How to Properly Raft Up: Tying Boats Together Safely

Whether you own a pontoon boat, a ski and wakeboard boat, or even a fishing boat, there will likely come a time and a place where you want to raft up with some friends. But rafting up, much like mooring a boat, has to be done the right way. Otherwise, your boat – and those of your buddies around you, can get damaged.

Boat Raft Up - Tying Two Boats Together

Haulover Sand Bar in Miami Florida is a popular place for boaters to raft up – i.e. tie their boats together for an on-the-water party. Photo via Pond5.

What is Rafting Up?

“Rafting up” is simply tying a number of boats together, usually side by side, close enough for the occupants to hop from one boat to another. Two boats can raft up together for an afternoon of fun, or 20 can raft up for a major-league party on the water. In some places, huge rafts of boats form up for special events. One of the most famous is Aquapalooza, a series of on-the-water boat parties that can attract thousands of boats. But huge boat raft-up events and concerts occur nearly every weekend in some of the nation’s most famous boat party coves.

No matter how many boats are involved in this sort of get-together, the one common factor is that they all get tied closely together. And, therein lies the potential rub. Any time you have boats in such close proximity they can bang into one another and cause chipped gel coat, bent rails, or worse. This is true even though boats that are rafted up usually have their engines shut off, because of natural wave action and the wakes formed by boats that aren’t part of the raft up.

How to Raft Up Boats Properly

So, what’s the best way to raft up? The basic procedure include:

  1. Choose which boat will be the “anchor” boat. This should be the biggest boat involved in the raft.
  2. The anchor boat should drop anchor, and make sure it’s firmly set. In situations where wind, current, or wakes from boat traffic may cause the boats to swing on the anchor, setting out a second stern anchor (assuming sea conditions allow for it) can help minimize the movement.
  3. The anchor boat then sets fenders over the side on which rafting will take place. Two fenders are minimal for a boat up to about 20 feet, and a third fender should be added for each five or so additional feet of LOA.
  4. The second boat should also deploy fenders, prior to pulling up alongside the anchored boat slowly and cautiously.
  5. Occupants of the boats then hold them in place while tying lines to the cleats. Tying lines in an “X” shape (from the bow of one boat to the stern or spring cleat of the other) as well as bow-to-bow and stern-to-stern is best.
  6. Be sure to use cleats only, for tying up. Many people wrap lines around rail stanchions, windshield supports, or grab rails, but this is a mistake. Cleats are designed to take major weight loads, but those other pieces and parts are not.
  7. When the lines are in place, the occupants should manually pull the boats as close as possible and tighten all of the lines up as much as they can. The idea is to trap the fenders between the hulls or rubrails and allow for as little motion between the boats as possible — the tighter those lines are, the better. Also adjust fender height as necessary, after the boats have been joined.
  8. If a third boat joins the raft, it should tie up on the opposite side of the anchor boat. As more boats join the party, they should alternate sides so there’s as equal a load as possible on either side of the anchor boat.
  9. Boats of similar sizes should try to raft next to each other since their gunwale heights will be closer to each other. So if you have multiple boats coming together, after the biggest drops anchor the next-biggest boats should move in, then slightly smaller ones, and so on.
  10. Raft up all the boats in the same direction, with the transoms as close to each other as possible. That way people can walk from swim platform to swim platform rather than trying to climb over the side of one boat and into the next.

When the day’s fun is done, the raft simply disassembles from the outside boats to the anchor boat.

Boats Anchored Together And Rafted Up At Snipe Key in Florida

Above: A big group of boats anchored together, some of which are rafted-up, at Snipe Point in Snipe Key Florida near Key West. Photo by Ryan McVinney for Boat Trader.

Other Rules For Rafting Up

Whenever boats are rafted up there are some other special concerns to keep in mind — whether you’re going to join in the raft, or not.

  • Never cut between a raft of boats and a close-by beach. Most people set up rafts next to a beach for swimming, and when you see a raft next to a beach you can bet there’s a good chance people are in the water.
  • Never cut close to the stern-side of a raft. The reason is the same; often there will be swimmers in the water.
  • Reduce speed to minimize your wake any time you go by a raft of boats. Even when they’re tied up properly, large wakes can damage rafted boats and that can ruin the fun.
  • Prior to joining a raft, always warn the occupants of your boat to make sure they don’t let their hands, arms, feet, or legs get between the two boats. If someone’s body part gets pinched between two rubrails, injury can occur.
  • Once rafted minimize the use of generators or the engine(s). Your raft-neighbors probably won’t appreciate the fumes.

Rafting up with friends is a great way to expand the social aspects of a day of boating. Just make sure you’re prepared to secure the raft up properly, and then you can prepare yourself for loads of fun.

Written by: Lenny Rudow

With over two decades of experience in marine journalism, Lenny Rudow has contributed to publications including YachtWorld, boats.com, Boating Magazine, Marlin Magazine, Boating World, Saltwater Sportsman, Texas Fish & Game, and many others. Lenny is a graduate of the Westlawn School of Yacht Design, and he has won numerous BWI and OWAA writing awards.

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