a planing boat broadside to the wind
by Charles T. Low
Docking in an “off-the-dock” wind,
when done well, brings praise even from experienced marina dock hands
— the converse brings back several memories which, at best, I find
embarrassing. The extra challenge of this specific situation, as
illustrated, is that a long angled run at the slip is not possible,
making an already difficult manoeuvre even more invigorating!
As usual, planing hull power boats
suffer wind effects more than others, but I have also seen exactly
this docking defeat moderately experienced skippers in
displacement hull boats (even full-keeled sailboats). Docking
into a brisk wind, let’s say something like 20–25 knots, stretches
The problem arises because, to do
this docking, you must, eventually and inevitably, slow down and
turn the boat broadside to the wind. The moving mass of air will
then blow you away from the dock, and itself will also turn the
vessel. Your options for countering the wind quickly dwindle,
because boats cannot propel themselves sideways (ignoring, for now,
twin screw effects, bowthrusters, etc.), and you may have very
little steering ability as the boat loses headway.
The diagram shows where the boat
actually goes, and it bears no resemblance whatsoever to where you
want it to go! The situation seems hopeless — let’s see how to get
Firstly, it does get better with
practice and experience. Be prepared to invest the hours, developing
and improving that intangible feel for your boat — in this
situation, you’re going to need it! Some of the factors and
constituents of that “feel” comprise the discussion which follows.
More specifically, notice, in the
diagrams which follow, that the boat approaches the dock much more
to one side of the slip (the outside side of the turn) than if there
were no wind. This is because you will use power, in forward gear,
as you turn, to control the boat, and that will move the boat ahead,
in its slip. So, starting off to the side makes allowance for this.
Also, the initial approach is made
almost perpendicular to the dock, keeping the effects of the wind
(especially the turning effect) to a minimum until the very last
moments, and for the same reason the turn is done relatively late,
with the hull already very close to the dock.
The manoeuvre will require very
positive control of the vessel, necessitating, at times, vigorous
(but brief) use of steering and throttle. Consequently, it must be
done skilfully and attentively, firmly but smoothly.
— I talk a lot about momentum, “the great unsung hero of the
difficult docking.” When thinking about docking into the wind,
consider the concept of throwing your boat at the dock, using a
spinning motion to skid and slide the vessel into its slip, against
You generate the
“throw” by (i) taking a little run at it, and/or( ii) by giving a
firm but gentle surge of power as you begin your final turn. The
grey arrows, in the illustration, show the momentum which you
develop, and which persists (for a while) after the boat has turned.
Now, done just right, the boat
will slide into its slip with a rotary motion, coming to a stop at
exactly the right spot. “Done just right” — that phrase covers a
multitude of sins! Don’t get carried away (figuratively or
literally)! Take a little run, and use power gently.
If in doubt, underdo
it — better to err on the side of not coming in closely enough than
of crashing into the pier or into nearby boats. If it requires
several attempts to dock your boat, as you learn how your vessel
handles that day under those specific conditions, fine. Don’t let
anybody rush you (the most likely culprit being yourself)!
Play the Wind
— At the other end of the spectrum, you can
finesse your boat into position by starting out virtually stopped in
the water, and then by playing with the wind. We know that as the
turn begins, from a “head-to-wind” orientation, the wind will catch
the bow and complete the turn for you.
It often does this in
a big hurry, too, and leaves you still some distance from the dock,
blowing away as you turn. You counter this with power, with the
rudder (or outdrive) often somewhere near centre. Let the wind turn
you. Encourage it to do so. You can’t fight it, so co-operate with
it. Constantly adjust the throttle and rudder, as necessary, to keep
the bow very close to the dock, and pay attention, because this all
happens very quickly.
Therapy — In the real world, the two
aforementioned techniques often blend seamlessly into one. Using
them in combination allows you to commit not quite so much momentum
to the manoeuvre, so you can go a little more slowly, and yet still
have enough speed to achieve that final, sideways slide against the
wind, in to the dock.
Thinking — This manoeuvre only works
well when making headway in forward gear. Very few boats steer well
enough in reverse to allow control in a twenty knot crosswind. (If
yours does, I would like to hear about it!)
The bow blows off
downwind, more so as you try to steer the stern more vigorously
towards the dock, and I know of no way (short of throwing lines
ashore) to swing it back upwind again.
Feeling — Don’t relax until you get
that boat secured! A significant broadside wind will have it
scooting back into open water before you can say “Yassir, pass me
that hawser.” If you’re short-handed for crew, you may only have
time to get one line on before the vessel starts its downwind drift,
so you have to have your mind and your equipment organized in
advance, and know which line you’re going to use!
You have several options. The
simplest consists of one amidships breast line, quickly cleated.
Remove it as soon as you have your longer lines positioned and
adjusted. Or, use a spring line along with engine power to hold you
against the dock while getting the rest of your lines on — an after
bow spring, with the engine in forward gear and the rudder turned
away from the dock, works beautifully, but involves a bit more work
and risk (and time, of which there may be very little) than the
My favourite is the “Low-line," a
double spring, one end attached at the stern and the other near the
bow. It can be used with power, but even without it you can take the
middle of the line ashore and use it to move the vessel ahead or
astern or to pull in on either end — all of this with only the one
line. You may have to cleat it off, somewhere in the middle, and do
it fairly briskly if the wind is strong.
You may, then, be able to leave it
there, performing the function of two spring lines, and adding bow
and stern lines, as usual. Whatever you do, you must do quickly. The
force of the wind broadside on even a medium-size small craft often
surprises even experienced boaters.
— The timing, vigour and duration of these manoeuvres is critical,
and they are learned only on the water. The boat will very likely
need to be handled very forcefully, often requiring emphatic
steering and throttling, so be careful. If it goes wrong, it can go
very wrong. Consider simply docking the other way around, end for
end, if this is easier. If you feel that you must turn the boat
around, then do it later, by any of various methods, at your
leisure. Don’t be stubborn about docking a certain way, or even
about using that particular slip, if the conditions are too
— There are many things, in life, that we know better than to do
into the wind. Sometimes, however, in docking our boats, our only
choice is an upwind dockage, and it ranks right up there among the
more difficult close quarters manoeuvres we have to face. We have
covered a few of the concepts and techniques to help cope with this
challenge. The skills which you will teach yourself and practice
will also stand you in good stead in many other boating manoeuvres,
both in close quarters and on the open water. Practice in lighter
winds, and build up to whatever your safety and your comfort level
allows, but do practice: becoming more competent and confident in
close quarters can only enhance the overall enjoyment you get from