When it comes to maneuvers that give boat owners the jitters, you’d be hard pressed to come up with a more anxiety-inducing task than docking a boat. Whether you’re bringing the boat alongside a bulkhead or into a slip, when you add a little wind or current—much less an audience of other boaters—it only makes things more stressful. In this article we’ll provide all the details you need to know to dock safely, and dig into the details on docking with a single engine, twin engines, with thrusters and with a joystick.

To start, here are the most basic steps on how to dock a boat:

  1. Deploy fenders and prepare dock lines.

  2. Gauge the effects of wind and/or current.

  3. Drive up close to your slip or berth.

  4. Maneuver your boat so it’s positioned to enter the berth or slip.

  5. Slow or stop forward momentum so you don’t approach too fast.

  6. Using small applications of intermittent power, maneuver into the berth or slip.

  7. Use a small application of power to stop all motion.

  8. Secure the boat in its berth or slip with the mooring lines.

Can you maneuver your boat into a super-tight slip? Can you walk it sideways, or spin it in its own length? Read on, to learn how to solve these docking dilemmas.

Can you maneuver your boat into a super-tight slip? Can you walk it sideways, or spin it in its own length? Read on, to learn how to solve these docking dilemmas.

Safely maneuvering your boat into a slip or alongside a fuel dock need not be an overwhelmingly traumatic experience. In fact, getting stressed-out about the maneuver ahead of time is one surefire way to blow it. Besides, thanks to new systems such as joystick steering, pod drives, and bow and stern thrusters, docking can be easier than ever before. But first, since the majority of boaters—both power and sail—have single-engine boats, and docking any kind of boat is based on the same basic single-engine procedure, let’s take a more in-depth look at the steps you’ll take to get a boat into a tight spot safely with just one propeller and no assistance from modern technology.

Docking a Single-Engine Boat

Before you do anything else, get your dock lines pre-rigged and have your fenders set and hung over the side. Next, take stock of which way the current—if present—is moving, as well as which direction the wind is coming from. Generally speaking, you should always try to maneuver with the bow of the boat as much into the prevailing force of the wind and/or current as possible, though Mother Nature isn’t always going to cooperate. Like an airplane landing or taking off, you’ll maintain more control if you’re going against the wind than if it’s pushing you from behind. Also make an assessment of your surroundings and look for boat traffic in the area, any hidden spots where other boats may appear unannounced, and what obstructions you may be forced to maneuver around.

If you have crew members aboard, this is a great time to enlist their help by stationing them at strategic spots—such as the bow and stern—with appropriate dock lines or boat hooks at the ready. Before making your approach, talk with your crew members and let them know how you intend to approach, how they can help, and of any potential trouble spots you might encounter during the maneuver. Then, make your move.

Safety Tip: Warn those crew members not to place hands or feet directly between the boat and any fixed object, where they could get pinched or smashed between the two.

Get your boat lined up for the approach, remembering to do everything you can to come in facing against the wind or current. If you can’t head into the wind or current, try using it to your advantage however possible. Remember to go as slow as possible while still maintaining steerage. Also, consider reducing the effect the wind has on your boat by lowering things like Bimini tops, canvas enclosures, or sports towers.

If the wind or current—or both—are working to push you up against a dock, make as shallow an entry as possible (in degrees, not depth). If the wind or current are working against you, increase your angle of attack to maintain better control. Don’t forget: the more you move with the wind and current astern, the less control of your boat you will ultimately have.

Glide in slowly, remembering the old adage, “Don’t go any faster than you’d be comfortable hitting the dock.” Trust us, we’ve seen many a showoff end up with significant fiberglass damage because they used too much power when docking. As you approach the dock or slip, apply short, controlled bursts of power and then take the engine or engines out of gear as you coast in the proper direction.

Maneuvering Tip: turn your wheel in the direction you need to go before applying a burst of power. If you apply power and then turn your wheel, your boat will react and turn with a significant delay.

On your final approach, keep making small adjustments to keep the boat lined up properly, putting the engine into and out of gear as needed. Keep in mind that there’s nothing wrong at this point with aborting the docking attempt if things go wrong—it’s way better to bail and start over than to try to salvage an attempt that’s quickly going down the tubes.

Whether you’re pulling alongside or into a slip, the final step is to stop the forward momentum of the boat. This is most commonly accomplished by applying a short application of power in reverse, though sometimes a dock line—a spring line works best—can be used to stop forward movement. If you’re pulling alongside a bulkhead, angling your engine toward the dock and then applying reverse can help both pull your stern alongside and stop the boat’s movement.

Finally, tie off and make sure your dock lines are set in such a way that you won’t come into contact with any other boats or structure where you have no fender protection. Once this is all done you can shut down your engine—but never turn off your engine before your boat is totally secure and tied off in its berth or slip. You may need to apply some corrective power if wind or current shove your boat out of position, as you secure the lines.

At the final stages never be afraid to ask for help from folks on the dock; it’s better to get a hand than to endure a docking disaster.

At the final stages never be afraid to ask for help from folks on the dock; it’s better to get a hand than to endure a docking disaster.

Those are the ropes when you’re dealing with a single-engine boat. But what if you’ve got twins, or a boat with bow or stern thrusters—or both? Better yet, what if you’ve got a joystick steering system?

Before we move on, consider watching the following videos and reading these articles for some tricks and tips to make your next docking adventure an easy one.

Docking with Twin Engines

As you may have guessed, having two separate engines makes things much easier, at least when it comes to the slow-speed maneuvering involved with docking. Being able to put one engine in forward and the other in reverse allows the driver to pivot the boat much more effectively than with a single engine. So even though you’ll follow the same basic steps as outlined above, docking with twins is quite different than it is with a single-engine boat. Here are some tips to make it easier:

  1. With the port engine in forward and the starboard engine in reverse, your boat will typically pivot on an axis to starboard. A way to think of it is your port engine will push the bow of your boat to starboard, while your starboard engine will pull your stern to port.

  2. With the port engine in reverse and the starboard engine in forward the exact opposite is true and your boat will typically pivot on its axis to port. Your port engine will pull the bow of your boat to port while your starboard engine will push your stern to starboard.

  3. If you’ve got outboards, twin inboards with rudders, or outdrives, it’s generally best to keep the steering wheel centered and let the engines do all the work, using the two tips above.

  4. Remember that inboards tend to pivot a boat faster than outboards (because the propellers are farther apart). With outboards, a stronger application of power is often necessary to attain the same results.

  5. When coming alongside a bulkhead or fuel dock, you can sometimes use alternating applications of power between the port and starboard engine to “walk” your boat sideways, though it takes some practice to get the hang of this maneuver. When pulling alongside, always use the engine farthest from the dock to pull your stern in.

  6. If your boat has triple engines or even quads, they are generally paired off electronically on the outer engines (though this is often configurable through the engine controls).

  7. Experiment using one engine or the other in tandem with the steering wheel, as well. You can often gain better control for fine-tuning your approach this way.

Docking with Thrusters

Bow and stern thrusters are electric- or hydraulic-powered propellers that are mounted perpendicular to the centerline of the boat. They are designed to push a boat’s bow or its stern to port or starboard. They’re especially nice to have when you’re dealing with crosswinds or crosscurrents.

Bow thrusters are usually mounted in a structural fiberglass tube in the bow of a boat, while stern thrusters (as seen here) are often mounted in a tube on the external surface of the stern.

Bow thrusters are usually mounted in a structural fiberglass tube in the bow of a boat, while stern thrusters (as seen here) are often mounted in a tube on the external surface of the stern.

  1. Most modern bow and stern thrusters are controlled independently by their own controller at the helm. Some controllers have simple buttons, while others have a joystick-style controller.

  2. Most controllers have a green arrow indicating which way the bow or stern will move, depending on which button your push or how you toggle a joystick-style switch.

  3. Just like the way you use your engine(s) to control the movement of your boat, the best way to use bow or stern thrusters is by applying short bursts of thrust. Remember, once you boat starts moving significantly in a certain direction, more and more power will be required to reverse the action. You can’t take away power you’ve applied, but you can always add more.

  4. Additionally, keep in mind that some bow and stern thrusters (particularly electric models) can overheat and shut down temporarily until they cool. The more short pulses you use the less chance of overheating.

  5. Experiment with your setup to see how your boat responds in different situations, such as using a combination of engine and thruster power.

Docking with Joystick Control

The ultimate tool in making docking an easy, almost carefree affair, joystick docking systems are becoming more common with every passing boating season. The way these systems work is by centralizing and computerizing control of multiple power sources—single engines, multiple engines, bow or stern thrusters, pod drives, etc.—into a single input device: the joystick.

Generally speaking, you push the joystick in whichever direction you want your boat to go, or twist it to spin the boat in one direction or the other. Simultaneously the electronic brain barks out commands to the engines and other propulsion systems on your boat to make it happen. There are even joystick systems designed for use with outboard engines. Here are a few tips that will come in handy, for those who dock a boat with joystick control:

  1. Joystick systems are often “stick sensitive,” meaning the farther you push or twist the joystick in a certain direction, the more power will be applied to make it happen. Push just slightly and you’ll get small amount of power. Push all the way and you’ll get lots of it.

  2. Unless you’re a teenager who plays lots of video games, joystick steering can take some experience. Before you fully commit to using this system in a hairy situation, be sure to practice until you’re comfortable.

  3.  Always be ready to switch back to manual control at a moment’s notice. While you can usually control a joystick-piloted boat in most any condition, sometimes you may get better results by manually controlling the boat. Additionally, as we mentioned earlier, bow and stern thrusters can sometimes overheat and shut down unexpectedly; if your boat has thrusters that are subject to this kind of stoppage you should always be ready for one piece of your joystick ecosystem to fail.

Here are a few articles that address specific joystick systems:

Docking a Boat with Pod Drives

Pod drive systems generally consist of two or more inboard engines that are mated to independently articulating drives mounted under the hull of the boat—also known as “pods.” Since these pods are able to swivel independently of each other, and with a far greater swinging arc than other drives, they provide the ultimate in slow-speed control.

Boaters who use pod drives often feel they offer the very best control for docking a boat.

Boaters who use pod drives often feel they offer the very best control for docking a boat.

Sync up a pair of swiveling pod drives to a joystick control system and you often have a boat that can spin and turn within its own length, move sideways in a straight line, and maneuver on the proverbial dime. And that’s a great attribute to have, especially when it comes to docking a boat in tight quarters. Still, easy as it may be to control a boat with pod drives, as with other joystick-controlled steering systems most folks should practice before fully committing to docking using the joystick only.

For more information about pod drives read:

Practice Makes Perfect

Like most anything in life, the best way to master docking your boat is by practicing these docking maneuvers over and over… and over again. Consider empty public docks and bulkheads without any surrounding boat traffic for your practicing grounds, and look for opportunities to dock in all sorts of different situations as your confidence grows. Before you know it, you’ll know how to dock your boat like a boss.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in September 2016 and updated in December 2018.

Written by: Gary Reich
Gary Reich is a Chesapeake Bay-based freelance writer and photojournalist with over 25 years of experience in the marine industry. He is the former editor of PropTalk Magazine and was the managing editor of the Waterway Guide. His writing and photography have been published in PassageMaker Magazine, Soundings, Fly Fishing in Salt Waters, Yachting Magazine, and Lakeland Boating, among others.