Spring Lines: The Key to Painless Docking
There once was a skipper who became something of a legend at his Chesapeake Bay marina simply by docking his boat several times each summer. As he approached the end of the gas pier, this storied helmsman would pull back on the throttle and begin barking orders to his harried spouse who stood rigidly on the bow like a conscript facing a firing squad.
The skipper's bellowing would alert other boat owners, who, depending on their proximity to the approaching cruiser, would either grab boat hooks and extra fenders for protection or simply sit back to enjoy the spectacle.
On one memorable occasion, "Captain Crunch," as he was universally known, bellowed at his spouse to use the !@##!* boat hook to grab the !@##!* line that was strung between the fuel dock and the outermost piling of the adjacent, empty slip. She complied. The boat, meanwhile, continued gliding onward while she dutifully kept a death grip on the nylon dock line. The poor woman streeeetched until she could stretch no more, then, with a resounding zing!, the boat hook sprang from her hand and shot across the empty slip, crashing through the cabin windows of a larger yacht. The fleet of spectators burst into applause.
Let's face it, your ability to handle your boat at the dock is the key to your reputation as a boat operator. Never mind that you just crossed the Atlantic using only a sextant and one-armed clock to navigate. If, upon arrival, you bounce off pilings and plow into the dock, that's what other skippers will remember.
Back in our April '96 issue, we presented a general discussion of the dos and don'ts of docking and listed a dozen of the many docking-related claims in the BoatU.S. insurance files. This time around, we're going to outline a few simple, but specific, steps that can help you avoid embarrassment or, worse, damage to your boat or someone else's.
First, let's quickly define the parameters of our discussion. Like the people who run them, all boats differ in their docking characteristics to one extent or another. And, the distinctions are particularly significant among three separate types: single-screw, keel-equipped powerboats and sailboats; single-screw planing hulls of moderate draft powered by a single outboard or sterndrive; and keel-less powerboats driven by twin engines, whether inboards, outboards, or sterndrives. Covering all three types (and the variations within each) would be impossible in one Seaworthy article, so we're going to restrict ourselves to single engines this time around. In a future issue, we'll cover the ground left
Hope Springs Eternal
If you are routinely experiencing frustration and anxiety when entering slips or tying up to docks, the very first step is to give yourself a break: handling a boat - any boat - in tight quarters is difficult, particularly if you've got an audience and especially if you have to deal with wind and/or current. Sure, launch operators and charterboat skippers who make 500-1,000 landings a year are good at it, but why should you be? Your total is probably more like 50 dockings annually, and expecting yourself to be perfect is unrealistic. So, as you're going into a docking situation, it's better to relax and admit to yourself that you're probably going to make a mistake. That step in itself should help you calm down and, more importantly, slow down. Only good can come of your being more deliberate and more forgiving of yourself and your crew.
Next to patience and self-control, your biggest ally in docking maneuvers is nylon line. If, early on in the process, you (or a crew member) can connect your boat to the targeted dock or piling,and if you then know what to do with the throttle and steering wheel, you've got it made. Your problems are solved. There'll be no more snickers about "Captain Crunch."
Here are some examples, all involving "spring" lines, a much-misunderstood term that simply means lines against which the boat can "work," thus ending up in the right position:
You are heading for a fuel dock consisting of a bulkhead of pilings and rip-rap. The problem is, you have to hit a gap between a 32' power cruiser and a 20' sailboat that are already tied up. And, to complicate matters, there's a 15-knot wind blowing directly off the shore. The dock attendant is on hand and looking nervous because you aren't going to have more than 8' of clearance fore and aft. Don't worry! Ask one of your crew to throw him a line that is already cleated and coiled at the port rail astern (preparation is 75% of the battle). As the dock attendant grabs the tag end of your line, ask him to attach it to a piling or cleat aft of the space into which you must fit.
Now, with the line secured at the dock and your wheel turned hard toward the dock (to port in this example), just continue ahead in forward gear, at idle speed. Miracle upon miracles, your boat will start moving sideways, into the allotted space! If you're working against current or wind and your progress is too slow, just advance the throttle slightly. You can also make small adjustments in your approach angle and speed by turning the wheel slowly one way or the other. And, if it looks as if you're going to be too far forward of "the slot," momentarily shift into neutral, take up the slack that will immediately develop in the spring line, recleat the line again, and put the engine into forward once more. If you're too close at the stern, carry out the same maneuver, but slack off the spring line.
Obviously, in our example, you approached the dock port side-to. If you had decided to land starboard side-to, the spring line would have been cleated on the starboard rail (the side closest to the dock), and you would have turned the wheel to starboard (again, toward the dock).
This technique is as effective as it is simple. Yet, you won't see one skipper out of 10 use it. "Springing" works equally well for outboard- and inboard-powered hulls of 20' and up, and it comes in handy even if there aren't other boats at the gas dock. The point is that you can move a single-crew sailboat or powerboat sideways - even against a wind or current - if you just use a spring line.
Now, suppose there has been a 180 degree wind shift while you fueled up and went for groceries at the store down the block from the marina. When you get back to the boat, there's a 15-knot wind blowing you directly onto the dock. You can't go ahead or astern very far because of the boat behind you and the one ahead of you. How in God's name are you going to get out of this fix? Again, spring lines are the answer.
If circumstances favor your pulling out and moving ahead (Figure B), run a long spring line from a cleat on your port rail astern to a piling or cleat on the fuel dock well forward of your position. Let go your bow and stern lines. Now, with your wheel hard to port, put the engine in reverse and back the boat down. Like magic, your bow will swing out to starboard, clearing the boat ahead (you may need additional throttle if you're battling wind and current). You - perhaps aided by the dock attendant and/or a crew member-can now release the spring line and proceed out into the harbor.
When, on the other hand, circumstances favor your backing out of your spot, the spring line should be run from your bow to a piling or cleat well aft of your position. In this case, let go the dock lines, turn the wheel hard to port (the side against the dock), put the idling engine into forward gear, and watch as your stern swings miraculously out of harm's way. When it clears the boat behind you, momentarily shift into neutral, release the spring line (or ask that the dock attendant free it), shift into reverse, and back away smartly. Again, the peanut gallery will be very impressed.
Although the car commercials that feature daredevil stunts always advise "don't try this at home," we suggest that you experiment with spring lines whenever you have the opportunity - and whenever the pressure's off. They work well in many different docking situations (including lots that weren't described here) - but only if you are familiar with the basic physics and only if you have confidence in them.
Give 'Em the Slip
Suppose, for example, that instead of docking against a bulkhead or float, your challenge involves backing into a slip that's flanked either by pilings or finger piers. Under normal circumstances, this process is a matter of backing and filling, with a touch of throttle here and a turn of the wheel there. Spring lines aren't usually required. However, let's look at a nightmare scenario, where there's a 20-knot wind blowing directly across the mouth of the slip, and a 3-knot current moving in precisely the same direction. Here, even the seasoned skipper will have a tough time, and the novice is likely to cause some damage. Again, however, a spring line can help.
First, proceed slowly across the mouth of the target slip, heading into the wind and current (always the preferred strategy in any docking situation). When the cleat that's located amidships (on your port rail in our example) is even with the piling or corner of the finger pier, back off the throttle even more, so that the boat holds its position in the wind and current. Have a crew member attach a spring line to the piling or pier, take a full turn on the midships cleat, and stand by (the line must not be cleated off).
Now, with the engine still in gear, turn the wheel hard to starboard and allow the bow to "fall off" in the wind and current, which will now be a help instead of a hindrance. Depending on the length of your boat, the width of the slip, and a host of other factors, your crew member will have to slack the spring line (i.e., let it temporarily slip around the cleat) to one degree or another in order to provide the required clearance at the stern. This adjustment should be made gradually, and the spring line should be snubbed up hard on the cleat after each change, so that the boat can "work" against it. You, as skipper, may also have to open the throttle slightly to achieve the movement you need.
Finally, as soon as the starboard corner of the transom clears the downwind piling or pier (don't wait until the boat is lined up perfectly with the slip!), put the wheel hard over to port, shift into reverse, and goose the throttle momentarily to get the boat moving astern and to port. Simultaneously, your crew member should take up on the spring line without removing it from the cleat. Now you can relax; the battle is over; you need only fine-tune your position in the slip.
Keep in mind that, like the suggestions for docking against a bulkhead, these instructions aren't perfect and won' fit exactly in every situation. You'll have to improvise somewhat depending on wind, current, other boats, etc. The point, however, is that you start out connected to the dock by a spring line and, thus, achieve a degree of control and safety you wouldn't otherwise have when backing into the slip.
Toeing the Line
The procedures we have described in this article all involve securing a spring line in a specific position relative to the space in which you want to dock. In several cases, we have you (or a crew member) throwing a coil of line to someone ashore. Neither the throwing nor the securing phases of these operations are going to work if you've equipped your boat with 10'-long, bargain-basement dock lines. If you want to put the techniques outlined here to work for you, go out and buy at least two high-quality nylon spring lines that are a minimum of one-and-a-half times as long as your boat. You won't need all that length in every "springing" situation, but it will be a must in some of your encounters of the docking kind.
And, if you already have spring lines of the requisite length, make sure they're of adequate diameter (i.e., strength) and are in good condition. If they're even questionable in either regard, replace them. Unlike conventional dock lines, spring lines must withstand the heavy, steady strain your engine will put on them as it moves your boat into (or away from) the dock or slip - perhaps against a strong wind or current. Under this kind of pressure, weakened or inadequate nylon line can snap without warning and severely injure you, a crew member, or someone on shore.
The same goes for deck cleats. Make sure that yours are large enough (8" or bigger), strong enough (bronze,
stainless, or Marinium), and through-bolted (with backing plates) before subjecting the system to heavy strain. You need to check cleat location, as well, keeping in mind the often wide and changing angles associated with spring lines. Is there a pair amidships to port and starboard? If not, don't try the maneuver in Figure D; here, the spring line must be secured to a centrally located pivot point along the rail, or it will be ineffective.
Landing Without Injury: Five Rules for Avoiding Docking Injuries
Rule # 1. Before each docking maneuver, make sure everyone understands what he or she will be doing. The corollary to Rule 1 is that you should be aware of where your crew is and what each is doing. A woman in California was securing a springline to a cleat when the skipper suddenly backed down hard with his two 200 HP engines and she got her fingers crushed (Claim #928221A). Another man was standing on the dock holding onto a trawler's bow pulpit when the skipper gunned the engine and yanked him into the water (Claim # 901345A). In both claims (and many others) the skipper and crew were acting independently.
Rule #2. Don't encourage your crew to make Olympian leaps onto the dock. This is one of the most common types of accidents. A California man, to cite one example, broke both his heals when he landed on the dock after jumping from the bow of a large sailboat. Whenever possible, hand docklines to someone on the dock. If that isn't possible, wait until the boat is safely alongside the pier before instructing someone to step ashore. Your crew shouldn't have to make daring leaps across open water to make up for your sloppy boat handling.
Rule #3. Keep fingers and limbs inboard! As a boats gets close to a dock, passengers tend to gravitate toward the rail and drape fingers, legs and arms over the side of the boat. If the boat suddenly swings into a dock or piling, the consequences can be painful. A woman in Solomons, Maryland lost a finger when a passing boat's wake slammed her boat into a piling. (Claim # 889877A).
Rule #4. Make sure everyone is seated or has something to hold onto. The owner of a 20' runabout asked his inexperienced nephew to jump onto the dock with a bowline. The young man eagerly climbed out of his seat and stood precariously on the bow as the boat was approaching the dock. A few seconds later the boat glanced off of a piling, only slightly, but without a handhold the nephew lost his balance and fractured his elbow (Claim #906117).
Rule #5. Don't use bodies to stop the boat. A Florida man suffered a separated shoulder when he tried to keep a 38' Sportfisherman from backing into a piling, (Claim #943327A). Slow down and use fenders.