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Getting to grips with berthing (or docking) your vessel

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What is the issue?
In a three year circumnavigation I can count on one hand the amount of times I was alongside a pontoon. More than a dozen years later I have just bought a boat twice the size to use in The Solent area on England’s south coast. To my surprise my sailing reality has entirely transformed. I find it is all about operating in tight channels, river marinas and constantly coming alongside pontoons. Worse the boat is 47 foot long and about 12 tonnes, so it beyond what can be physically manhandled and it is just my wife and I berthing it; the kids go down below and out of the way. Add to this the density of the boats in this area and there is very little margin for error.
Operating in tight quarters under power is very new to me and it has become almost an aviation experience; tense take-offs, momentary liberation, then bracing for another tense landing. We have even given it a name; berthing anxiety, and it became an impediment to the enjoyment of our family boat.

Why address this?
Outside of heavy weather sailing, bringing a vessel safely into a berth, or exiting it, is the most likely time to damage it and / or cause damage to other boats. All of this can be expensive, embarrassing and unnerving. Effectively dealing with marina berthing was key to our family enjoyment and just about everyone will have to take boats alongside at some time so there is really no getting around this.

How to address this?
The solution for me was a crash course in boat handling theory and I recommend it to everyone. I had the benefit of a very good feel for a sailing vessel and what I needed was to go right back to the basics. But this I imagine would be little different for a novice.

A couple of hours viewing and reviewing the following excellent videos, then applying this to my vessel in open water, transformed my handling.

The singular best video comes from the Maryland School of Sailing & Seamanship presented by Captain Tom Tursi. I would especially recommend the Standing Turn as this is particularly empowering as a whole or utilised in part when manoeuvring in tight situations.

My vessel has a sail drive so prop walk is not as pronounced but still noticeable in that the vessel has a much more efficient anticlockwise turning circle. Most boats however will have significant prop walk and getting to grips with it will be more than useful. The following RYA Prop walk video with Simon Jinks is truly excellent.

One other tendency of a boat operating in reverse is to ’’fish tail’’ owing the boats pivot point shifting aft on the boat, or forward in direction, when the vessel is going astern. Simon Jinks covers this very well here.

Simon Jinks also discusses handling a tidal marina in this short video.

Take the above principals to your boat and try them all in open water and you will be amazed at what you can achieve.

With thanks to:
Michael Harpur, s/y Whistler of Southampton

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