Boat Docking 101: Good Articles and Videos

There’s plenty of information available online about how to dock your boat. Some of it’s even pretty good. Trouble is, when you multiply boat types by docking situations by weather and current conditions, you get a lot of variables. A YouTube video showing a single-engine runabout coming up along a nice stretch of open dock, like this one from the U.S. Power Squadrons, is a good place to start if you’re a beginner.

close dockage
Close quarters: The finger piers are close together and the distance between docks is narrow. Boatowners here have to know how to maneuver, especially in a breeze.

But eventually you’ll need to come alongside a crowded dock, or pull in to a floating finger pier, or back into a slip between pilings, or back between other boats. You’ll have to deal with headwinds, tailwinds, crosswinds, and everything in between. Same for currents, in most places. So no matter how much you watch videos of docking and read about it – and you should do those things because they’ll help you understand all the elements involved —  the only real way to get good at it is to practice in your own boat, or in the boat of a friend. If you have a friend that wonderful, ask to watch him or her dock the boat a few times and explain what they’re thinking and doing at each step. Note the moving relationships between boat speed, approach angle, engine trim and angle (or rudder angle), and how the person at the helm is accounting for the effects of wind and current. In general, you’ll see that the people who are best at docking are both calm and slow. (OK, most launch drivers are calm and fast, but they do this for a living.) Here are links to some good docking articles:

Ultimately, nothing gives confidence more than time in your own boat, practicing the moves. But don’t practice them in a crowded marina. If a boat is new to you, or you’ve never been confident in your own boat, take it out and really get to know it in open water first. Back it up, turn in circles, and see how your turning radius is changed when you change engine speed. Note how much rudder control you have in reverse. Remember the effect of prop walk in reverse, and use it to your advantage.

close quarters
With neighbors this close, a slow approach is critical.

Practice coming alongside public docks and jetties when there’s open space and you won’t cause damage to anyone else if you botch a landing. If there’s a peanut gallery, the slower you go the less attention they’ll pay. Assuming that you’ve studied the elements of docking, watched the good and bad approaches of others, and learned how your own boat behaves, here are a few cardinal rules about docking any boat:

  • Whenever possible, use wind, current, and prop walk to your advantage
  • If wind or current will push you away from your landing, a forward spring line can really help.
  • Plan all your moves ahead of time.
  • Have your lines and fenders ready well before the approach.
  • Be clear with your crew about what what’s expected of them in terms of line and fender handling, and how to move from boat to dock.
  • Relax. Take it slow. If conditions dictate more approach speed and a last-second turn-and-grab, still stay relaxed.
  • If things start to turn sour on your approach, don’t pursue it. Back or turn away and start over. It’s hard to turn a bad approach into a good landing.
  • Don’t yell.

The only time yelling is appropriate is when someone is about to hurt themselves, as in when they try to fend off a 10,000-pound boat still moving too fast when it gets to the dock. Please let the inanimate objects absorb the contact.

Now that we’ve got all this time-honored seamanship out on the table, let’s relax and see how the Other Half are doing it – with joysticks. We don’t need no stinkin’ joysticks, right? Right?

Mercury Four-Engine Piloting for Joystick System

BRP Joystick Controls V6 Evinrude Outboards  

Yamaha Joystick Control in Action at the Miami Boat Show

Written by: Doug Logan

Doug Logan has been a senior editor of since 2010. He's a former editor-in-chief of Practical Sailor, managing editor and technical editor of Sailing World, webmaster for Sailing World and Cruising World, contributing editor to Powerboat Reports, and the editor of dozens of books about boats, boat gear, and the sea.


Self-Docking Automated Smart Boats
Self-Docking Technology in 2020
Category: Boating
Innovative self-docking technology is changing the way boaters enjoy their time on the water.