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Boat Handling under Engine – Part Six: “You want me to park WHERE?!”

by | Jan 15, 2022 | Archived News (Live), Skills School

In the previous article we had a look at parking up when the touchdown zone was a nice long stretch of pontoon, but what about when it’s a wall, piles or even (shudder) a finger berth? As our series on boat handling under engine comes to an end, Skipper Nic looks at a few of the more, esoteric, landings we might be required to perform.

As the malaise of pontoon “finger” marina moorings spreads inexorably through our harbours, it’s becoming increasingly rare to stumble across fore and aft piles, quay walls, scrubbing grids or even just to be asked to raft up alongside another boat. I think that this is a shame, not only because marinas are often ugly, noisy affairs, but because it steals from us the fun of developing the skills necessary to deal with anything unusual, dumbing down the abilities of the average sailor. Marina pontoons are also occasionally laid out in a way ill-suited to tidally prone harbours and quite frankly there’s nothing quite like the view of traditional boats moored along a quayside to stir the heart.

Here’re a few thoughts then on handling the unusual, the difficult or the downright unfair:

Tricksy Fingers

Nothing makes my heart sink quite like being told to park up on a finger berth deep inside a marina, especially when said marina lies along the banks of a tidal river. It’s the kind of thing that makes me long for a lonely anchorage away from this purported “civilisation”. Even when the entry is fairly easy, karma seems to demand that the exit will be horrible. But there are times when needs must so here’re a couple of the nastier possibilities and suggestions about how to achieve the job without unduly frayed nerves:

Blind-side berth:

You know the scenario; the friendly chap on the Marina radio apologises for having no hammerheads available and offers you a finger pontoon instead. “Don’t worry!” he says, “you’ll be pointing up-tide”, and then he utters those fateful words “starboard side to” which you know with this marina means it’s a blind-side berth. Now, if the wind is blowing you onto the target pontoon or is puffing along against the tide there needn’t be too much panic as either will assist you in making the sharp turn necessary and can even be encouraged to do so using a foresail. If the wind is flowing with the tide or blowing you off the target however, then you’re going to have to force the issue.

If space and the tide rate allows, I’d consider passing the berth, spinning the boat and then coming at it the other way. If there’s a ton of tide, space to crab in, and the wind is manageable then you may try ferry gliding in, but remember that the tide will slacken off closer to the shore. Lastly – if there’s room to get alongside the guy in the open berth then why not lie on him and then warp across? Getting out of the same finger berth in these conditions is always going to be entertaining too. Whatever you decide though it’ll be aided by walking the boat backwards to get her as close to clear water as you can.

Tide up the rump:

I had this with Amelie Rose once coming into her winter berth at Poole Quay Haven. To add insult to the imminent likelihood of injury there was the best part of a gale blowing us along to boot. We were lucky that it was a straight run in but still it took a good aim, four seconds of full astern and a full pontoon crew to get her stopped. If the wind isn’t playing silly buggers and there’s a fair tide running I’d give serious thought to ferry gliding in backwards. With cross winds or a blow in-line with the tide it might be time to consider going somewhere else, especially if you’ve got a strong prop-kick. If you absolutely must then it’s imperative that you get the bow pointing into the berth many boat lengths before you enter the danger zone and keep your speed as under control as you can using the engine. If there’s no space to do this, leave.

Escape with the tide pouring in behind you will predominantly be decided by how well your little ship answers in reverse. A reverse ferry glide is entirely possible but they do tend to slew around rather a lot going this way and add to this a cross wind and a heavy prop kick and you’re rather leaving your resulting track up to Lady Luck. Again, shuffling backwards will certainly help and I’d always be inclined to try to work with my prop kick. Wind pressure on the bow will either tend to negate this (if blowing on the opposite side to the kick) which will see her crab diagonally backwards, or will exacerbate it making for a turn perhaps slightly tighter than you intend!

Quay Walls (wet and dry)

Ostensibly a quay wall is just a seriously tall, solid pontoon of course, but there’re a few extra things to think about when the platform that you’re tying up to isn’t going to move obligingly up and down with the tide.

Piles, “Fenders” and other obstructions.

Often the reason that a quay wall still exists is for the use of ferries, fishing boats and other, larger, craft. To give these flat sided fellas something to lie against it’s fairly common for there to be piles or “fenders” (sometimes even concrete) set against or upon the wall itself. From our point of view these are either a hindrance or even a positive danger requiring some clever fendering and rope work to keep our paintwork unscathed.

Setting up some horizontal fenders of our own will help us to get alongside in the first instance (see “horizontal fenders”) but anywhere that’s got a decent tidal range is going to see the boat move forwards and backwards a fair amount so a decent set of fender boards is just the ticket for a relaxing night. Harbours will often lend these out but I’ve never yet seen a freebie set that’s a decent size and so on Amelie Rose we carry our own – about 4ft by 8” of 1 ½” softwood. They’re great for any scenario where you need to “bridge” between a couple of fenders or where you want to protect the fenders themselves from the ministrations of a rough quay wall.

Another favourite adorning the average quay are fence posts carrying some sort of barrier designed to keep the terminally stupid from just wondering blithely off the edge. Amelie Rose has done for several of these in her time (sorry Yarmouth), so to save yourself the embarrassment of admitting to the HM’s staff that you’ve bent yet more harbour hardware do eyeball the top of the quay before you poke the ‘sprit up there.

Getting your crew ashore

Especially when entering harbour at or nearing low tide, swarming the quay is sometimes a job more suited to an alpine goat than a tired crew mate. To assist in this the builders will more often than not have provided the odd ladder (hopefully) bolted to the wall. Unless you have a trustworthy shore-crew ready to take your lines it is therefore a ladder that you’ll need to get alongside in the first instance. From there you can settle the boat into her intended position.

Getting alongside is only half the job

Our experience of getting Amelie alongside a quay wall has inclined us to always look on it as a two stage job: Firstly get her safely tied up alongside a ladder with short bow and stern lines and (if immediately necessary) a spring or two. At this stage we will generally have a couple of crew using horizontal fenders to keep her safe from any protuberances. With the situation thus contained we now have plenty of time to lay out long lines (see below), shuffle her into the required slot, and to set up her fender boards.

Long-lines and the handy billy

Unless you are a fan of waking up every hour to fiddle with your lines you’ll do best to lay out nice long bow, stern and spring lines. As the boat drops to low water you can ease these until at dead low water they have just a little catenary left. Unless you’re dealing with a crazy tidal range you’ll probably find that these now need no more attention. The boat will tend to drift away from the quay at high water and will have a little more scope to move fore and aft (hence the need for good long fender boards).

I’ve seen several ways of dealing with this drift; from putting weights (often buckets of water) on the bight of the warps, to gathering loops of slack line together and binding with small stuff, but on Amelie Rose we just tend to deploy the handy billy onto the quay steps that are (hopefully) nearby. Putting the billy’s hook on the shore side and tying the tail to the boat provides for a method of pulling the boat ashore whether you are boarding or leaving. Do remember not to tie off the Handy Billy however – or else the ladder may join the list of things that you need to apologise to the HM for.

Drying out alongside

For those of us without legs to strap alongside our boats, a quay wall can be the perfect place to dry out – be that to indulge in a spot of barnacle scraping or simply in order to enjoy a visit to a drying harbour. It’s not a bad idea to be sure what’s down there before committing your hull planking and keel however. This can either be achieved by lying off at anchor on the previous low water and paddling ashore in the dinghy or via a chat with the HM’s team who’ll likely know where the shopping trolleys are buried and will be keen to not clutter their quay with a brand new wreck.

Once you understand the lay of the land beneath, the job is not a whole lot harder than lying alongside. If you are lucky enough to have a slope to lie on then be sure to utilise it if your vessel (like Amelie Rose) is deeper at one end than the other – it’ll make for a more level and comfortable night. Plenty of fenders (and fender boards) will protect the shore side of the hull, and then you just need to ensure that she decides to lean in rather than out. Drag anything weighty to the shore side (anchor, chain, spare fuel & water, the boom) and see how she’s lying, a couple of degrees of inward lean should do the trick.

If you’re unsure and there’s something meaty ashore to tie to then attaching a halyard from the mainmast will give you a fair bit of leverage – but remember that this will need tending to as the water comes and goes. Personally I’d always be there for at least the first time she takes the ground regardless. A great idea for anyone considering a quay berth longer term is to get a big water barrel with a bunged hole at the base. Pop it on the shore side and fill it when mooring up. Before you leave just pull the bung and let it all drain overboard before leaving the water barrel ashore. (Thanks for that one Luke!)

“Getting” Piles and Fore & Aft Moorings

There was a time when these were commonplace and any Yachtmaster Examiner worth their salt would know the whereabouts of every single local set. Nowadays they mostly have pontoons strung between them but fore and aft mooring buoys are not that uncommon so an understanding of the mooring technique is still worth acquiring.

Whilst I’m sure that it’s not a hard and fast rule you are most likely to come across these lying more or less in line with a reasonable tidal flow, and using this is the key to an early and stress free visit to the local inn. Piles, although they seem to be all hard and unyielding, are often easier to handle – for precisely the reason that they are firmly rammed into the ground beneath – making it possible to rest upon them awhile whilst attaching warps. Mooring buoys have a tendency to dance around rather more but essentially the technique is the same.

Before you start with either fore and aft buoys or piles do make sure that you have long enough warps. Ideally they should be as long as the gap between the piles you intend to use less about half your boat’s length. Before piling on in there (sorry for the pun) do scout the area – specifically you’re looking for tell-tales of what the tide is up to.

Start by stemming the tide half a boat length or so from the rear pile or mooring (1). If the tide is slightly angled on the line of the piles then you will find the process easiest if you approach from the opposite side to the tide. Now, gently, ferry-glide toward the pile/mooring. The point of contact that you are aiming for on the boat is just forward of the shrouds, the so called “shoulder” of the boat. Have a crewmate ready with a horizontal fender to fend off the pile and another crew ready to tie on the stern line (2).

In the case of a buoy it’s good to have one of the crew call the distance and point to the buoy as you’ll probably lose visual on it before contact, another benefit of a pile is that you’ll be able to see it the whole time. Once contact is made you’ll need to hold the boat in place – stemming the tide once more whilst the crew get their line attached. Once the stern line is attached crew will need to come aft to control the line – keeping it nice and slack so it doesn’t interfere too much with your steering but ready to gather in excessive line to avoid the possibility of fouling the prop.

Now ferry glide away from the pile again. If you’ve read the tide right the boat will pivot slightly on the mooring or pile and then come away nicely. Ferry-glide towards the second pile/mooring and repeat the process of coming alongside to secure the bow line (3). Now ferry glide away from the second pile and then allow the boat to fall back paying out the bow line and gathering in the stern until the boat is lying as you’d like (4).

The exit will depend on whether the bow or stern is facing the tide when you decide to depart. If the bow is up tide, and if you have a warp long enough, then you can pull forward to place a doubled warp around the bow mooring before falling back (easing the bow and pulling in the stern) to release the stern line. Then pull forward to give yourself some room before slipping the bow. If you’re already using the longest warps you have then free the stern before bringing the bow right up to the mooring to untie.

With tide up the rump your exit can be a little trickier. Indeed if there’s limited room between the piles and she doesn’t answer reliably enough in reverse to be able to ferry glide out backwards then there may be nothing for it but to wait for slack water or even for the tide to be back on the bow. With a little more room it may be possible to allow her to fall “forwards” to detach the bow line then pull back to give yourself enough room to steer clear of the down-tide pile or buoy before you’re swept on to it – and if the tide is slightly angled to the line of the moorings/piles then this will assist.

Buoyed Mooring Lines / “Strings”

Often strung between two larger mooring buoys and kept afloat by a series of smaller floats these are another favourite on tidal rivers that haven’t yet fallen to the marina curse. Some will have actual mooring points (generally buoys) arranged along their length but others rely on you attaching your warps directly to the line itself using a rolling hitch to forestall sliding along it. Whichever way you approach these things I guarantee it’ll pay to have a stout long boathook handy, and if (as is often the case) the tide intersects the string at an angle it helps to come at it from the tide-ward side.

I have seen this done rather niftily, single handed, by John RB running down-tide in Fowey harbour. He used the engine to stop the boat alongside with his prop-kick pulling the stern in towards the string before quickly attaching a stern-line and letting the tide hold the boat in-line while he dealt with the bow. However most boats will have crews and the helm can approach the job up-tide, nudging the shoulder of the boat into the string whilst using the engine and rudder to stem the tide. This brings the string close to the centre of the boat (where most have the lowest freeboard) enabling the crew to attach a bow line (1).

The boat can then be allowed to drift back a ways to bring the stern line attachment point to the centre (2) before being pulled back to sit between the pair (3). Springs could also be set but as the boat is essentially lying to fore and aft buoys I personally wouldn’t bother. To exit, my preference is to set up a doubled spring with a round turn to grip the string and to let the tide spring us off either fore or aft depending on which way it’s running. Remember the line is buoyed so there’s little chance of it fouling the prop but if you’ve noticed it being pulled under at times then it’d be best to drive on to a fore spring.

Scrubbing Grids

Once a common feature of any haven with enough tide to make them work these are now giving way to cranes, travel-hoists, boat-lifts and other technological ways of separating an owner from their money. Some will be little more than a wall to lean on with a nice firm base on which to rest your keel – and these can be dealt with like any other quay wall that you wish to dry out alongside (see Quay Walls earlier).

Others – often those along rivers – will consist of an inclined base (or grid) lying perpendicular to the shore with a line of two or more piles alongside for you to lean the boat on. Often these piles will have mooring rings just like any other pile mooring which is great as you’ll not need to fiddle with your lines as the tide ebbs and floods.

Horizontal fenders in action

As with any other time that you’re thinking of taking the ground it’s a good idea to understand what’s down there on the seabed before you commit your vessel to lying on it. Whilst I’ve never suffered the horrors of discovering that she’s descended upon some unforgiving iron spike, a thumb-sized dint in Amelie Rose’s ballast keel does attest to some point where she’s settled on something that didn’t want to give way. Lying somewhere nearby in order to observe the seabed at the preceding low water will make for a more relaxed landing when it comes time to do the deed – and also gives you the chance to see how accurate your tidal predictions are shaping up to be.

On the subject of tide, it clearly pays to be particularly careful as the range works its way from springs to neaps – especially if high pressure is in the forecast. Ignoring this could leave you with a far longer stay than intended. If the tide runs particularly hard at your intended grid it may also help to arrive at slack water as there will likely be a cross-tide which could make for difficult manoeuvring.

Horizontally doubled fenders or fender boards will come in useful in the same way as when dealing with piles in other scenarios and making sure that the boat chooses to lean on the pile rather than away from it is just as important as it is when drying out on a quayside. Last – but by no means least, don’t forget that you’ll need a ladder to dismount your trusty ship when the tide falls!

So there we are; that’s the harbour side of things dealt with, under engine at least. Next up I think we should get out to sea and have a look at something that most of us would be lost without, sails. How do they work, how do we get them up and down, and how to get the best out of them when they’re up there…

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