Outboard Powerboat Handling, Part 1 – How to Dock A Boat

August 29, 2014

Learn how to dock a boat from a veteran. Avoid the mishaps and dock in style with this safe and reliable docking method. Don’t forget dock lines and fenders!

Navigate Further...

You can see more about ABACO in the video Brilliant Designs - Small Power Boats.

You can also see Ben & ABACO in action on a photo shoot for the Calendar of Wooden Boats in the video Shooting CHARLENA.

With larger outboards like ABACO's 115 HP Yamaha 4 stroke, hydraulic steering makes maneuvering easy- especially when paired with a good wheel and a spinner (a.k.a. PowerKnob). Ben thinks the comfort grip steering wheel from Edson Marine is great.

ABACO is a 20' outboard runabout designed and built by Willard Albury on Man-O-War Cay. Plans for ABACO have been drawn up by Off Center Harbor Guide Doug Hylan and are available from The WoodenBoat Store.


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– [Narrator] Boats with outboard engines are great. They’re agile, easy to work on and fun to operate. Knowing how to handle them is the difference between a good day on the water and an insurance claim. We wanted to get some pointers from someone with a lifetime of hands-on experience, so we went to Off Center Harbor co-founder Ben Mendlowitz. Ben has been maneuvering outboards through mooring fields, marinas, and rocky coastlines for over 30-years, while shooting photos of the finest boats in the world for magazines, books and his calender of wooden boats. In this series, Ben will show us how to handle our boats safely and gracefully under power.

– Yeah, so you know one of the things that we all do with these boats is come and go from a deck, if you get fuel, you’re coming up to a fuel dock or a float of some kind, pickin’ up people at a dock. And there’s a sort of classic way to do it which is coming on, bough in a little bit and then kicking the stern around. Now the wind is side on to the dock, so not sure what the current’s gonna do to me, but I know the wind element anyway will push me onto the dock, so I don’t wanna come in too tight because then I’ll be right on the dock. So, start my turn maybe a little bit earlier out here a little bit. It’s a nice big fender on this dock, so if we do mess up it’s not gonna be a disaster. So, you don’t need to be goin’ too fast, in at a little angle like that, then spin the engine hard over to starboard and give yourself some reverse and pull the stern in just like that. And here we are align parallel to dock. That’s the safe way to do it. Don’t be deceived by some people who come in really fast and give it a good shot of reverse. It’s a technique that really experienced boaters will use, but there are two things you have to understand, they have incredible confidence that they’re gonna get reverse when they ask for it and if there’s any chance at all that your engine’s gonna stall, you’re gonna be in big trouble. The other thing is they have a huge amount of experience, you’ll see lobstermen do it. They’re doing it every day, 10 times a day. But it sure makes me nervous ’cause I’ve seen this engine not, you know, stall on the way from forward to reverse and then you’re in big trouble, but we’ll see if I can demonstrate it without hittin’ too hard. So that’s a little faster version of the same maneuver. But again, just because you see people do that, don’t think that’s necessarily the proper way. It takes a lot of experience and practice. We’re gonna come up to a dock and you know, stay for a few minutes, so we probably wanna tie up and just maybe a two-line tie up system, no spring lines required I don’t think here. So I’m gonna rig a bow line. These great rugged windshields are good for holdin’ on when you have to climb forward. If I know I’m gonna be coming to a dock, I’ll rig a bow line and the smart thing to do is don’t leave it up on deck, but carry it around, lay it around the windshield and make sure it’s not in the water ’cause you don’t want it to end up in your prop. But, right there, it’ll be easy at hand. This dock has got pretty good fenders, but I think it’s good practice to put your fender on as well. And, this will give you a little more protection. So I usually rig a fender about here, just above the water. So we got a stern line, we got a bow line ready to go and we’ve got a fender. So I’m gonna bring her back in to our float. The fender now the bow’s startin’ to pull off, but no problem I can grab the bow line, grab my stern line right here and have both lines to pull now. If the wind was blowing off shore, I’d have control of the boat. I usually like to tie the stern in pretty tight. Since I’m using a single fender system, she’ll ride right there on this fender and then not too tight on the bow line. You know, one of the most common problems you have when coming to a dock is throwing a line to an inexperienced person and having them pulling the bow in too tightly. You don’t want that bow line ever to be tightened up until you’re ready to secure the boat. So I’d rather handle the lines myself unless I really know who’s on the dock. You know, we’re not gonna be here overnight, we’re just here for get some gas or pick up some people, so we don’t need to tie her off for the big hurricane or anything, we just need to tie her so she’ll be secure for 10 or 15 minutes. I’m gonna snug this up just a little bit. I’ve got a good half oval here, so I don’t have to worry about this corner of the boat coming in and hitting the dock. So with a tight stern line, it’s actually also acting as a spring line. It’s preventing it from going back very far, you know, maybe half a foot or a foot. Then she just takes up right tight or going forward, it’s also springin’ her, so she can’t go too far forward, so it’s all happening with this stern line here and my bow line I’m leaving pretty loose. The bow line is just holding the boat in position parallel to the dock, so that single fender does its job. When you leave the dock, it’s kind of the opposite order of things. I always take the bow line off first, even if there’s an off shore wind, the worst that can happen is the bow will blow off a little bit and you kind of want it to blow off because you’re headin’ off. So take the bow line off, I’ll reach in and usually start the engine up and then take my stern line off. And with a good push off. And make sure you get all your lines inboard, so nothing’s gonna drag in the water and foul your prop. And certainly don’t forget your fender, ’cause once you’re clear of the dock you don’t need your fender anymore, you wanna get it inboard. Nothing says you don’t know what you’re doing like driving around with the fenders hanging over the side.


19 Responses So Far to “Outboard Powerboat Handling, Part 1 – How to Dock A Boat”:

  1. Avatar Winston Shaw says:

    Great tips! One of the biggest mistakes I see folks making while docking is coming into the dock parallel to the face of the dock while trying to get as close to the face of the dock without hitting it. As Ben demonstrates in this video coming in at an angle and then using reverse to kick the stern in works better. Over the years I’ve also learned to limit the length of my normal bow line to just shy of the prop. That way if I somehow forget to secure the line onboard after shoving off it won’t get wound up in the prop…not, you understand, that Imever do that.. If a particular docking situation requires a longer bowline I have one handy to use.

  2. Avatar Bill Perkins says:

    I’ve got the same engine .As it aged I was occasionaly embaressed by it conching out at idle when manouvering in tight spaces .At my mechanics recomendation I started useing Yamaha’s RingFree fuel aditive .End of problem -Smoooth reliable idle .

    • Avatar Ben Mendlowitz says:

      Thanks Bill, my 2006 Yamaha 115HP rarely dies when shifting. It can be a bit rough at idle, so maybe I’ll try a can of the additive. I’ve been lucky to have ethanol free gas available for the last few years, so that has helped eliminate any fuel issues and gives a bit more power over the alcohol diluted fossil fuels.

      • Avatar Bill Perkins says:

        Yea ,2006 . I use my boat year round here inGeorgia ;but intermittently .Sometimes the boat is idle for a couple of months at a time . I think haveing the additive in the injectors during storage may be doing the good . This is my first fuel injected engine and my first 4 cycl. All good .

  3. Avatar martin gauthier says:

    Your comment “Nothing says you don’t know what you’re doing like riding around with your fenders hanging over the side” reminds me of our departed friend Dick Wagner. I’m sure he wasn’t the first to say it but he said it often.

    Thanks for the video..

  4. Avatar Captain Nemo says:

    Great video, Mr. Mendlowitz, and I love Abaco – she’s a dandy! I have a couple of observations though, regarding some things which I do a little differently when getting underway. My volunteer dive unit owns 6 boats, all under 20-feet in length and only one of which has a prop. The rest are jet drives because we routinely operate with and around divers in the water, and a jet drive lower unit is far safer for that situation. At 6:22 seconds into the video, you reach in and start the engine while still on the dock. I feel this isn’t the best practice, and advocate only starting the engine from the helm. Also, if you do this with a jet drive – even with the engine in neutral – the boat will slowly back away from the dock, since jets have a clamshell device which sits in the nearly down position while in neutral, directing a small amount of thrust backwards until they’re shifted into forward. The thrust isn’t as great as when the engine is in actual reverse mode, but its still apparent, and if one were to start the engine while outside the boat with the bow line loose or disconnected, things could get a bit dicey.

    Instead, what I do when getting underway while running solo is uncleat the lines while leaving a single turn around each cleat, then take them back into the cockpit with me as I board. Then, after the engine is running, I can flip them off the cleats and get underway. Alternately, I may lead one line from its single turn around a dock cleat and secure it to the boat’s quarter cleat, then place the engine in either slow ahead or slow astern (depending on which way is best) then go forward or aft to remove the other line. (Sort of like a spring line in reverse.). But I do love your videos and the entire site. I’m very glad I finally decided to take the plunge (pun intended) and join OCH.

    Greg Mactye
    (AKA Capt. Nemo)

    • Avatar Ben Mendlowitz says:

      Hi Greg, Your line system makes perfect sense and I too will often leave a line or two hooked around a cleat if the conditions call for it (wind off the dock or other boats close by). My Yamaha and most if not all modern outboards will not start unless they are in neutral, so I do not have the same worry as you with a jet drive walking the boat slowly aft even when in neutral. Certainly with an older engine that could start in gear, it would be bad practice if no one was at the helm. Best regards, Ben

  5. Avatar alan carlisle says:

    Would appreciate an illustration of the same challenge with a fixed engine and rudder .. perhaps down the road…
    The island ferry boat Captain (10 passengers) does a wonderful job.. How does he do it?

  6. Avatar Joseph Lincks says:

    I really learned alot from the docking video. I am buying an 18 ft bowrider this winter to use on the lake property with a dock that I purchased last fall. I have a lot to learn. I signed up as a member moments ago. Joe

  7. Avatar Lynne Fraker says:

    I have always approached the dock heading into the wind or current depending which is stronger, using your demonstrated techniue, but a good friend, and excellent boat handler, believes that with an outboard engine, there is more control docking with the outboard into the wind. What do you think?

    • Avatar Ben Mendlowitz says:

      Hi Lynne, coming in to a dock with the stern towards the tide or wind works fine. Part two will show this technique when approaching anchored boats. For a dock, you can easily edge the stern in with complete control as the bow will naturally stay down wind or current. Get a stern line on pretty tight, or an aft leading spring line, and then the bow should come right in, use a little bit of forward throttle, if there is an off shore component to the wind.

  8. Avatar benjamin herrmann says:

    Ben, could we have a little more info on your boat? What a great, simple runabout!

    • Steve Stone Steve Stone says:

      Hi Benjamin. While shooting this series on outboard handling, we also shot a “Good Boat, Up Close” video on ABACO, so stand by for that one, hopefully soon.

    • Avatar Ben Mendlowitz says:

      Hi Benjamin, She is a great boat, which I appreciate every time I set out. If you want to know more before we have a chance to edit the upcoming video that Steve mentions, please explore the links above in our “Navigate Further…” section to learn a bit about Abaco.

  9. Avatar michele del monaco says:

    Why don’t make a lesson about mooring a sailboat in a river, it has always a problem 4 me

  10. Avatar Doug Wood says:

    Ben makes it all look effortless. If you guys ever want to film a piece on how NOT to cozy up to the dock, give me a call. I can probably help you out with that.

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