I am often asked what I feel is the most dangerous part of boating? Is it sailing in hurricane force winds? Is it traversing fishing grounds at night? Is it navigating a narrow shipping channel with lots of large vessels and small recreational vessels? Surprisingly the answer to each of the above is no. I learned a long time ago that the most dangerous part of boating is not dealing with bad weather nor obstacle laden waters or even heavy traffic congested with vessels of all sizes.


To me, the most dangerous part of the trip to be the last 30 feet. Pulling into dock is the most dangerous. It has caused more damage to people and vessels than open water accidents. It has caused more fights among husbands and wives than the eternal dispute over the final toilet seat position. It has created some of the most hilarious situations and the most frightening experiences for other people on the docks. In that last 30 feet you have to judge currents, winds, distances, speed, and mind your crew. You are at the mercy of a sudden gust of wind or the disobedient crew member who literally jumps ship before he is told to step off. You need to manage one or two engines; a bow thruster (if you have one); or no engine at all. Sometimes you will have help from a dock hand while at other times one is simply not available. You will find marinas with plenty of room and wide berths for you to slip into. Then again you may find marinas that have calculated to the inch how many vessels they can get into the space in their facility.


When I first started in boating, I took a three day course that was to teach navigation, boat handling, anchoring, and trip planning. My fellow students and I were excited and anxious to learn. The class was to begin on a Thursday afternoon and complete on Sunday afternoon. All of us were psyched as the culmination of the class would be the issuance of a “Bareboat Certificate” giving us privileges to charter vessels anywhere in the world.


The first half day was spent learning how to do simple dead reckoning navigation and how to check out the boat when you come aboard a charter vessel. Promises were made that we would sail tomorrow. We all went to bed with visions of the future “captaining” our mighty vessel in the turquoise seas impressing our spouses and friends.


At the appointed time we students assembled alongside the boat and were granted permission to come aboard. We were given a synopsis of the learning to be achieved for the day – docking. For the next TWO days we took turns docking. On the wind, off the wind, and wind abeam. Into the slip, parallel parking, using dock lines. Learning commands to give to the crew. Giving commands to the crew. Disciplining the crew when they didn’t listen to the commands and endangered their lives. Learning to remain calm in all situations. Dock –analyze - leave dock and then do it all over again. For two long days we did nothing but dock.


The remaining day was spent on the rest of the curriculum. All of it was covered in depth and compared to the docking it seemed pretty easy to comprehend and achieve. Even when we sailed into a Lake Michigan thunderstorm complete with high winds, huge bolts of lightning, and an unannounced man-over-board drill.


When I got back to my boat the following weekend, it was just a matter of a few minutes explaining to my crew what I expected them to do, demonstrating how I wanted it done, and when to do it. We left the dock in less time without the confusion of a Chinese fire drill. Returning to the dock at the end of the day was “easy” considering the boat going into the wind, upstream and then turning abeam to all of that. The little boat just seemed to walk into her berth and the crew stepped off on command just as I “ordered” them to. No shouting. No swearing. No threats about the next time. Boating really can be fun!!!


So if you want to plan a trip on your boat, the best thing you can do to prepare yourself is to practice docking. If you are ported in a marina ask the harbormaster if you can practice docking in all situations using some of the vacant slips. Develop commands for your crew and how they should perform when given the order. Practice with them. Learn how to dock with different types of drives. Practice how to effectively use dock lines to get onto and off a pier.


If you need some help improving your docking skills, Contact Captain Joe's On Board Academy to arrange some one-on-one education for you and your crew. The more time you spend on docking, the more enjoyable time you will have to spend on the water.


You’ve got the helm!