Tag Archives: close quarters

Elements of Close Quarters Maneuvering, Part two

In this, the second article in the series on close quarters maneuvering, we will look at the shifter and its role in maneuvering the boat.

Neutral is the preferred gear

As mentioned in article one, 99 percent of the time our primary transmission position is always neutral. How we use the transmission depends on what kind of propulsion system our boat has and the adequacy of the rudder’s size, if there is a rudder at all.

There are two primary propulsion systems used in boats today, fixed and directed. Fixed thrust systems have the propeller in a fixed position. That is, the propeller is rotated on a shaft that is in a fixed position parallel to the centerline of the boat.

The boat relies on a rudder, usually mounted directly behind the propeller, which is turned via the helm. As the rudder passes through the water the water is deflected in the direction of the trailing edge of the rudder. If the rudder is straight (parallel to the boat’s centerline) the boat goes straight. If the rudder is turned to port then the water is deflected to port moving the stern of the boat to starboard.

When the stern pushes to starboard it rotates the bow to port and the boat turns in that direction. Rudder size is critical to how effective the rudder turns the boat. The boat only turns when water flows past the rudder. More water flow…more turn. Single or twin inboard boats including sailboats use this system.

In the other propulsion system, directed thrust, the propeller is rotated from the center-line toward one side or the other. Using this system, the boat is turned by the thrust of the water being directed in a certain direction. That thrust pushes the stern in the opposite direction from which the thrust is directed and that force rotates the bow opposite and the boat turns in the direction of the bow. Single and twin outboard, single or twin stern-drive, and jet drive boats use this type of propulsion system.

The practical difference between these two systems can be summed up as follows:

Directed thrust: The boat can only be turned when the transmission is in forward or reverse. With this system the turn is accomplished by water being trust in the direction the prop is facing. If the transmission is in neutral there is no steerage. Some outboards will have a slight amount of steerage from the water flowing past the lower-unit (the part of the motor that is submerged) but this steerage is minimal. In close quarters the helm must be turn in the desired direction BEFORE the transmission is engaged.

Fixed thrust: The boat can be turned anytime there is water passing by the rudder. Therefore, the transmission position is irrelevant to steerage; however forward or reverse momentum is necessary for the boat to turn. The propeller, when rotating in forward gear throws a constant stream of water directly at the rudder. So, even when the boat is stopped, if the transmission is engaged in forward, there will be immediate steerage. We will use this to our advantage especially on single engine inboard boats. The faster the water passes by the rudder the more steering control the boat will have.

A special note about inboard sailboats

While it is true with all boats that the primary transmission position is neutral, sailboats may require the use of some throttle when maneuvering in close quarters. Sailboats by design have a lot of lateral resistance (it keeps them from blowing sideways as they move forward). For more on this see my article ‘Blowin in the wind, how the wind impacts your boat’.

They are also equipped with relatively small engines, to reduce the weight and because it takes only a little power to move a sailboat, and small propellers to reduce the drag and because they have small engines. All of these things are admirable and desirable traits of sailboats.

They enhance the sailing performance. But they SUCK for close quarters maneuvering. Therefore, it may be necessary to add a little bit of throttle to get the same results as with other boats.

 States of momentum

Boats are always in one of three states of momentum. They are building momentum, exhausting momentum, or have no momentum. Furthermore, we can exhaust the boat’s momentum in two ways, actively or passively.

When done actively, a manipulation of the boat’s controls is done, such as moving the shifter from forward to reverse, or turning the helm from starboard to port, or a combination of both. Passively exhausting the momentum is accomplished by using natural means.

For example, if the boat is in forward gear and then shifted to neutral, the drag of the hull in the water will dissipate the forward momentum. Like wise, if the boat is yawing (twisting) to starboard in forward, and the transmission is shifted to neutral the twisting momentum will be exhausted by the required force to move the boat through the water. Got it?

In close quarters maneuvering we really like to passively exhaust the boat’s momentum. The best way to assure that is to always keep the boat needing more momentum, never less. When maneuvering in close quarters, we accomplish that by keeping the boat in neutral most of the time and when in gear, at idle speed. Yes I know that’s not what you’ve witnessed when on the docks or observed when on boats, but it should be.

The slower the approach the better

When approaching a slip the boat should be in neutral, only adding forward or reverse to maintain steerage. For directed thrust boats that means shift into gear to steer and then shift back to neutral. At the slip, as the back and fill turn is made, between each step, pause in neutral and let the momentum nearly exhaust itself before shifting to the other gear. Make sure the helm is turned prior to engaging the transmission to minimize unwanted forward or reverse momentum and maximize the yaw (twisting, for the last time.)

When approaching a dock, side-to (like coming along side a fuel dock), the boat should be under steady power only while a considerable distance from the dock. As the boat approaches from either a thirty-degree angle shallow approach or ninety degree angle steep approach the boat should be in neutral. The goal is to be able to add forward as needed to keep control when close to the dock. If the boat is moving at idle speed the whole way we will build far too much forward momentum and have to exhaust it actively, and that can have unpredictable results.

For example, we are approaching the dock on a shallow approach for a port side-to tie up. All is great except that we are moving to fast because we stayed in idle forward on the approach. We are going to overshoot our target spot. So, what do we do? We add reverse as necessary to stop the boat. YEAH! But the prop walk that we forgot about now slams the stern of the boat into the dock pilings and bends the stern pulpit or breaks the rub-rail. BOO! Had we been in the proper mode of always needing to add more momentum we would not have overshot, would not have needed to add reverse with power, and been able to charter from the company again. Golf anyone?

When executing a steep angle approach to the dock minimal momentum is critical. I have two things to say here. One, never approach the dock faster than you are willing to hit it, and two, you don’t look like an a*&hole until you hit the dock. Slow and steady wins the race. When we are about five feet from the dock we want to shift into reverse and start our rotation. How we rotate is fodder for another article and will be coming soon, but for now we need to rotate. This will be accomplished by forward motion nearly stopping and sideways momentum (yaw) starting. Again, neutral is the gear to be in on this approach. Start the rotation by aiming the gun to which ever side you want to be next to the dock and clutching into reverse idle speed, FOR THREE SECONDS. Now, back to neutral and let the boat’s yawing momentum carry the boat to the dock. Drop the lines onto the pilings, hand out business cards, and make some beer money teaching others to do the same.

There are times in life that you want momentum. Close quarter on a boat isn’t one of them. Go practice, or better yet give me a call and we can work on it together. But for now, I’ve got to run; I hear there’s a boat for sale with only some broken rub-rail and scratches. Maybe I can get it cheap.

See you soon, On the Water…With Captain Frank


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