How To Dock A Boat

When it comes to docking a boat, the process can either be easy or challenging, depending on what type of boat you’re using. For instance, twin-screw boats can maneuver in very tight spaces by using one motor to push the boat forward and the other in reverse. Single-screw boats, on the other hand, can be a bit more complicated.

We may have gotten ahead of ourselves there, but by and large, you’re still dealing with the same principles. Boats are more challenging to maneuver than cars, and you can only really manipulate the stern, not the bow. You also still need to always account for wind, current, and other variables that could cause you to smash into a dock.

With all of that being said, docking a boat is not as difficult as it may sound. Whether it’s a single-engine, dual engine, or even a pontoon boat, if you follow these simple tips, you’ll be able to safely, and easily, dock your boat.

Ordinary Docking Procedure

Under normal circumstances, docking a boat is a simple, if slow, process. 

To properly begin your docking procedure, slow your vessel and come to a stop several yards from the dock. Attach fenders (if necessary) and prepare any dock lines, so they’re ready when you need them.

Survey the area for swimmers, boats, or anything else that may be in your path. Observe the direction of the current, the rise and fall of the water, and the strength and movement of the wind.

The best practice when approaching the dock is to position the boat at roughly a 30-degree angle. Take it slow with your approach, as there’s a good chance you’ll at least lightly bump the dock. Ideally, you want to stop with your prow just shy of the dock at a 30-degree angle.

Once in position, tie off the bow to a cleat or (if necessary) to a piling. Make sure you leave a few feet of slack in the line, about half the width of your boat. Once secured, begin turning your wheel, hard away from the dock, and give the boat a little forward throttle. This should cause the stern to glide alongside the dock while the bow rotates parallel. Then, tie your boat off at the stern, and you’re ready to go. You may want to tie off a third line in the center for larger vessels, but the principle remains the same. Always make sure to pull the ropes nice and tight and ensure that they are properly secured.

Docking In A Slip

Docking in a slip is different from simply pulling parallel to a dock because you need to make a 90-degree turn. Worse, you often need to make this turn in tight quarters.

To dock in a slip, begin the docking process as you usually would. Prepare any lines and fenders beforehand so they’re ready when needed. In the case of most slips, this means preparing both sides of the boat since you’ll be securing the vessel on both sides.

As you begin your approach, check your surroundings for swimmers and other hazards, then pull forward and perpendicular to the slip, just past the opening. From here, very slowly start backing into the slip. Crank the wheel hard if necessary to maneuver the boat into the tight quarters of the slip. This may take a little practice, and you may need to try the approach again a few times to get a feel for it.

The important thing here is not to steer directly into the slip. You need to start your approach with enough clearance that your boat can pivot while turning and back straight in. Too far, and you can oversteer. Too close, and you won’t be able to get the back end all the way around into the slip.

Again, moving slowly is rule number one, two, and three. Take your time, and tell your passengers to keep their seats. If they’re moving around, they could throw off your balance and complicate your maneuvering. In such close quarters, you could easily run into the side of the slip.

Once you have made it inside the slip, give the throttle a light forward thrust to stop cold. Tie the boat off on both sides, and the boat is docked.

Docking In Strong Winds

Powerful winds can make it difficult to maneuver close to the dock. Depending on the direction it is moving, it can be pushing you closer or actively fighting your approach. Here’s how to deal with some common wind scenarios.

For strong head or tail winds, approach the dock from a shallower angle, between 15 and 30 degrees. This will minimize the effect of drifting forward or backward as you swing the stern into place. The same is true if winds are blowing you towards the dock. Since the wind is on your side, you can make a relatively shallow approach.

However, wind blowing away from the dock is a different matter entirely. Since you’re fighting against the wind, you’ll have to approach at a sharper angle, between 30 and 45 degrees. This will minimize bow drift during your approach, making it easier to swing into place.

If winds are making it difficult to manage, you may need to reduce your sail area. No, we’re not talking about canvas sails. We’re talking about exposed, flat surfaces that catch the wind and affect drag.

The most notorious culprits are enclosed cabins and bulkheads with windows. When docking in high winds, open all the windows on both sides of the boat. This will allow air to flow freely, relieving most of the pressure on the vessel and significantly reducing drag.

Bow thrusters can also be helpful when high winds are present, as they allow you to move the bow without moving the stern. That said, remember that thrusters can easily become clogged. If you’re going to use them regularly, make sure to test them every time you plan on embarking on a trip to ensure they are in working order. Approaching a dock in windy conditions is not the ideal time to encounter a clogged thruster.

In situations with extremely windy conditions, you may need help docking. Don’t hesitate to call for help or even get on the radio if necessary. Sometimes, you may just need to throw a line to someone onshore.

In choppy waters, you may not be able to safely approach the dock at all. In this case, you’ll need to ride out the storm and wait until the water calms. Find an inlet or alcove where conditions are milder and drop anchor. You might be stuck waiting on your boat, but at least you’ll be safe.


While it may take a bit of time and practice, we hope that these tips will assist in future docking experiences. It may be impossible to avoid one of those awkward moments at the dock, but these insights should hopefully sharpen the learning curve and have you docking your boat like a pro in no time!