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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 number of times I was berthed alongside in a marina. More than a dozen years later I have bought a boat twice the size, to accommodate my growing family, for sailing in The Solent on England’s south coast. But the first day out I realised my sailing experience to date almost counted for nothing.

For gone were the vast deep oceans and open bay anchorages, it was all about operating in tight channels, and coming into river marinas with tidal streams whistling out beneath their pontoons. Worse, at 47 foot, my new boat was approaching a third longer and more than double the breadth of my lean circumnavigator. And, being in excess of 14 tonnes. it was way beyond what could be in any way physically manhandled. But with three young children, it was still all down to my wife and I to berth her. This all had to be handled in the area of peak density of UK boating, The Solent, and in tight marinas that were optimised for boats that were 20% smaller so there was with little margin for error.

In short, it was a bit of a rude awakening. All of this had raised a level of unease within me that was approaching an aviation experience; tense take-offs, momentary liberation, then the apprehension for the inevitable tense landing. We even gave 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 to set aside some time to go back to basics with boat handling theory. I recommend the below videos to everyone. I had the benefit of a very good feeling for sailing a vessel and what I needed was to go down to the underlying principals and work this into my practice.

A couple of hours viewing and reviewing the following excellent videos, then applying this to my vessel in open water, transformed my handling. What I would also totally recommend is to find a local sailing school and see if they offer a manoeuvring course. The best option is for an instructor to come aboard your vessel and provide '1 on 1' coaching to finalise your skills and work out anything that may be causing concern.

For newcomers to sailing, I would absolutely recommend you take a course but still watch these videos, They will provide you with the requisite groundwork you need to then maximise your instructor lead time.


The singular best theory video I found 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.


Serving to underscore the value of course-led instruction by the UK's Royal Yachting Association (RYA) the following videos by their instructor Simon Jinks are all truly excellent. A thorough understanding of all these principals will be invaluable to any helmsman.

The first thing you will notice about a vessel is that it steers by swinging its back end about when you turn, or more appropriately, pivots as Simon describes here.

Another disconcerting tendency of a boat operating in reverse is ’fishtailing’. This is an application of the forward swing owing the boat's pivot point shifting significantly aft, or forward in the direction of travel, when the vessel is going astern.

Knowing what the wind does to your boat when you are trying to handle it under power, and compensating for it in the tight confines of a marina is essential.

My last vessel had a saildrive so prop walk is not as pronounced but she still has a noticeable more efficient anticlockwise turning circle. Most boats, however, will have significant prop walk and detecting and getting to grips with it will be more than useful.

Simon Jinks also discusses the joys of approaching tidal marinas 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. Likewise, build your experience steadily, don't push yourself beyond what you are comfortable with as if it goes wrong it will only set you back. Avoid working between pontoon fingers approaching the full run on the tides, especially the ebb and particularly during Springs. Don't be shy about calling a marina in advance and asking for an easy access berth, such as a Hammer Head type berth, or some assistance in coming alongside. Remember, everybody benefits from sailing being easier and without issue.

If you have come across a instruction video that you have found useful please comment down below and we will be delighted to add it.

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