Sure, tying up the boat might seem like an afterthought. To the experienced captain with 30-years’ experience, that is exactly what it is – especially when you’re coming and going out of your home slip and have your lines marked and set, just the way you like them. There are however many nuances to tying up the boat and much to learn for a new mate or boat guest. When travelling to a new, unfamiliar marina there are an added set of variables. The following provides some real-life perspective from professionals on tying up your ride in various scenarios.
Theory and Practice
While the variables involved in getting safely into the slip vary widely, there are a few universals. Captain Harry Schafer runs the 66-foot enclosed bridge Viking, Sea Wolf, based in Jupiter, Florida. He has been working on boats since 1974. “Every time you dock, especially in a different area, you have to deal with wind, current, other boats and obstructions – you have to consider that,” Schafer says. “Exactly how you’ll dock is slip-dependent. It is different for pilings, floating or stationary docks. When you’re approaching the dock, ask the dock master what side you’ll approach so you can prepare and put out the fenders, if you’re using them.”
In the days before bow thrusters were as common on sportfishers as salon sofas, lines were central to controlling the bow when coming into or leaving the dock. “Coming up as a mate, spring lines were always beat into my head,” says Capt. Jon Brooks. Brooks runs the Palm Beach-based Ditch Digger, a 72-foot Viking. Early in his career Brooks worked for Capt. Timmy Hyde on the Good Grief. “The Good Grief was 53’ long. We had a 70’ spring line. Without bow thrusters, we used the spring lines to pivot coming into and going out of the marina. Our slip was right against the bulkhead. We could spring to the starboard bow pole, run it to the box cleat – moving it to the spring cleat as we pivoted.”
On commercial docks, where ships are measured in hundreds of tons, the dock line is still king. “The first vessel I worked on was a 130’ salvage boat with a single engine called the Hickory. It was built in Bath, Maine in 1932,” says Capt. Harry Schafer. “When coming in, we would approach the dock with lines attached. We would run lines out of the hawsers with monkey fists tied to the end of them. We’d throw the ropes to guys on the dock and ratchet the boat into place. There were winches fore and aft that would lock the boat into place. Big ships still do this.”
Finer Points from a Carolina Charterman
Captain Brynner Parks runs the Smoker, a 58-foot Custom Carolina out of Oregon Inlet Fishing Center. “I am 59 now. I’ve been fishing since I was 13,” says Parks. Parks provided his list of basic do’s and don’ts. “When you have teak in the cockpit or on the covering boards, you want to keep the ropes off of the teak. You can tie the ropes high enough to pylon to keep the ropes from burning the teak or rubbing the oil out of it.”
“When you get your spring lines on, you want them both to be pulling evenly. You want the lines to come tight at the same time so that they halve the load,” says Parks. “When it comes to hurricanes, it is a matter of personal preference. Some loop on the pylon, some loop on the cleat. I like to loop on the cleat – my cleats are on the covering board, not through the hawser hole. Whichever way you choose, you try to make everything even and in unison. You want to either deal with the boat or the dock, not one rope tied to the boat and one tied to the dock.”
Parks also outlines a couple things to avoid. The first applies to the angle of the rope to the cleat. You want to keep a 30 or 45-degree angle to the cleat. Don’t tie off to the pylon so high that you get a 90-degree angle,” Brynner advises. “You also want to match the size of the rope to the size of the boat. You don’t want a ½” or 3/8” rope for a 60’ boat.”
Hurricanes put as much strain on those responsible for keeping a boat safely tied as anything in the world. The Outer Banks of North Carolina, with marinas situated on sounds, add their own special set of hurricane-related variables. Captain Joey Belton runs the 61-foot Billy Holton, Haphazard, out of Pirates Cove.
“When it comes to tying up the boat, you need to determine the direction of the wind and favor that side. That’s the problem with hurricanes, the wind comes up from one direction and switches to the other. When the winds change with the hurricane, it shifts the water. Coming from one direction the wind pushes water up the Sound, when the wind shifts it can draw the water out of the sound,” Belton explains.
As the water level rises or falls, a vessel’s position relative to the dock can change. “On the one hand, you worry about boats getting higher than the flairs on the bow pylons. If that happens, when the water level drops the boat can fall the pylon, sending it through the flair. At yards like Spencer’s, their pylons are so high that this could never happen,” Joey says. “On the other hand, you also worry about the stern getting stuck under the dock when the water level drops. If the water drops and the boat shifts under the dock, it can get stuck when the water rises again.”
To avoid either of these scenarios, Belton offers the following, “You want to keep the boat as centered in the slip as possible. Sometimes we’ll babysit the boat through a storm.” As the conditions shift within the course of the storm, you will need to make adjustments to the lines. “You want to wrap the line around the cleat before you make a hitch. Otherwise, the lines will cinch down so tight that you can’t remove them.”
If you’ve ever spent time around guys that run cows or make a living in the rodeo, you may have wondered why some of them are missing fingers. The reason: ropes can be dangerous. Like a rope thrown around livestock, a dock line snapped tight by a lurching wave or current can eat a finger in a hurry.
“We have a lot of guests on the boat, I tell them all to step away from the cleat. I’ve seen more injuries trying to help with docking than anywhere else,” says Captain Jon Brooks. “One injury example is trying to put the line on the cleat. When your docking, just loop the line over the cleat – run it through later (once the boat is stationary and situated). People put the loop through the cleat and get their hand caught in the bight.”
When asked for his most important considerations when docking, Brooks’ concern for safety is clear. He advises mates to be aware of their situations and to be sure to coordinate their efforts with what the captain is doing. “Make sure that I know what you are doing before you start moving lines out the cleat,” he says. A lack of coordination between mates and captain can result in injury. If the captain moves the boat in one direction to loosen one line as it is untied from the dock, another may snap taught. A mate, or guest, who gets a hand caught between a loop and cleat by a sudden movement is a surefire trip to the ER.
Captain Harry Schafer adds, “Mates have to learn to be careful running up the side of the boat.” Whether its being caught between the side of the boat and the dock or getting a hand caught between the transom and the dock, there are plenty of ways to get hurt while docking.
“Be prepared. Have your spring line ready, your bow and stern lines ready. Generally, you’ll put your aft spring on first, then your forward spring. Then the bow or the stern, depending on your situation,” Schafer continues. “Be alert to the situation – there may be wind and current. Ask the captain what he wants to put on first, this can change according to the situation. Generally speaking spring lines are important to keep you from moving forward or aft. You’ll put your stern lines first if the wind is from the back.”
Brooks offers a couple of additional points of reference that are useful. “When untying the boat, untie the slack lines first – the windward side last. This will save time in the morning… When you are pulling out, make sure the line makes it onto the dock or the marina. The captain can get wrapped up in the marina if lines stay in the water.”
Lines at the Marina
Most of the captains who contributed to this article carry two sets of lines. Their travel lines are stowed on the boat and used in transient slips and on trips. A boat’s dock lines will stay in their home slip.
“Basically, you have the bow, stern and spring lines. Lines set at the marina remain constant. You can use the bight end on the cleat or vice versa,” Schafer says. Marking lines is a common practice that makes life easier on everyone involved. Captain Brynner Parks describes his approach when working with a new mate. “Get the boat tied up where you want it. Put electric tape to mark the rope where it fits correctly, this gives you a good guideline of where to start.”
Capt. Jon Brooks describes his approach to docking at a fixed pier. “I like to mark our lines. We spend a lot of time in Isla (Mujeres). There is a terrible surge there and you have to put the tag end on the boat. We take two or three colors of electrical tape – one for each level: normal, slack or surge. The marks allow one guy to make adjustments by himself. This is great, especially when it’s 3 am and you are rubbing on the dock.”
“At a floating dock with surge, we are tied hard to one side of the pier. As it moves, the tide moves the boat, pier and everything. All the ropes are on the starboard side – nothing on the port. In this case we use Mega-Fend yacht style fenders with covers. They are mega light and make all the difference.”
Confusion at the Dock? Knot Ever Again
In terms of common sense, not-so-exciting topics in boating, tying the boat up might rank up there with bilge pumps and drawer pulls. With any luck, and a bit of coordination, may all of your docking experiences be run of the mill. Because while it’s low on the excitement meter, tying up the boat ranks pretty high on the list of things that are better off not screwed up.