Yacht Docking Skills for Northern Europe

There are some fabulous cruising adventures to be found in Northern Europe and the Baltic but they all involve docking bow first without finger pontoons. When there is a pile on each side the space is referred to as a ‘box’ but sometimes there are no piles, in those cases there is usually a pick up stern buoy. Occasionally there is nothing at all. For sailors who are used to finger pontoons or alongside berthing the techniques can be daunting until they get the hang of it.

Having been south in French, UK and Spanish waters for a few years we rather forgot the techniques and had to relearn them when we returned north. Our ship Enterprise is a ¾ keeled, classic steel sloop, 11.4 m overall and 3.2 m wide that does not have bow thrusters and takes some skill to reverse in a straight line. www.enterpriseclassicyacht.com We witnessed a few yachts (including us) get into difficulties so thought that it would be helpful to review our experiences.

Without Piles

Because of the rocky terrain driving piles is an expensive operation so for this reason the docks are often fixed rather than floating and a pick up buoy option is used. The technique is to head straight for the dock, passing close to the buoy and attaching a line as you pass. With a crew member on the bow calling out the distance, the helmsman pays out the stern line and brings the boat to a halt a few centimetres from the dock so that the person on the bow can jump onto the dock and secure the bow lines. The helmsman then reverses and tightens up the bow line. It all sounds simple but in fact there are a multitude of things that can go wrong and often do.

Box 12JPG

The first thing is in a smooth pick up of the buoy since the key is to maintain steerage way (which is critical if there is a cross wind or current). Threading a line through the ring is far too slow and with a two person crew it is the helmsman that has to do it. We quickly purchased a patented stainless steel hook for this purpose.

Box 11JPG

Then the helmsman maintains a good straight course to the dock while paying out the line and judging the speed to come to a stop at just the right point. Many local boats have a reel of webbing strap attached to the railing at the stern that will pay out automatically and is long enough for all eventualities. The benefits are evident when you have tried to do it by paying out a line coiled on the cockpit floor, perhaps with a knot in it to get adequate length, and then finally finding that it is about 2 metres too short! If this occurs in a cross wind the reaction will probably be heard all over the neighbourhood. The crew member on the bow usually does not know what is happening until the boat drifts sideways with the dock tantalisingly out of reach. There follows a dash to the stern to help the helmsman find a piece of rope to splice on. By the time this is done you will probably be parallel to the dock or in danger of crashing into a neighbouring boat so the crew person abandons assistance and rushes back to the bow to fend off. It makes an apparently simple manoeuvre exciting.

The next situation occurs by trying to maintain steerage way and not being able to stop in time resulting in a vee notch in the bow and a rapid rise in blood pressure. We have tried bow fenders bur because every dock height is different with fixed docks, they never seem to be in the right place. Our worst experience was with a shiny new aluminum dock that had an unprotected angle iron on the edge. The designer must have had a fiendish pleasure in slicing up bows.

Then there is the situation with nothing at all and dropping a kedge is no good because it will not grab. In many old fishing harbours there is so much old fishing tackle on the sea bed that there is a high risk of losing an anchor (after losing one we now use a trip line in these circumstances). So a substantial bow fender is essential and it takes quite a bit of fiddling around to get the boat in just the right position.

Box 10

Having got to the dock there are still a few challenges for with fixed docks the height of the bow above the dock can vary greatly. Although there are no tides the effect of wind and pressure can change water levels by 2 metres; we have seen docks 10 cm under water (in Århus, Denmark) to a metre above the bow. The later is not so much trouble as the former for although it is relatively easy to jump off (although without an opening in the pulpit that is not easy) it is not so easy to get back on. In the early days we would be searching for steps or an oil drum to use for the purpose. Now we have an anchor platform on the bow that incorporates a retractable, telescopic ladder and a removable top rail in the pulpit. This has made life much easier and cleared the anchor off the foredeck where it snagged mooring lines.

Box 14

Our most embarrassing situation was in a strong cross wind when there was a line of pick up buoys close together. We chose one and went for it but fumbled the pickup causing us to drift sideways. The adjacent buoy fouled the wind vane steering and we were trapped sideways until we could release it.

With experience behind us, an anchor platform with ladder, a pickup hook and plenty of stern line (although we have not yet gone for a reel) we manage to avoid the worst embarrassments, but we still have a little trepidation when we see a pickup buoy situation.

However, not as much trepidation as when we see a situation without a pickup buoy. In these situations the idea is to drop the kedge anchor at the place where the pickup buoy would normally be, hope that it grabs, and proceed to the dock. In Marstad, Sweden we thought that this was the situation when we saw boats lined up with stern lines out. So we dropped the kedge anchor only to find that the water was so deep that it did not hit the bottom! We then noticed people frantically waving to us and learned that we were not to use the kedge because there were permanent under-water anchors with lines to the dock. The procedure was to nose into the dock and tie off while another crew member caught the anchor line from the dock with the boat hook and walked it back to the stern where it was tightened up and secured. This is all very neat in calm conditions but not so good in a cross wind.

Finally there is the situation where there it no dock but just rocky outcrops. Here you drop the kedge anchor, launch the dinghy and take the bow line ashore where a piton is driven into a crack in the rock and the line tightened up. However, in the Norwegian fjords the water is often so deep that the kedge cannot be used or would not grab anyway. Then you must select a spot where the boat can be safely held by three shore lines at 60 degrees. Such a spot is usually a narrow inlet and if you have chosen well you will usually find that there are already pitons in the rocks.

Box 8

With Piles (Boxes)

This is a compromise where a line of piles is driven 1½ to 2 boat lengths from the dock, defining the slots or boxes in which one must dock. These piles vary greatly from railway rail covered with a plastic sleeve to substantial wooden posts.

Box 7

In ideal conditions, calm weather, correct width and length of box and the correct length of stern lines (all of which the local berth holders have) the docking is easy. We always go in bow first as we like the privacy in the cockpit but motor boats often seem to prefer going in stern first.

The procedure is as follows. Step 1 is to layout the looped stern lines forward to amidships. Put the fenders up on the deck so that they will not foul the piles as you go into the box. Have a crew member at the bow with lines ready. The next step is to enter the box slowly, dropping the looped stern lines over the piles as they are passed. Once passed, the fenders are dropped over and the stern lines paid out until the bow reaches the dock, without touching, and the bow crew can jump off. The stern lines are then tightened.

Box 1

For a cruising visitor it is never that easy for often the box is too wide and/or too long and of course you do not know the correct length of stern lines. On several occasions we have been directed into a box that is slightly too narrow, 3.0 m for our breadth of 3.2. Not enough to be obvious until you are stuck like a cork in a bottle and have scraped the topsides. Then it is a matter of pushing on the piles and backing out.

When the box is too long and too wide there are other problems. This time one looped stern line is laid out as far forward as possible and the other left close to the cockpit. With the fenders up, nose up to one pile and drop the stern line over. Then proceed forwards steering to the other side of the box in order to bring the other pile close enough to the stern of the boat for the line to be thrown around it.

Box 3

This may not be possible (either because it is too far or because you are a poor thrower). If you miss, get the line out of the water quickly before it fouls the prop, and reverse slowly, paying out the attached line (it needs to be long enough to allow for this eventuality). Then re-enter the box close to the unattached pile, dropping the second line over the pile as you pass. Then proceed to the dock, making sure that the long line that was attached first is kept snug so that it does not foul the prop, drop the fenders as they come clear of the piles and secure the bow.

Any sailor reading this can see that there is lots of scope for turning the docking into a real ‘dog’s breakfast’. The idea of having loops in the mooring lines instead of doubling back to the boat sounds like the ideal way to go, but in practice when a neighbouring boat comes in after you it is necessary to take their lines off before taking off your own. If their lines are tight and there is nobody aboard it can be a real nuisance.

Another complication is that piles often have hooks on them to prevent lines sinking to the water level and making it difficult for boats with high freeboard to retrieve their looped lines. Again this is a mixed blessing because with a line doubled back to the boat the angle is often such that the hook prevents the free running of the line which is necessary for tightening up. We have often been in these jamming situations with hooks and neighbours lines so as visitors we avoid using the hooks and double our lines back to the boat.

One other desirable step is to cross the stern mooring lines. In overly wide or long boxes this is not easily done without a lot of manoeuvring about once you are in the box. It does however give a much better angle on the lines in stormy conditions. If you have equipment and antennae around the transom (we have wind vane steering gear and antennae) you have to know where to thread the lines to avoid load on these bits and pieces and you don’t know that until you are in the final position.

Box 6

Now conditions are rarely ideal and probably the worst situation is an oversized box in a strong cross wind or current. Although the procedures are fundamentally the same there are a few variations and things can quickly go wrong if any of the steps are fumbled. Let us look at the procedure.

Come in hard to the windward side, secure the pile and drift across to the leeward pile.

Box 4

However if the wind is very strong the boat can swing during this is operation and in an extreme situation you end up parallel to the dock with the stern attached to the piles and out of reach of the dock!

Box 2

Extricating yourself from this position depends on friendly neighbours, or failing that, getting the dinghy out and taking a bow line to the dock. We usually tow our dinghy in the Baltic because there are not only many places to use it but we are also prepared for these sorts of situations (primarily occurring to neighbours nowadays).

To avoid the foregoing situation many boxes have permanent lines from the pile to the dock although they are usually quite slack.

Box 9

We try to pick a box with such lines so that when first coming in the person on the bow can hook that line with the boat hook and hold the bow to windward while the stern drifts over to the leeward pile but it needs a strong person. The boat can then be inched forwards while holding the windward permanent line with the boat hook. If there are boats on either side then it is easier to fend off from them.

Box 5

Our worst experience was when we were in a river at Kunglav, Sweden that we did not realise was used as part of a water management scheme. Just as we were leaving the box the flood gates upstream were opened resulting in a strong cross current. The result was that we were jammed at 45 degrees against the piles with the current holding us there. Only with a lot of muscle power did we escape. After that experience, when there is a strong cross wind and there are no permanent lines, we have a bow line doubled to the dock which keeps the bow from swinging as we back out. The only risk is that you must get it out of the water quickly when it is released or it will foul the prop.

On another occasion we were blown against the windward pile on exiting and did not notice that the pile hook had fouled a stanchion until it was ripped out.

All these hazards seem very daunting but it is not often that the worst circumstances all combine. The important thing is to think through what could happen and have a recovery plan. Then when something goes wrong, do not panic, keep calm and execute the recovery plan. A little practice in good conditions builds confidence, so don’t be put off and enjoy one of the greatest unspoiled cruising grounds in the world.


Author: Old Salt

David Phillips and his wife June have sailed the European and UK coasts for 30 years, the last 14 in Enterprise. It has been a continual exploration , inspiration and growth of experience. They would not have missed a minute.

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