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Taking a vessel alongside and holding it stationary with just one dock line

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What is the issue?
Coming alongside a berth or slipping one can be a challenge. In the case of coming alongside, the boat has to be tethered with shorelines quickly so that it does not overrun or fall off forcing the helmsman to go around again to make another attempt.

When departing, at least the last two shorelines have to be released from the wall or pontoon in quick succession. This is a challenge for two-handed vessels, because once one end of the boat is let off you then have to run to release the other almost immediately and clamber aboard. Even with slip lines Experience set, the person releasing the lines has to run from one end of the boat to the other and it requires more time to take in the long lengths of line that form the bight. Single-handers are severely challenged.

Why address this?
Berthing and departing can be stressful at the best of times. It is a prime time for a crew member to get injured, go over the guard rails or for the vessel to run up on a nearby object or another boat. Anything that makes it easier will make life much better.

When I had to put a 46' footer into a tight inside berth with a berth that was subject to a running tidal stream, a boatload of kids, that were dispatched below for safety and a partner that was rightly not up for jumping like a mountain goat, this was a big deal for family days out. I felt like an airline pilot, tense takes-offs, then bliss tinctured by the thought of getting everyone back on terra firma in one piece.

How to address this?
Use the 'spring line docking' technique that enables a single line, in conjunction with a little forward engine thrust, to take and hold the vessel firmly up against the dock.

Getting a feel for it: A little prior testing in a marina is required to find the sweet spot for attaching the spring line to your particular vessel. Attach the line to a dock cleat located off the aft quarter of the boat and then attach it to various strongholds on the vessel from midship and back. We used the winch as it happens. Then slacken the dock lines and power gently forward onto the line turning the helm towards the dock.

You are using the push forward on the line to pull the vessel alongside and the push of the prop wash off of the rudder here to stop the vessel's bow from drifting out. This might take a bit of experimentation with vessels that have a pronounced 'prop walk'. But it will work regardless and the 'prop walk' is not central to it, although it will help and hinder in keeping the bow in depending upon your vessel's walk and the side you are coming in on.

When you have the correct attachment point the gentle thrust into the single spring line will firmly push the vessel tightly alongside. We found on our vessel, a Bavaria 47, that the optimal point for connection was as far aft as the front end of the cockpit and she sat perfectly with the line on the winch by good fortune, but all boats are different so just experiment with a bow and stern line left lazy. Once you have a feel for it on the boat experiment with it a little, maybe even move the position for different berths. Likewise, check each position when there is a strong wind pushing the vessel off the dock to see if a little extra power is required to hold it in place.

Getting set up: Once you find the sweet spot all you need is a good docking line that is appropriate for your vessel. But make sure it has a good bounce in it because otherwise, you will have sudden shock loads on your fixing point and the vessel once you power into it. The perfect line is one that has an inherent shock-absorbing quality of itself, for which nylon is the best commonly-used rope-making material. Twisted lines such as three-strand or multiplait also tend to be better as their construction inherently stretches under load.

I might also suggest you dedicate the line to the purpose which is particularly useful if you have a fixed berth. Our marina berth happened to be short, making it easy to overrun and strike the bow. So we measured the perfect amount of line, with some added allowance for the bounce, which when over the outermost cleat of our short finger stopped us from running the bow up on the front pontoon. It was also the perfect distance for keeping her nice and tidy when all her lines were on.

What is also useful as an extra precaution is the drop a couple of fenders just back from the bow should a gust/current turn it in against the pontoon when exiting. These are even more important when coming in, but don't overly rely on them as they can ride up with the motion.

Comming Alongside

This is truly an excellent technique to use when docking the boat. We had our line attached to the end of a telescopic boat hook which was an improvised idea of the manufacturers specific version Experience designed to aid berthing.

Armed with this, all we had to do was to come up alongside just close enough to lay the top of the pole over the cleat and drop our line loop end over it. Once that was on, it was all over for us. All we had to do is let the boat gently drift on in, with a little gentle push of power if still needed, so the line would load up. Then the transverse force would come on and the line pulling our vessel alongside the pontoon as if it was on a hinge.

If you come in a little askew, with the bow too close to the pontoon, quickly bring the helm over so as to steer away from the pontoon, and give a little kick, a short burst of thrust, or two, to use the prop wash upon the rudder to push the stern in towards the pontoon and spin the bow out. Or vice versa. When these are in hand, steer forward and as the vessel glides in and onto the line, pulling in tight against the pontoon.

Then when she is alongside finally turn the rudder all the way towards the pontoon and leave the engine ticking over. This wash will keep the bow planted and the vessel is already held in place forward and amidship by the diagonal pressure on the line.

That's it, job done. The boat will sit stationary of its own accord and you have ample time and control to get the other shorelines in place with the minimum of fuss and then turn off the engine.

Slipping a Berth

In this case, you don't use your fixed line but set up the same arrangement with a slip line. Start the engine then turn the helm towards the dock and power into it gently until the boat is being pressed alongside by the line. Then slacken the dock lines, check all is still good, then remove all the other lines until the boat is sitting alongside on the single slip line. Then, when you are ready to go, drop the boat into neutral and take in the slip line to exit as normal.

A variation of this approach is a 'slip drop' set-up where the lines are set up in a triangulated form to allow it to fall off the cleat almost of its own accord as demonstrated in the second video below.

Standard Procedure

Shorthanded and handling a big vessel, we used this as our standard procedure when docking and slipping berths and it dramatically simplified all our berthing arrangments. In fact not knowing the technique's proper name we fondly called it the 'Lord of the lines' approach and so named our dedicated line, as this one-line ruled and eliminated all the rest.

It was a big help with our docking and exits. There was no more reckless jumping onto pontoons, running and grabbing lines with ends of boats swinging out. You could forget about any other lines and leave her ticking over in forward, go up to the pub and have lunch and she would not budge an inch - provided the engine stays ticking over. But we never did that, needless to say.

With thanks to:
Michael Harpur, Yacht Obsession

Walkthrough of the procedure

Spring Line docking technique explained

Using the single-line technique to vacate a berth

Using the single line technique to berth

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