Docking Broadside to the Wind

Boat Docking\’s front cover


This particular docking confounded me more than any other, in the “early days," and so I would like to present it to you now, as my second Boat Docking article for Boat Safe (The Online Safe Boating Course), for December 1997.

Docking in an “off-the-dock” wind, when done well, brings praise even from experienced marina dock hands — the converse brings back several memories which, at best, I find embarrassing. The extra challenge of this specific situation, as illustrated, is that a long angled run at the slip is not possible, making an already difficult maneuver even more invigorating!
As usual, planing hull power boats suffer wind effects more than others, but I have also seen exactly this docking defeat moderately experienced skippers in displacement hull boats (even full-keeled sailboats). Docking into a brisk wind, let’s say something like 20–25 knots, stretches everybody’s skills.

The problem arises because, to do this docking, you must, eventually and inevitably, slow down and turn the boat broadside to the wind. The moving mass of air will then blow you away from the dock, and itself will also turn the vessel. Your options for countering the wind quickly dwindle, because boats cannot propel themselves sideways (ignoring, for now, twin screw effects, bowthrusters, etc.), and you may have very little steering ability as the boat loses headway.

The diagram shows where the boat actually goes, and it bears no resemblance whatsoever to where you want it to go! The situation seems hopeless — let’s see how to get around it.

Firstly, it does get better with practice and experience. Be prepared to invest the hours, developing and improving that intangible feel for your boat — in this situation, you’re going to need it! Some of the factors and constituents of that “feel” comprise the discussion which follows.

More specifically, notice, in the diagrams which follow, that the boat approaches the dock much more to one side of the slip (the outside side of the turn) than if there were no wind. This is because you will use power, in forward gear, as you turn, to control the boat, and that will move the boat ahead, in its slip. So, starting off to the side makes allowance for this.

Also, the initial approach is made almost perpendicular to the dock, keeping the effects of the wind (especially the turning effect) to a minimum until the very last moments, and for the same reason the turn is done relatively late, with the hull already very close to the dock.

The maneuver will require very positive control of the vessel, necessitating, at times, vigorous (but brief) use of steering and throttle. Consequently, it must be done skillfully and attentively, firmly but smoothly.

Momentum — I talk a lot about momentum, “the great unsung hero of the difficult docking.” When thinking about docking into the wind, consider the concept of throwing your boat at the dock, using a spinning motion to skid and slide the vessel into its slip, against the wind.
You generate the “throw” by (i) taking a little run at it, and/or( ii) by giving a firm but gentle surge of power as you begin your final turn. The gray arrows, in the illustration, show the momentum which you develop, and which persists (for a while) after the boat has turned.
Now, done just right, the boat will slide into its slip with a rotary motion, coming to a stop at exactly the right spot. “Done just right” — that phrase covers a multitude of sins! Don’t get carried away (figuratively or literally)! Take a little run, and use power gently.
If in doubt, underdo it — better to err on the side of not coming in closely enough than of crashing into the pier or into nearby boats. If it requires several attempts to dock your boat, as you learn how your vessel handles that day under those specific conditions, fine. Don’t let anybody rush you (the most likely culprit being yourself)!
Play the Wind — At the other end of the spectrum, you can finesseyour boat into position by starting out virtually stopped in the water, and then by playing with the wind. We know that as the turn begins, from a “head-to-wind” orientation, the wind will catch the bow and complete the turn for you.
It often does this in a big hurry, too, and leaves you still some distance from the dock, blowing away as you turn. You counter this with power, with the rudder (or outdrive) often somewhere near center. Let the wind turn you. Encourage it to do so. You can’t fight it, so co-operate with it. Constantly adjust the throttle and rudder, as necessary, to keep the bow very close to the dock, and pay attention, because this all happens very quickly.
Combination Therapy — In the real world, the two aforementioned techniques often blend seamlessly into one. Using them in combination allows you to commit not quite so much momentum to the maneuver, so you can go a little more slowly, and yet still have enough speed to achieve that final, sideways slide against the wind, in to the dock.
Forward Thinking — This maneuver only works well when making headway in forward gear. Very few boats steer well enough in reverse to allow control in a twenty knot crosswind. (If yours does, I would like to hear about it!)
The bow blows off downwind, more so as you try to steer the stern more vigorously towards the dock, and I know of no way (short of throwing lines ashore) to swing it back upwind again.
That Secure Feeling — Don’t relax until you get that boat secured! A significant broadside wind will have it scooting back into open water before you can say “Yassir, pass me that hawser.” If you’re short-handed for crew, you may only have time to get one line on before the vessel starts its downwind drift, so you have to have your mind and your equipment organized in advance, and know which line you’re going to use!
You have several options. The simplest consists of one amidships breast line, quickly cleated. Remove it as soon as you have your longer lines positioned and adjusted. Or, use a spring line along with engine power to hold you against the dock while getting the rest of your lines on — an after bow spring, with the engine in forward gear and the rudder turned away from the dock, works beautifully, but involves a bit more work and risk (and time, of which there may be very little) than the amidships breast.
My favorite is the “Low-line," a double spring, one end attached at the stern and the other near the bow. It can be used with power, but even without it you can take the middle of the line ashore and use it to move the vessel ahead or astern or to pull in on either end — all of this with only the one line. You may have to cleat it off, somewhere in the middle, and do it fairly briskly if the wind is strong.
You may, then, be able to leave it there, performing the function of two spring lines, and adding bow and stern lines, as usual. Whatever you do, you must do quickly. The force of the wind broadside on even a medium-size small craft often surprises even experienced boaters.

Caveats — The timing, vigor and duration of these maneuvers is critical, and they are learned only on the water. The boat will very likely need to be handled very forcefully, often requiring emphatic steering and throttling, so be careful. If it goes wrong, it can go very wrong. Consider simply docking the other way around, end for end, if this is easier. If you feel that you must turn the boat around, then do it later, by any of various methods, at your leisure. Don’t be stubborn about docking a certain way, or even about using that particular slip, if the conditions are too difficult.

Conclusion — There are many things, in life, that we know better than to do into the wind. Sometimes, however, in docking our boats, our only choice is an upwind dockage, and it ranks right up there among the more difficult close quarters maneuvers we have to face. We have covered a few of the concepts and techniques to help cope with this challenge. The skills which you will teach yourself and practice will also stand you in good stead in many other boating maneuvers, both in close quarters and on the open water. Practice in lighter winds, and build up to whatever your safety and your comfort level allows, but do practice: becoming more competent and confident in close quarters can only enhance the overall enjoyment you get from boating.

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BoatDocking — Into the Wind

Provided By:
Charles T. Low, author of Boat Docking