Topsail Tattler

Boat Handling Under Engine – Part 5: “Getting to the pub unscathed”

by | Feb 5, 2021 | Archived News (Live), Skills School

It’s been a lovely day’s sailing, our pilotage cut the mustard and we’ve snuck into port just before the “Harbour Full” sign went up. But before we can take a sip of something ice-cold and refreshing we’ve still got to get the boat alongside and tied up safely. As this series on close-quarters boat handling draws to a close, Skipper Nic turns an eye to that final piece of the puzzle – getting alongside without becoming that evening’s gossip in the harbour-side taverns…

As with most manoeuvring situations getting alongside without undue trauma is generally eased by starting out with a plan. Indeed, on Amelie Rose, with 16 foot of overhanging ‘sprit and 24 tons displacement to manage, we generally aim to have one or two plans to spare. It’s not always easy to get the full picture from the harbour entrance though. Even the welcoming face in the dory may not necessarily know precisely what awaits you or, more importantly, how your little ship will react to it. After all they are often more interested in appropriating the contents of your wallet than in the heroics required to park in the berth they’ve allocated.


Step One: The Fly-by

With this in mind, and even though we may have entered port with a vague plan, we always aim to perform a “fly-by” close to the site of the potential accident. The purpose of the fly-by is to learn enough about our landing zone that we can form a workable plan to touch down there with our undercarriage (and indeed our undergarments) intact and unsullied. Specifically we’re prospecting the following:

  • Tide: What is the tide up to at the berth itself and on the approaches to it?
  • Wind: How strong is it, both at the berth and on the approach and is it a help or a hindrance?
  • The berth: How big is it? What’s parked up around it? Does it have an easy escape route and if so which way should the boat be pointing to use it? What sort of mooring furniture is available? How high above the water is the pontoon or quayside? Is there anything ashore that we need to avoid poking with the ‘sprit?
  • The approach: Are there any obstacles to negotiate? Where are the escape routes? Are there go/no go points along the way?

Occasionally we find that a good close fly-by is impossible, or at least highly inadvisable due to the layout of the harbour, lack of exits from the area or just the sheer tightness of the approaches. Even then we will always do our best to snoop some gen on what awaits us. A good pair of binoculars can be handy here – used to eyeball tidal bow-waves, fluttering flags, the state of the pontoons and to scout for obstacles en-route.

With the battlefield thus reconnoitred it is time for us move on to planning and preparation.

“So near , and yet…”: Using two lines to pivot Amelie Rose alongside.


Step Two: The Plan

The plan is formed by taking what we know of the boat and her abilities and fitting this into the scenario that we’ve observed. Ideally our plan should be to achieve touch-down in such a way as to minimise the anxiety level and use of colourful anglo-saxon both on the boat and from our soon to be neighbours. It’s also worth paying attention at this point to our next getaway. A quick check of the forecast for the morning and assessment of what the tidal stream will be up to at that point can pay huge dividends. It is far easier to tackle a difficult parking manoeuvre in favourable conditions than to try a difficult exit in horrendous ones – especially should the morning be enhanced by our indulgences of the night before.


Our first thought on Amelie Rose will always be the tide and whether it can be harnessed or must instead be tussled with. Indeed, a strong tide pushing us off a pontoon will likely have the skipper reaching for the VHF to request a different berth or at least for assistance from a sturdy launch. A strong tide along a pontoon is a godsend for those who have learned to ferry-glide (see Issue 5) – and even a weak tide will enable us to slow our approach whilst maintaining control – providing of course we plan to head into it. Tide pushing us into a berth may sound useful however thought should be given as to whether this will create a monster of a getaway come the morning. Negligible tide is less of a boon that you might think but at least will allow us flexibility in our direction of approach.


With the tide factored in we turn next to the effects of the breeze. Wind blowing onto the berth makes the job easy, although we must be careful not to lose control of the bow in case the bowsprit becomes a jousting pole. Wind blowing in line with the pontoon may incline us to face the bow this way (assuming that the tide doesn’t disagree) as it will help us to slow the boat down. If other elements militate against this then it’s usually not too much of a bother and can actually be a bonus if reversing is called for, as the boat will tend to “stern seek” (see Issue 3).

A strong wind blowing off the pontoon tends to be the cause of most difficulties when parking up. If it’s really blowing then we’ll need to plan to use all of the forces at our command to counter it, adjusting our angle of attack and being very positive with the power as well as ensuring that our prop kick will assist us rather than dragging the stern away from the pontoon when we apply the brakes. We may also plan to have a short centre spring handy and to ask for that to go ashore first in case the crew struggle to get her secured before the bow blows away (see “Using a centreline spring”). In a really desperate blow, and given room and a slack tide we may even plan a reverse approach and then use the windlass to grind the bow in.

Prop Kick:

Given a choice by the other factors that we face we will always try to have our prop kick pushing the stern into the berth rather than pulling it away. Whichever way we end up approaching the berth however it’s wise to take account of the prop kick if we plan to use the engine to stop the boat.

Warps ashore:

Especially if short-crewed it pays to have a specific plan as to which warp we want secured first. If we’re being blown off this will often be the bow line as the relatively shallow bow will blow away faster than the deeper stern. The stern line may be called for first if we are forced into a down-tide park or are concerned that the boat mustn’t run forwards too far or if the prop-kick will pull the stern away from the shore. If space on the berth is particularly tight then we may also want to ensure that fore and aft spring lines are rigged and ready so that they can be deployed quickly.

Another great trick for short-handed sailing is to plan to throw a centre-line spring ashore first (see “Using a Centre-line Spring”). Rigged correctly and used in conjunction with the engine and rudder this will hold the boat close to the pontoon whilst the other lines are dealt with, and can often be deployed without setting foot ashore.

“Using a Centre-line Spring” If you’ve got a cleat or fairlead in the right place then a centre-line spring is a great short-handed technique or can be used to help tame a wind that is determined to blow you back off the pontoon. Despite the name, the point you require will be somewhere abaft the boats “centre of lateral resistance” (the point around which she pivots). It might need a bit of experimentation to find it but you’ll be grateful that you made the effort. 1) With the tiller pushed towards the pontoon the boat is trying to turn away. 2) The pivot from the spring will cause her to want to turn in too. 3) The net effect is that she’ll swing into the pontoon. 4) With the tiller lashed down and engine left in forward gear she’ll lie reasonably straight against the pontoon while you busy yourself with the bow and stern lines.


Step Three: Prepare the Boat and Crew

No matter how easy the task in hand or how clever the plan we’ve got in mind, if we fail to prepare the boat and crew then chaos and confusion will likely follow. With crews who often sail together on a particular boat the brief may well be a simple “port-side to, bow line ashore first please” and they will crack on with the minimum of further direction. If we are sailing with folks who are new to us, new to the boat or even, as we often do on Amelie Rose, entirely new to sailing then time spent in this phase is rarely time wasted.


Here’s our usual check-list:

Plan overview

As with most manoeuvres it helps if everyone knows not only their specific task but roughly how that task fits into the overall picture. Don’t overload folks with information – their specific task is the thing that should be foremost in their mind – however beginning the briefing and preparation phase with a quick explanation of your intentions generally pays dividends. This should touch especially on any areas of concern or special importance e.g. “It’s likely that she’s going to blow off quickly, so let’s get the bow line on and hauled in smartly”.


Make sure that all of the warps that might be required are in place and rigged correctly. Many a decent stab at parking has been ruined by the discovery of a key warp that is led incorrectly and cannot be secured in good time. If possible alternate plans call for the use of other lines then ensure that they’re at least to hand if not rigged already. On Amelie Rose we have been known to enter harbour with a full set of warps rigged on both sides of the boat when we’ve been unsure.


Need to be rigged in the right places and at the right heights (the fly-by will have helped to inform this decision). We generally will also have someone holding a “roving fender” that can be jammed in place to absorb any unforeseen contact. Again, if we’re unsure as to which side of the boat will end up shore-side then we rig half the fenders on one side and half on the other at her maximum beam. This way we are guaranteed to only be moving half of them as the situation resolves.


In our experience it’s best to ensure that each crew-member has a specific job – even if that job is to keep out of the way of everyone else. Everyone should also be briefed to keep out of the helms eye-line to the touchdown zone as it seems to be human nature to want to watch what’s going on and invariably this means that folks block your vision at just the wrong moment.

Each crew member should be briefed not only on what it is that you want them to do but also on any key elements how you’d like them to do it. For those stepping ashore this might include a warning against jumping any gap between the boat and pontoon and specifics about how you’d like them to tie off. If warps are to be used to kill the boat’s speed (e.g. if the prop walk is likely to cause a problem or if you are attempting a down-tide park) then make sure that the crew know how to surge the boat to a standstill rather than instantly making off their line to the soon to be ex-cleat ashore. (See “Surging to a halt”).

“Surging to a halt” If you are ever likely to be using warps to assist with slowing the boat (e.g. when your prop kick works against you) do make sure that your crew know how to “surge” their lines. It’s nothing complicated but if they inadvertently make off their warps with (in Amelie Rose’s case) 24 tons of cutter still moving along then there’s a reasonably good chance that she’ll rip the pontoon cleats clean off. The key is to get a turn around the cleat or bollard, and then use the resulting friction to assist as you lean your weight back to slow the boat. You will be drawn towards the cleat but will be surprised at how quickly you can get the way off even a big heavy boat like Amelie Rose.


On the Amelie Rose we aim to send the minimum number of folks ashore and to keep most of the muscle on board. The reasoning for this is that if we have to bail out and try again (which happens now and then) then we still have plenty of crew aboard to help.

The vast majority of helm positions will lose visual contact with the pontoon in the final key moments of approach. With this in mind it’s a good idea to have someone briefed to call back the distances from the pontoon in those vital last seconds.

Lastly, and this relates particularly to big heavy boats like Amelie Rose, we generally advise our crew not to take assistance from the shore unless specifically directed to by the skipper. The point here is that our crew are briefed and know exactly what is required and how to deal with the forces involved. “Helpful” folks along the pontoon may well turn out to be old hands who’ll do the job right, but are more likely to be used to boats that are far lighter and more manageable than ours. Many times I’ve been cheerfully assured “I’ve got you” only to discover that in actual fact it’s Amelie Rose that’s got them.

“A simple approach” With wind and tide working for us; parking up is a simple task. 1) Select the target point and establish a “natural transit” to monitor our track. 2) The “turnout” point will be informed by experience but having crew call out the distance to the pontoon will help. 3) Once we’re alongside a blast of reverse will stop the boat and kick the stern in (if we’ve selected an approach that puts our prop-kick on the useful side).

“Armfuls of Tide” A strong tide can make even the tightest spot a doddle to deal with. 1) Establishing a transit to our target is even more important when ferry-gliding in. 2) Simply ferry glide down the transit. 3) Hold the boat alongside while the crew secure the warps – don’t forget to get the up-tide spring rigged before you dis-engage the engine.

“Blown on” Being blown on can be a bonus but it’s important not to lose control of the bow. 1) Angling the bow out slightly into the wind gives us more time to react should the bow start to blow off. 2) Run down the transit at minimum steerage speed allowing the wind to blow us in. 3) As we reach the touchdown zone stop the boat but be sure to get the stern line on smartly as the bow will blow in rapidly.

“Blown off” This tends to be where things get tricky. 1) Our angle of approach needs to be much more positive (though the trick is still to be running down our transit). 2) Turn as close as you can whilst avoiding side-swiping anything on the pontoon with that bowsprit (if neccessary/possible, consider rolling it in). 3) Stop the boat as usual but the crew need to act quickly to get her secured before the wind has it’s way with us.

“Forwards is not the only way” With the wind blowing off the pontoon and if (unlike our demo boat) you have a counter that makes stepping ashore from the stern a possibility then consider a reverse approach. Watch out for the prop kick and tide sweeping you along the pontoon though and you may need to use your windlass to drag that bow in.


Step Four: Execution

There are essentially four phases to executing a typical simple along-side mooring:

  • Approach
  • Turn-out
  • Touch-down
  • Secure the boat



The initial approach may be simple or may require you to manoeuvre the boat through the twists and turns of marina fairways. In previous articles we’ve looked at some tricks to get us through these safely but eventually we will get to the stage where we’re lining up for the actual landing.

i) Have a target

At this point it’s helpful to be specific about the target point that you’re aiming at. Selecting a target, e.g. a cleat or bollard will enable us to use a natural transit on this point and something behind it to ensure that our approach path will actually get us ashore close to our intended spot. A fairly typical result of inexperienced Skippers not doing this is that the boat drifts along the pontoon – never quite getting close enough to touch down – before running out of room and either crashing into something or going around for another try.

ii) Approach track

With our target point selected and a transit found we can now see and therefore react to any effects of wind and tide that threaten to deliver us elsewhere. In perfect conditions we’ll generally aim for a fairly shallow angle of approach as this requires a less extreme turn to bring the boat alongside. Bear in mind though that the angle that the boat addresses the pontoon can be wildly affected by the conditions and that the key point here is that the boat travels along the intended track and can then be brought alongside at a slow enough speed for the crew to get lines ashore and for the helm to stop her.

iii) Speed of Approach

The speed of approach too will be dictated by the conditions. The rule of thumb that we work to is “as slow as possible whilst maintaining control”. Obviously this can be taken to silly extremes but the key point is that at slower speeds we gain more reaction time to deal with any unforeseen issues.

iv) Escape plan / Point of no return

As we run along our approach it’s a good time to do a little mental revision on how we might escape should we suddenly need to abort and whereabouts lies the “point of no return”. Quickly running through any action plan in our head helps us to react faster should the need arise as we have already mentally rehearsed the actions that we need to take.



The point where you need to turn away from the pontoon in order to bring the boat smoothly alongside will vary depending on the boat that you’re driving and the conditions that you face. A bigger heavier boat will need to turn earlier than a smaller lighter boat. Being heavily blown off will likely have resulted in a steeper angle of attack which will require a harder turn however the wind will be assisting that turn. If you are being blown on then the boat may even be facing away from the pontoon crabbing sideways along her track in which case no turn will be necessary at all. In all instances prop-kick working in your favour will help to kick the stern into the shore as you apply the brakes. Having a crew calling out the distance to contact will be a big help in learning how your boat operates and identifying a replicable turn point.


Touch Down

The second that the shore-crews’ feet touch the pontoon we need to get the boat stopped with a heavy blast of astern. It’s then imperative to get your head up and watch to see what happens next. A well briefed and able crew will normally have the boat captured in moments but it’s here, when folks are concentrating on their own specific tasks, that problems can creep in. A good overview is what’s required to spot and head off any nascent foul-ups. Remember that even when tied up prop kick and prop wash will have an effect if the crew need a little help getting the bow or stern into the pontoon. If the boat ends up a way off the pontoon we’ve a number of techniques available to us to get her alongside. See “Using a Centre-line Spring”,  “Using Prop wash and walk to bring her alongside” and “Bow and Stern Line Pivot” for more on these.

“Bow and Stern Line Pivot” We’ve all been here. The crew were a tad slow getting their warps in order and before you knew what was happening the boat is off out to sea again. If there’s room ahead (or behind) then often the easiest way out of the pickle is to engage the engine, ease the shorter warp until it is approximately the same length as the longer and let the boat pretend to be a set of parallel rules. 1) The stern line will need easing else it will stop the boat from moving before the fore line has started to pivot. 2) But with the lines equalled and the engine driving the boat will pivot alongside nicely and sit there while you deploy a new bow and stern line.

“Using Prop wash and walk to bring her alongside” If space ahead and astern is more limited and if your prop kick will assist then you can use kick and wash to bring her in. 1) It’s the same starting scenario as the pivot. 2) Steer hard in to the pontoon and give a couple of pulses of forwards. Make sure that the crew are ready to take in any slack that you manage to create though or else you’ll be back at the beginning! 3) Before she moves too far switch to reverse and give a long hard blast to both stop the boat and kick the stern in. 4) Keep it up until you’re where you need to be.


Secure the Boat

A bit of shuffling back and forth is often required before a course can be laid for the local hostelries. Care should be taken not to inadvertently grab defeat from the jaws of victory by letting go of a working warp however, especially if the conditions are less than perfect. It’s usually better to set up a new line in the correct position before releasing the old one.

So there we are, tied up to a nice easy pontoon berth with whistles ready for wetting with our favourite tipple. But what if the landing zone is a little more “interesting”? Next time, in the last of this series on close quarters boat handling under engine we’ll have a look at how to handle some of the more unusual scenarios that we may face.


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