Elements to Close Quarters Maneuvering For ALL Boats Part 1 of 6

  • Elements to Close Quarters Maneuvering For ALL Boats Part 1 of 6

Close quarters maneuvering

Maneuvering a boat, any boat, in close quarters is all about spatial awareness and controlling the boat’s momentum. Actually, boats don’t have momentum in and of themselves; rather, we instill momentum in the boat. How we instill and then control that momentum varies widely depending on the hull design, propulsion type, number of engines, added equipment on the boat, weather conditions, and the environment that we are operating in, but the thought process and the concepts are unchanged.

This article, written in several parts, will discuss the impact various elements have on a boat when in close quarters. Rather than trying to describe, step by step, the process of docking (that only works for a single docking, the next one will be completely different), we will look at the individual components of the maneuver and how to make them work the way you want.

Common elements of close quarters maneuvering

There are some common elements regarding maneuvering to all propulsion types and engine quantities. These elements include:

  1. Figuring out how the wind and/or current is impacting the boat (this will have significant influence on the decisions made in #4)
  2. Neutral is the primary shifter position
  3. Minimal throttle use (Most of the time the throttle will lead you directly to an insurance claim)
  4. Deciding how you want to actually move; forward or reverse, move the bow or the stern, and in which direction you want to move the bow or the stern.
  5. Position the boat rather than drive the boat into the slip
  6. What is the escape plan?

How the wind and current impacts maneuvering

In this article, the first in the series, we will take a look at element 1–figuring out how the wind and/or current is impacting the boat. Each subsequent article will speak about another of the common elements in detail. We’ll do this by examining the most common and often problematic close quarters maneuver—docking in a slip stern in.

Rule #1: Stop and observe the conditions BEFORE you enter the fairway.

Before ever entering the fairway to a slip it is critical to evaluate the wind and current to see how they are going to impact the boat as you approach the slip. This is often not easy, because the conditions at the slip may be significantly different than what you are experiencing at the end of the fairway.

Often, there are buildings and/or other boats around the slip; the wind blows around each of these obstructions differently and with different strength. If there is a boat, significantly larger than the boat you are docking, in the area near the slip you are trying to enter, it may block the wind from all or part of your slip. Large buildings nearby can have the same effect.

Gusty winds will significantly complicate the docking. Many times if you simply wait and observe the pattern of the gusts (actually the pattern of the effects of the gusts) on the fairway and slip area then the maneuver can be timed so that the impact is minimized. Patience my friend, good things come to those that wait.

Rule #2: Keep the stern to the wind whenever possible.

Wind and current will impact your maneuver in several ways. We need to discuss their impact on the boat separately before we can look at how they impact the boat together.

In general, a powerboat will respond more reliably if it is positioned with the stern to the wind. The broad flat surface of the stern will make the wind’s force more consistent on the boat. With the stern to the wind, the wind acts as a braking force. It is desirable to have to push against the wind—to have to apply power to make progress against the wind. When doing so the amount of adjustments required are fewer and the amount of undesired momentum is minimized.

If the bow is to the wind and the boat is backing, the wind is constantly trying to swing the bow to one side or the other and more power is needed to keep the stern “ahead” of the bow. As a turn is started the wind will push the bow down quickly and there is very little that can be done to stop it. Additionally the added power that was necessary to keep the stern ahead of the bow will have increased the boat’s speed and it will be difficult to slow the boat. Control over the boat’s momentum is lost!

Furthermore, it is easier to get the bow and stern to utilize the same or near same path if the stern is dragging the bow behind it rather than pushing the bow in front of it. If you are trying to push the bow into the wind you are forced to add excess power, which will result in the boat moving forward more than turning. The final result will be a turn requiring a much larger radius and as such more room. Something we just don’t have when in close quarters.

Rule #3: Put the bow of the boat into the current.

Current impacts the boat differently than wind. When maneuvering the boat in current keep the bow into the current. By putting the bow into the current the surface area exposed to the current is minimized. The bow splits the current allowing it to pass down both sides of the boat. There is less surface area under the water directly opposing the current at the bow of the boat.

Like the wind, the current is not necessarily the same at the end of the fairway as it is where the slip is. Unlike the wind, the conditions that impact the current are below the water and therefore more difficult to read. Current is impacted by water depth and underwater obstructions such as pilings, rocks, and hulls near the slip. One significant advantage when dealing with current as opposed to wind is that wind can be gusty and variable in strength, current is not. Current will flow steadily in one direction during your docking. In that way it is easier to manage than the wind.

In general, you should decide which of the elements, wind or current, is the primary force that will be impacting your boat and setup your strategy for that. You will need to alter the technique used for that element to contend with the other element. It is all about managing the momentum that the boat has developed. Try not to get into a situation where you are unable to control that momentum.

Current is named for the direction in which it flows. Wind is named for the direction from which it comes. So, for close quarters maneuvers it is advantageous for the wind and the current to have the same name (east, east or south, south.) If both the wind and current have the same names then you will have the best of both worlds—bow to the current and stern to the wind. Unfortunately we don’t often get to choose the wind or current direction. So, you must learn to deal with the hand you have been dealt. Do this by practicing, A LOT! Start by maneuvering the boat with only one of the two components impacting it. Grow more proficient and gradually add in the other element.

Rule #4: Figure out early what impacts the wind and current are having on the boat before it enters the slip.

Wind and current will impact your boat in one of four ways as you enter the slip. Here are the possibilities:

  1. Blow you straight out of the slip (parallel to the dock)
  2. Blow you straight into the slip (parallel to the dock)
  3. Blow you away from the side dock (perpendicular to the dock)
  4. Blow you toward the side dock (perpendicular to the dock)

Rarely will the wind and current do just one of these four. Usually they will have both a parallel and perpendicular component. There will be times when the wind and current will be working with each other (in that case take a mooring ball, dingy in, go to the bar and drink up till you have absorbed new skills.) In any case it is important to recognize what Mother Nature is doing to the boat and start maneuvering to combat or take advantage of whatever impact is going on. I think that a combination of scenario 2 and 3 is the hardest to deal with, while 1 and 4 would be the easiest.

Some might argue that being blown away from the dock is advantageous because the wind, acting as a fender, keeps the boat away from making contact with the dock. That’s true! However, that same advantage requires us to power closer to the dock to allow crew to step off and tie the boat up. It requires a much finer touch and thorough understanding of managing momentum in order to avoid big damaging bumps into the dock and pilings. Being blown into the slip is always problematic because the wind is accelerating the boat rather than resisting it. You will need to deplete backward momentum just as momentum is needed to close the two-foot gap that is keeping the crew from being able to step off.

Rule #5: If conditions allow for it, use FERRYING to bring you to or away from the dock.

In general I like scenarios that push me to the side dock and out of the slip. Whenever you encounter a “push to the side dock” or a “straight in” or “straight out” wind you can utilize a technique called ferrying. When a boat is ferried, it is maneuvered so that the wind is pushing on its side. By doing so, all that is required by you is to hold or slowly advance the boat’s position in or out of the slip. The side component of the wind delivers the boat to the side dock. This is best practiced at an open dock such as a fuel dock or tee head.

To practice this, determine the wind’s combined effect on the boat. If there is a “to dock” component then ferrying will only work to take you to the dock. If there is an “off dock” component then you can only use this technique to take you away from the dock. “Down dock” or “up dock” only winds will work either way.

For example, if you have a “down dock” wind then position you boat’s stern to that wind with the boat 10-15 feet from the dock. To go to the dock turn the boat so the bow is slightly further away from the dock. This will present the outboard side of the boat to the wind. By doing this the wind will start to push the boat sideways to the dock. It will also start pushing the boat down the dock. Add a combination of reverse power and neutral to counter-act the “down dock” component, holding the boat on station. It may be necessary to adjust the amount of power to hold the boat in position without advancing or retreating. Using “boater’s eye” will be key in assessing the management of forward or reverse momentum. When the boat arrives at the dock, step off and secure it.

To leave the dock, simply position the stern slightly into the wind and the wind will push the boat away from the dock. Again, use reverse and neutral along with your boater’s eye to keep the boat on station as it move sideways from the dock.

If it is current you are dealing with then the procedure will be exactly the same except you will maneuver the boat so it is bow into the current and you will use forward and neutral to hold station. Once you have mastered ferrying you will be able to use it as the boat enters a slip.

 Rule #6: Pilings will often be your friends; don’t be afraid to use them.

One last thing, the myth that the boat should never touch the dock or pilings is just bunk! It must have been started by some never been in the real world engineer. You know, the type that does it on paper and therefore that is how it is. They have never actually stepped on a boat in the wind and tried to put it safely back in the slip. There is a whole category of close-quarters maneuvers that involve using pilings, docks, and lines. I will discuss these in detail in the last part of this series, but let me just mention this tidbit now.

Let me start by saying, there is a big difference between letting the boat lay up against a piling and slamming into the piling at three knots. Laying the boat gently against a piling is a great way to use that piling as a lever. For example if you are backing into a slip and lay the port side of the boat against a piling, by adding reverse (with port prop walk) you can pivot the boat’s stern to port and then simply back into the slip. By allowing the boat to lightly bounce off that piling, the key word here is LIGHTLY, the boat’s momentum will change away from the piling and there will be room to allow the rest of the boat to pass the piling without touching it.

In addition, resting against a piling will often give you the time needed to sort out a docking situation that is…well, lets just say, not awesome. Anyhow, using pilings as tools to aid in parking the boat safely is perfectly acceptable and at times the only way to get the job done. Way more on this later.

As this series progresses you will see that we will refer back to previous articles. That’s because while we are discussing each element separately, in the end they all work together.

Stay tuned to more Close Quarters Maneuvering but, for now, go get On the Water…With Captain Frank

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