It doesn't take much to look like a pro when it comes to handling your boat. In fact, if you compare a professional skipper with a novice, the main difference is often the minimum effort expended by the pro to achieve the same result. The novice always seems to make the task look hard.

If you don't believe it, watch a skipper bring a big sportfisher into a narrow slip against both wind and current. There's no shouting back and forth, no heroic leaps to the dock, but the boat ends up snubbed down in place before anyone can offer a hand.

Or, tougher yet, study a delivery crew when they arrive with a heavy single-screw trawler and find an opening on a crowded dock that seems only inches longer than their boat. Again, there's no fuss but the boat seems drawn into the slot like iron to a magnet.

There's no trick to these feats. The boats have the same equipment as yours, but the crews know how to use spring lines effectively.

Most boat owners are familiar with the use of spring lines to keep their boat alongside the dock without moving, and springs can permit other boats to raft up to you without surging back and forth. Yet the spring line is one of the least used techniques of seamanship in yachts, in spite of being a simple solution to many docking and undocking situations.

But before we consider specific examples of spring line usage, let's look at some general rules and requirements. Be sure you have enough cleats near the rail of your boat. A good working minimum for the average yacht is four to a side. That would give you the standard bow and stern cleats, plus two additional cleats spaced in between for spring lines. If you have a sailboat, you may be able to use your rail-mounted genoa track to attach spring lines, but few powerboats are delivered with enough cleats. When you add cleats, be sure they are firmly bolted through the deck with back-up plates underneath.

The spring lines should be the length of your boat, and of a similar size as your dock lines. You probably already have four dock lines of shorter length, so you should add at least two spring lines to your locker.

When using spring lines for maneuvering your boat under power, remember to take up the slack gently. If you need to use more power to help turn your boat, don't apply full throttle until a strain has been taken on the line at low speed. Too much power and you can pop even husky dock lines, which then become lethal whips.

Plan your docking and undocking maneuvers in advance, and don't keep them a secret from your crew. Explain clearly what you want done, and then keep calm while executing the plan. Shouting never makes a situation better.

If you've planned correctly, the crew should be able to step onto the dock without having to leap over open water. If it looks like they may have to leap, then you should seriously consider making another pass, since leaps often turn into swims. On a small boat, your crew should be trained never to leap unless the ship's safety is at stake, since the act of jumping can exert enough force to shove the boat even farther from the dock and your original plan. By the same token, if you toss a line to a willing bystander on the dock, tell him not to pull until you give the order. Too often an eager helper can pull you into trouble.

There are three terms to understand: Forward Bow Spring and Aft Bow Spring both lead from the forward spring line cleat. The difference is whether the line leads forward or aft from that cleat. The Forward Quarter Spring starts at the aft spring line cleat and runs forward.

It's also a good idea for the skipper and crew to use the same language, so that there is no communications gap. A set of common phrases is listed below:

  • "Cast Off": (release all dock lines)
  • "Take in the slack": (pull in the excess line)
  • "Ease off the ... ": (give some slack in the line named)
  • "Snub the ... ": (temporarily prevent that line from slipping)
  • "Secure the ... ": (cleat the line down)

Basic Mooring Lines

When a boat is held alongside the pier by four lines (the bow and stern lines, an aft bow spring, and a forward quarter spring), tidal ranges can be accommodated while the boat is held from moving fore or aft along the pier with a minimum amount of slack in all the lines. The best method is to run the bow and stern lines farther along the pier, and let the springs hold the boat close. The dotted line at the stern shows how a dock line might run from the outboard cleat to give a better angle.

Stern Sprung

This is most commonly used by powerboats to keep the cockpit area near the pier for easy boarding. The stern line and forward quarter spring, secured tightly, hold the stern close while the bow line keeps the bow in position. A common error is to pull the bow line in to tightly, which can cause the boat to chafe amidships on the pier.

Current Sprung

If there is considerable wind or water force moving parallel to the pier, a single forward quarter spring and a bow line can work together to hold the boat away from the pier. The bow should be allowed to angle out slightly to catch the wind or current, and the spring line keeps the boat from moving backwards. This isn't recommended for long periods of time because it is dependent upon the wind or current staying constant. A stern line, shown in the dotted line, could be added to simplify boarding.

Docking: Springing Alongside

When there is only a small space left between boats or other obstructions, an aft bow spring can tuck you in neatly without nicking any paint. Approach at a 45-degree angle with the spring line ready. When the bow is near the pier, pass the spring line ashore and then gently take up the slack with the engines in forward. Unless the pier is well-padded, one or two fenders should be hung over the side to protect the hull. With the slack out, put the helm hard to starboard (in this case) and the stern will ease up to the dock. This is easiest if the spring line is set aft of the bow. This method is also ideal for use when the wind is blowing off the dock and the stern would otherwise drift outward after the bow line is passed ashore.

Temporary Tie-up

If you're only picking up passengers or gear and don't plan to stay alongside the pier for long, the above method can also be used to hold the boat against the pier. Once the stern has reached the dock, leave the helm hard over and the engine idling in forward. This will hold the boat alongside without further lines.

Springing Around a Corner

If you have a boat that doesn't like to back down to one side or the other and, because of obstructions, you can't approach from the opposite direction ... take heart. A spring line can save you. In the drawing shown, the single-screw boat pulls hard to port in reverse, which makes backing into this mooring a difficult task. A forward quarter spring is passed to the dock and doubled back aboard the boat, and the engine is put in reverse with the rudder hard to starboard. The stern of the boat will swing docilely through an arc until it is lined up in the slip. The spring line can then be retrieved or walked forward to become a bow line. Even if you have twin screws, this method can save your topsides if there is a lot of wind and not much room to maneuver.

Undocking: Wind Pushing You Onto The Pier

This is one of the toughest spots to get out of gracefully. Too often, the novice just jams into forward and tries to turn away from the pier, which leaves the stern banging along the pier. Far more professional is the method diagrammed here. An aft bow spring is run, and the engine is put in forward with the rudder hard to port. A fender should be used for protection as the bow comes into the pier. The stern will swing out until you can safely retrieve the spring and reverse neatly away from the pier. The same method can be used if you find yourself tightly surrounded by boats since it doesn't require more dock space than you already have.

Wind Ahead

If you find the wind running nearly parallel to the dock and you don't want to do a lot of shoving at the bow to get it away from the pier, a forward quarter spring can do the trick. Reverse the engine with the rudder hard to port and the bow will spring out away from the pier. Use a fender at the stern for protection, and be careful if you have a swim platform or davits extending outboard.

Backing Out Into a Narrow Channel

By using a forward quarter spring, you can reverse the earlier mentioned method of curving into a dock to extricate yourself. The spring line should be doubled back to the boat for ease of handling, and the boat should be put in reverse with the helm centered. When the cleat for the spring line (or the pivot point on a full-keeled sailboat) has passed the end of the pier, snub the spring line down and put the rudder hard to starboard. The boat will arc around until it is pointed down the channel, and the spring line can be retrieved.


If you find yourself either towing or being towed, it's often easier in crowded area to tow alongside. A much larger boat can be towed successfully by a small boat when it is sprung alongside securely. The towed boat should be slightly ahead of the vessel with power, and the lines should be arranged as in the drawing. The spring lines take all the load of either forward or reverse, and the breast lines serve merely to maintain a parallel relationship between the boats. If steering becomes difficult for the towing boat (actually the pusher), the disabled vessel can be used for steering and the tow boat can merely provide the power. Be sure to use plenty of fenders, large spring lines, and keep your hands from between the hulls.


Rafting is a companionable way to spend an afternoon ... if it's done right. If done wrong, it can remove paint and fray nerves. Just as in towing, spring lines should absorb all the fore and aft surge loads, and the bow and stern breast lines only keep the boats parallel. Remember to stagger the masts apart on rafted sailboats so they won't tangle if the boats roll, and always add boats on opposite sides of the anchored vessel to keep the raft balanced.