it isn't at a near horizontal pull, and you are not located in a tight congested mooring field, you can increase the length of the mooring line.

Paste this link into your browser for a brief video of this procedure.

If you have a sailboat and must sail up to the mooring because you have no motor, you must sail toward the mooring in an upwind beat. As you approach the pick-up line, luff the sails directly into the wind. You should practice this maneuver, so you get a feel for how far your boat will coast, to avoid over-sailing the buoy. Also, practice back-winding the sails to perform a braking action. Once the mooring is attached, drop all sails to avoid putting too much strain on the buoy system. A small tri-sail or mooring sail is sometimes flown to keep the boat pointed into the wind. This is useful when the wind and current directions differ; the goal is to have the hatches pointing into the wind for maximum ventilation.


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