Basic Berthing - A few Tips and Tricks

29 February 2016

It will be no surprise to anyone that the area of greatest concern to most novice sailors is close boat handling. In other words, parking the boat.  Getting it wrong when berthing is not only embarrassing, it can also be expensive. The splintering of fiberglass is an unpleasant sound in any language.

All that said, like everything else, preparation beforehand and a few basic principles will get you a long way towards a safe landing and the admiration of your peers.

This is not the place to teach berthing techniques. We do that on the water, but if you take only a handful of tips from this blog, it may well save your security deposit! They are as follows;

  1. Have a plan. Know where you are going and have a plan for making a safe exit if something goes wrong.
  2. Make sure your crew know what you are planning. Get them off their mobile phones and make sure they all know their jobs.
  3. Use your fenders! Set your fenders at the right height (before entering the marina) and retain at least one fender to be held by a crew member. He (or she) is your get out of jail free card. Make sure they are well briefed on what they should do with the fender if needed and make sure no fingers and toes are used!
  4. Be purposeful but not fast. Approaching at about 1 knt is fine in most circumstances. You need to retain control, but there is nothing to be gained by ‘coming in hot’ unless there are significant winds or tides to contend with.
  5. Make sure your crew don’t ‘risk it’ and jump ashore. You deliver them to the dock and they step down from midships or from the stern (if coming in stern-to). They shouldn’t need a gold medal in the long jump! Make sure they take their line with them and that it is run correctly through fairleads and secured onto the appropriate cleat.
  6. Think about which lines need to go ashore in order to control your vessel after you stop. If you have a midships cleat and you are being blown off, then a breast line perpendicular to shore can be nice. You can even tick over against it to spring yourself onto the dock. You aren’t going anywhere fast once a breast line is attached abeam. Remember, you will pivot around the centre of effort, which on a yacht is the keel and the midships cleat if a breast line is attached.
  7. If needed, have an agreed signalling method with your bowman so that they can tell you distance from the dock on approach. Shouting is so uncool. Hand signals are better. Get the rest of the crew to clear your line of sight. Crew always want to stand in front of the helm. You’ll get used to this phenomena!
  8. In most circumstances, you should try to ‘park’ into the prevailing forces. In the UK the prevailing force is usually tide, then wind. If it’s very windy this may change of course. Coming in astern into wind is likely to serve you well. It’s hard to generalise here, but the bow on a sail boat will usually drop off down wind naturally (all things being equal), so why not come in astern and let the bow naturally follow? Remember to allow for the bow when turning and keep a firm grip on the wheel. If going fast, the rudder will have a tendency to spin the wheel out of your hands as the pressure on the rudder builds.
  9. Sometimes, it’s just going to be tricky. The downwind park astern for example. This is one case where you need to retain some speed in order to retain steerage and stop the bow blowing off. This can be risky, so if you are not confident, don’t be pressured. Is there somewhere else you can park first? The fuel dock maybe? Or can you go in forwards? It may be unconventional and make disembarking to dock tricky, but it may be a better option than crashing into your neighbours!
  10. In the Med, parking stern-to alongside a harbour wall is the norm. Having a crew member ready with a boat hook to pick up the mooring line and walk it to the bow, is essential; especially so if berthing downwind. If there is no mooring line, then laying an anchor and chain as you come in will help stabilize the bow and secure you alongside. But don’t drop an anchor if there are mooring lines set, unless you like spending your time alongside diving and unravelling anchor chain spaghetti! Once you are tied alongside, you can explore gently motoring against the line to change the attitude of the boat.

What if it all goes wrong!?

Sometimes things go wrong and your options will reduce very quickly. Don’t worry. Worse things happen at Sea! 

If you are definitely going to crash, you may as well crash slowly. Take off any forward or backward motion, get those fenders (and your roving crew) ready for impact and keep fingers and toes well clear. Keep calm, don’t shout and scream, but if you need some help don’t be afraid to ask. Get the boat stopped and under control. Tie on to whatever you have landed on (if sensible and practicable to do so) and reassess your options. You may need to consider running lines ashore to help you recover from your landing place. Think it through and start again.

You may also be interested in our Skills and Drills course or our range of Mediterranean RYA Sailing Courses

If you’d like to talk to us about further training and boat handling feel free to call our senior instructor for a chat on 07925 784407 or contact us. We are happy to help.