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HSH Yacht Articles

Getting off a dock against the wind


Jeremy R. Hood

When you spend much of your working week moving boats around it gets pretty straight forward. You learn to check which way the stern will move when you put the boat in reverse, you can anticipate the way the wind will affect the boat and so, most times it is not too difficult. Indeed with continued practice it gets easier so that even aboard an unfamiliar boat it is possible to maneuver reasonably safely and effectively. But even with lots of practice and experience there are some situations which are just plain difficult and here it helps to have some specific techniques to help solve the situation.

Recently I arrived at the office to find that the large motor sailor moored alongside at the dock had to be at the yard for a haul-out by 10.00am. Getting away from the dock was not going to be easy (Fig 1). A strong wind was blowing the boat directly onto the dock and with its relatively high topsides the windage was considerable. And to add to the difficulty, the boat was in a spot where there was little room to move either forwards or backwards until the vessel was more upwind and in the middle of the fairway.

The prospective owner of the boat was already at the boat and being a ships pilot, he suggested the technique of springing the stern of the boat out from the dock. In many situations this is a good technique to use and is both effective and impressive as a method of getting away from a dock where you are being pinned by the wind. Either the bow or the stern can be sprung off allowing the boat to then make way away from the dock without hitting it or scraping alongside.

In many cases, springing the bow off is the favored technique as once this has been accomplished you can engage forward gear and motor away. The method works best when, in reverse gear the stern tends to move towards the dock but by using the rudder to direct the propwash it can also often be used even without this effect. Firstly position a crew member with a roving fender (one not tied to the boat) near the stern. then rig a spring line from the stern of the boat to a cleat on the dock roughly amidships (Fig 2). Ideally this line will be led from a stern cleat on the boat around a cleat on the dock and then led back to the boat so that it can be easily slipped off later by a crew member on the boat. Then with the engine in slow astern both bow and stern lines can be slipped. As more power is applied astern the stern will kick in towards the dock (hence the need for the fender) with the result that the bow moves out (Fig 3). Once the bow is far enough up wind, forward gear can be engaged and the vessel move out away from the dock with the spring line being slipped as way begins to be made.

A similar technique can be used to spring the stern off by rigging a spring line from the bow of the vessel to a cleat on the dock near amidships (Fig 4). This time forward gear is used and as the bow moves forward (and is pulled in to the dock) the stern moves out (Fig 5). Again a crew member with a roving fender is needed near the bow to protect the area as it comes into contact with the boat.

Both of these techniques work well when tied alongside floating docks or docks where there are no obstructions above the surface of the deck. But where the piling are high or other obstructions exist then you have to be extremely careful as it is very easy to damage davits, stern rails or windvane steering gear when springing off the bow or, damage bowsprits when springing off the stern.

This was my concern with the large motorsailor that we had to move. Springing the stern off was the only alternative as the vessel had a dinghy and davits at the stern which would almost certainly have caught between the piling on the dock. But in any case there was insufficient water ahead to make this feasible. The better alternative was springing off the stern but even here I was worried about the bowroller (though strong) getting caught on one of the piling and I was uncertain whether the boat would be able to get enough way astern to stop the bow being blown more downwind once the spring line was slipped. Indeed none of us was that familiar with the way the boat handled and we had no idea of how easy it would be to steer going astern. For these reasons I opted for a less impressive and more time consuming and cumbersome approach to the task. We decided to float a line down from the upwind dock so that we could pull the stern out into the channel in a controlled way (Fig 6). In fact had the boat not been fitted with a bow thruster we would have led a similar line to the bow. In this way we could maneuver the boat upwind into a clear area of water where the lines could be slipped and the vessel be free to maneuver. In fact we used the stern line in this case not only to pull the stern up into the wind but, by letting the bow blow down wind we were able to turn the vessel around so that she could head forwards out of the fairway. Though it was a more laborious method it worked perfectly and we were able to get the boat away and off in a controlled manner. Had the engine quit or some other eventuality occurred we could have held the boat from the stern at any time without risking it being blown into any of the other boats.

Making the right decision as to how to get your boat into or out of your slip or away from a dock in strong winds or currents is not easy. All of us want to appear proficient and able to maneuver our boat on a dime and it takes courage to rig extra lines or choose some method that is slow and somewhat cumbersome. But the latter is always good seamanship. The faster more flashy maneuvering may impress, but the risk of damaging your own boat or someone else's is always present. If you are not sure that a method will work in the prevailing conditions then don't attempt it. Either try something a little safer or postpone the whole maneuver until the conditions are easier. This way you won't have to deal with your insurance company more than once a year when you pay your premium. And remember the old adage about sailors: there are old sailors and there are bold sailors but there are not any old, bold sailors!

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