10 Tips for Berthing a Boat

It doesn't matter whether you're a seasoned boater or a nautical newcomer, berthing a boat can be challenging and stressful regardless of your skill level. 

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Although berthing is relatively straightforward — you approach the dock, maneuver into place and secure your boat with dock lines — there's plenty of room for things to go wrong. Follow these 10 tips to make berthing your boat a lot less stressful.

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Berthing Tip #1: Practice Makes Perfect

Find a quiet jetty or pier where you won't be distracted by other boats, and spend a day sharpening your berthing skills. Practice docking with both the port and starboard sides of your boat in varying conditions, such as when the tide is coming in or out, when it's windy and when it's calm. You're never too experienced to improve on berthing a boat. Make a few practice runs once in a while to keep your skills on point.

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Berthing Tip #2: Assess the Conditions

Make a mental note of the surrounding conditions, including currents and tides; wind speed and direction; other boats in the vicinity; and the size of the berth. 

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Look for flapping mast lines and flags as signs of windiness, or the water's surface rippling for signs of currents and tides. The surrounding conditions will affect your attempt to berth, so be aware of them before coming in to dock. 

Berthing Tip #3: Make a Plan

Know exactly what you want to do before you do it. If it seems like an approach from one direction will be easier than another, plan accordingly. Don't just leave it to chance and hope for the best. Head into the wind or into a current/tide whenever possible, as doing so makes the boat's handling more responsive and predictable.

Berthing Tip #4: Have Lines and Fenders Ready

Being prepared is always better than not being prepared ... yes, we know, thank you Captain Obvious! But being unprepared happens all too often, even to the most experienced boaters. 

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Make sure all the mooring lines you'll need are ready, and tie fenders to the side you intend to dock against. The more fenders you use, the less likelihood there is of your boat hitting the dock and getting damaged.

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Berthing Tip #5: Have an Abort Option

Have an abort plan in place if something suddenly goes wrong. Once again, don't leave it to chance. Always have a bailout option you can use when things look like they're about to go amiss. Don't be afraid to abort an attempt to berth if something isn't right or if you have any doubts about how your execution will turn out.

Berthing Tip #6: Go Slowly

Go as slowly as possible while still retaining steering control over the boat. Never go any faster than the speed at which you would be comfortable having your boat make contact with the dock. Bump the motor in and out of gear to provide just enough thrust without excess speed. Don't use the throttle; just use the motor's idle speed to propel you.

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Berthing Tip #7: Continue to Monitor Surroundings 

Don't stop monitoring your surroundings for anything that might interfere with the berthing. Look out for boats suddenly moving into the vicinity, and maintain a watchful eye on the wind and any currents or tides. Things can change very quickly, so constantly monitor the immediate area and be prepared to use an abort plan if necessary.

Berthing Tip #8: When to Initiate the Final Turn

Usually you'll approach the dock at about 20-30 degrees. Depending on the angle and the speed of the approach, you should turn the wheel away from the berthing point. This final turn will move the stern toward the dock, and the boat's overall momentum should then bring the boat in parallel to the dockside. In a typical berthing maneuver, turn the boat away from the berthing point when you are about one boat length from the dock.

Berthing Tip #9: Ask For Help

Don't be too shy to ask for help from people on the dock. If someone is next to where you're berthing, toss them a line and ask them to tie it to a mooring. Having an extra pair of hands on the dock is especially useful if you don't have any passengers on your boat to help you out. Asking for help from someone who's already on the dock doesn't cost you anything, and most people are (we hope) happy to lend a hand.

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Berthing Tip #10: Berth Somewhere Else

When all else fails and you're just not comfortable berthing in a specific space, see if there is an alternative berth available that'll be easier to maneuver into. If you're uncomfortable with an assigned berth at a marina, speak up. Be honest and say you don't think your skills are up to par for safely maneuvering your boat into it, and ask if there is an alternative option.

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