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Cassiopeia is a big boat with a mass of around 20,000 pounds.  That means she has a lot of momentum, so when approaching a dock, care must be taken to control speed.

Before approaching the dock make sure you have good visibility, your boat hooks and dock lines in place, and your crew is briefed about your procedures.  Warn against being pinched between boat and dock and warn against jumping off.

In calm conditions, with little current, about one knot over ground (SOG) seems ideal, but strong currents or winds may make require different speeds and make docking difficult or impossible without assistance from shore.  Call for docking assistance on the VHF or cell phone and circle until satisfied that you can land safely or go elsewhere.

Have lines and fenders ready, a clear idea of the current and wind, and your plan for docking.

Be wary of volunteers who show up on the dock to help.  Most are boaters and competent, but some may take a line and tug on it, resulting in loss of control -- or fail to belay it as expected.  Don't be afraid to shout polite, clear, meaningful orders to these helpers. With both crew and bystanders, if you have to shout, say "Please" and "Thank you".

If approach speed is too fast, there is risk of damage or injury.  If the speed is too slow, the boat will lose steerage way and not respond to the helm.

One knot over water is about perfect.  Below one knot, the rudder stops having any effect.  Above that momentum is excessive. 

A sudden lack of control can be most disturbing, so maintain that minimum speed until docked or rotating into place.  Once begun, rotation does not require forward boat speed.

Currents and wind complicate matters, as the boat will drift with the water and be influenced by the wind, but the docks and other fixed objects will not.

Speed Over Ground (SOG) and boat speed in the water will be different.  SOG matters in terms of how the boat is approaching the dock, but speed in the water will determine how the helm responds -- or does not.

Confirm the presence or absence of current and its strength and direction by looking at the water surface nearby and observing the motion of the boat

Going forward: Although Cassiopeia responds well, and pivots nicely around the centre going forward, visibility over the bow can be tough if space is restricted.  Add a cockpit full of passengers and the distraction of children on board and seeing what is ahead can be problematic.

The usual advice applies, though. 

Assess the wind and current, then approach the dock slowly at about 30 to 45 degrees.  When the bow is almost touching the dock, at the spot where you want the stern to end up, turn the wheel over hard. The boat will pivot around the centre, with the bow moving out and the stern moving in.

When you arrive alongside, steer straight and give a short burst of power in reverse, and -- when the everything stops moving -- step off with the stern line and belay it.  Then do the bow line, or spring, as indicated if there is current or wind.  You should have a full minute or more to do this if you did everything right.

In reverse: Backing Cassiopeia is easy, and as long as you have a knot or so of speed, she will go right where you ask.  Since you are sitting over the rudder and have total visibility over the stern, all you have to remember is that the bow can be carried by the current or the wind and to look forward once in a while.

The amazing thing about Cassiopeia is how well she responds to rudder and throttle.  Most boats have "prop walk".  She has next to none.

Applying engine in reverse gear will send the boat backing neatly towards wherever the rudder is set, once the boat achieves enough speed to steer (about one knot).  Below steering speed, the boat will merely stop or back up, but not respond to the helm.

Tip: Check the rudder indicator on the instrument panel if you are not moving and you've forgotten where the wheel is pointed.

A quick burst of engine in forward gear -- pushing the throttle forward a second or two, then back to neutral or reverse-- will pivot the boat about the keel whether the boat is moving or not.  This is because a strong jet of water will back come from the prop and deflect off the rudder even when standing still.

In reverse, a similar pulse when stopped or nearly stopped will not pivot the boat, but slow forward motion or cause the boat to begin backing up.  No steering action will be apparent in reverse until a speed of about one knot is achieved, so short pulses of reverse power can be used as a brake.

Lines and fenders: If you don't know the dock your are approaching, cruise by the dock and take a look at dock height, condition, and the availability or lack of cleats.

  • Once you have taken a pass by the dock to assess the situation, move out a safe distance, circle, and arrange fenders and lines for the approach.

  • Hang fenders low, touching the water -- you can move them up later.

  • Have dock lines on deck or hanging on the lifelines, but make sure they won't fall in the water and foul the prop.

  • If you have trusty crew, they know the drill, but if your crew is inexperienced, be cautious as they can do unexpected things, harming themselves or compromising the boat.  Ask them to sit it out.

  • Regardless, always warn people not to jump ashore or throw lines to just anyone -- especially bow lines. 

  • Warn people not to get between the boat and some hard object when fending off.  The boat has a lot of momentum and can crush hands and feet, heads or bodies.

  • A 'helpful' bystander pulling on a bow line can really screw up your docking.  Rather, come alongside and hand over a stern line.

Spin the Boat on a Dime

Cassiopeia can be spun 360 degrees around her keel in her own boat length.  That means turning to any point in a circle without moving forward or backwards appreciably.  This manoeuvre is easy, but it seems counter-intuitive and until confident, it is best to practice in open water, away from obstacles.  Later, when mastered, it comes in very handy in tight spots.

  • Stop the boat dead in the water.  Ensure that all steerage is lost

  • Turn the helm all the way to either side depending on the desired direction of spin

  • Advance the throttle quickly to about 2000 RPM in forward gear for a few seconds until the boat begins to pivot.

  • The bow will begin to rotate, but very little if any forward motion will result.

  • Do not move the helm, but immediately shift into reverse, stopping only briefly in neutral and give a similar burst of power in reverse to counteract any forward motion. The bow will continue to rotate from momentum and all forward motion will cease.

  • always ensure you are still dead in the water, not moving forward or back

  • repeat the forward/reverse actions as required to spin the boat and remain on the spot until the bow is rotated to the desired direction.

  • when finished, centre the helm, add power, gain steerage way, and proceed.

Painless Docking
— by Barrie Jackson

This article appeared in the August 1996 issue of Pacific Yachting.

They’re too fast! They’re gonna hit! Legs flail — hands frantically claw the air. A head bobs down — a human fender! A boathook jabs and pokes and prods menacingly….

Finally, a seagoing "Evil Kenievel" saves the day in a death-defying leap from deck to dock. Except, he yanks on the bow line. The stern swings into the channel….

Phil Kott, 44, a tall, sandy haired executive, cringes sympathetically, "Docking used to be a big deal — a big monster. When I got into a bigger boat I expected it to behave like a Cal 20." Like many boaters, Phil believed good docking lay somewhere between luck and an arcane art. Now he knows it’s easy. He understands the handling characteristics of the boat and the reference points. "I tried to dock like I parked my car," Phil adds. "I didn’t fully appreciate that a boat pivots."

"A boat has three dimensions, a car has two," explains David West. A bearded, soft-spoken veteran Canadian Yachting Association Instructor-Evaluator, David explains that, unlike a car, a boat pivots around a central point. On sailboats, this point is usually just aft of the mast. When helm is applied the bow appears to stay in one spot and the stern pivots around it. In reverse, the propeller either aggravates this swing or negates it. "I didn’t put this together with the pivot point," Phil admits.

Viewed from astern, a right hand propeller turns to the right when going forward. In reverse it rotates counter-clockwise, to port, throwing water up and out the starboard side, which pushes the stern to port. A left hand propeller will do the opposite. Use this effect to advantage and dock on the favoured side. Any application of reverse power will swing your stern toward the dock — where you want it.

Plan your approach with these manoeuvring characteristics in mind, then assess the wind and current. Phil realized wind and current either worked for or against him, but he says, "I thought the wind was more powerful because I could feel it."

"Think about what’s happening under the water," David West cautions. "Most of the boat’s reaction is to current." Water is denser than air so a half knot current will have more effect than 15 to 20 knots of wind. The breeze, though, does cause the bow of most boats to pay off downwind because the stern section sits deeper in the water.

"Approach the dock head into the current and wind, if possible," says David West, "and use the slowest possible speed that allows you to steer the boat where you want it to go." Don’t use excessive throttle. Generally, maintain the speed with the engine in gear at idle. Pop it into neutral to slow down and back into gear if the speed gets too low. Avoid large blasts of power!

Approach the dock at a 30 degree angle. "At this angle the bow is pointing about where midships will be when you are alongside the dock," David explains. With this reference point you can better assess drift from current and wind. Adjust your speed and helm to compensate for the drift, to maintain the 30 degree approach angle.

Prior to commencing your approach, rig dock lines and station crew at the lifeline gates — not on the bow. Use sufficient fenders and brief your crew about your intentions and their duties for the docking.

Docking is easiest when you glide to the dock with the engine in neutral. Turn parallel along the dock just as it disappears under your bow. Once you’re nearly parallel, reverse your engine and gently apply power. Presto — you’re alongside!

David adds, "You’re not driving a truck. You don’t have to sit behind the wheel. Stand near the side of the boat that will be on the dock."

"When I first started, I thought if I went slowly I would stay out of trouble. I soon learned that key thing was to add some power so I didn’t lose control. And, if I have a strong on-shore wind, I turn parallel to the dock sooner," says Phil, who got the knack of it. "With a strong off-shore wind I wait a little longer."

Line Handling is part of docking. Once you’re stopped alongside the dock, your line handlers should step off, through the lifeline gates — not run, jump or vault or somersault. On the dock, one walks forward with the bow line, while the other walks to the stern. Don’t let the bowline handler pull excessively on the line, the stern will swing out. Secure the stern line first.

The bow and stern lines hold the boat onto the dock. Spring lines, leading from bow and stern to midships, prevent the boat moving forward or aft. "The engine," David says, "doesn’t get turned off until it’s cooled down, you’re on the dock, the spring lines are set and everything’s fine."

Now you’re docked — in style.


If you can secure a stern line either by tying, lassoing, or with a grapple, powering forward lightly will hold the boat against the dock indefinitely, or until other lines can be secured.

If only the bow is secured, powering forward will move the stern out from the dock.

With a stern line secured, reversing the boat will power the bow out, but there is danger of scrubbing the stern against the dock unless fenders are carefully arranged to prevent scuffing or the boat is held off with a pole.

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While the information provided here is believed to be correct at time of publication, errors are possible
and things may change, so readers should verify details before making important decisions.

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