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How to Dock A Single-Engine Inboard Boat

Dock Like A Boss

Reversing a single-engine inboard boat into a slip can be stressful. Follow these simple instructions to calm your nerves.

Watch This Technique In Action

Many modern boats now come with joystick controls, and this new technology makes docking a breeze. But what if you have a more modest craft with a single inboard engine and no bow or stern thrusters? Docking is more difficult for sure. But once you master the controls, you'll feel like a rock star.

The propeller on my boat turns counterclockwise with the engine in forward gear when viewed from astern, so it's easier for me to tie to a dock on the starboard side of the boat when backing in. This is because a short burst of astern turns the prop clockwise, which will tend to bring the stern in close to a starboard side dock. This is the effect known as "prop walk," which makes a boat easier to turn one direction than the other. (We'll be covering this in detail in a future article.)

If your boat has a prop that rotates in the other direction, you'll often find that tying up to port may be the preferred option. That said, even at idle speeds a single-screw boat will tend to favor turning one way or the other, and this can be used to advantage when docking and maneuvering at slow speeds.

Two flies in the ointment are wind and current, which can upset an otherwise perfect docking maneuver. When wind or current is from the side, it will either push you too close to or too far from the dock. These additional challenges are why you need to practice and get comfortable with your boat so that you can dock in most any condition. If conditions are bad enough, and it looks like you really can't get into your slip, seek alternative dockage until conditions improve.

Finally, if you're too far from the dock or things just aren't working out, pull forward clear of the slip and give yourself a do-over. There's no shame in that; we all need do-overs now and then.

Docking Single-Engine Inboard Boat Illustration

Photo: ©2019 Erich Stevens 

How To Accomplish The Maneuver

  1. Before starting the maneuver, deploy fenders and get the bow and stern lines ready on the side where you intend to tie up — or preferably all around in case things don't go as planned. Although it's possible to dock a boat single-handedly, it's much easier to have a helper or two. My boat has a flybridge, and for close-quarters maneuvering, I like to be up there where I have a good view of everything.

  2. Start the maneuver with the transom even with the end of the dock that you intend to tie up to and the boat at a right angle to the slip, as shown. Although things like wind and current have an effect on the boat and should be taken into account, boats turn more readily one way or the other when going astern. With my boat, it's usually easiest to keep the dock on the starboard side. 

  3. With the boat stopped, turn the wheel hard to port, engage forward gear and give a quick burst of throttle. Then immediately bring the throttle back to idle and the gearshift to the neutral position. The object here is not to make the boat move forward much, if at all, but to merely kick the bow to port and the stern to starboard.

  4. Center the helm, then without moving the throttle, shift into reverse idle until the boat starts to move backward. We're doing everything slowly here so don't be impatient. If you need more thrust to compensate for wind or current, use a little more throttle but don't overdo. 

  5. Shift into forward gear, turn the wheel to port, then give another quick burst of throttle to rotate the boat some more, unless you are still moving as fast as you wish. You should now be aligned parallel with the slip and able to reverse neatly in. If not, repeat the previous step to align the boat properly.

  6. When the stern of the boat is about 5 feet from the bulkhead, center the helm, shift into forward and give a quick burst of power to stop the boat. This may also have the effect of moving the stern toward the dock. Also, depending on your boat and its position, a short burst of reverse power may bring the stern over toward the dock because of prop walk. If all goes according to plan, the crew should now be able to step ashore and secure the boat with the bow and stern lines. 

Take It For A Spin

All boats are different, and there are lots of factors that affect how any particular boat handles. The size of the rudder, the length and depth of the keel, and the underwater hull profile all make a difference. So if the boat is new to you or you want to brush up your skills, find a clear stretch of water and get the hang of how your particular boat moves. Often this is easy to do near a buoy or other fixed object so you have a reference point. Then find a spare dock on a quiet, bright day to practice the steps outlined here.

One key when trying to get the stern of the boat to move to one side is to use a quick, sharp burst of throttle. This uses your prop to push water to the side rather than out the back, as it normally would when the throttle is advanced gradually. The position of the rudder also has bearing on how the boat moves when a quick burst of throttle is applied. Practice the maneuver with the rudder in different positions; turned to port, starboard, and straight ahead to understand how your boat handles.

Mark Corke

A marine surveyor, and holder of RYA Yachtmaster Ocean certification, Mark has built five boats himself — power and sail. He was senior editor of Sail magazine's hands-on "Boatworks" publication, worked for the BBC, written four DIY books, skippered two round-the-world yachts, and holds the Guinness World Record for the fastest there-and-back crossing of the English Channel, in a kayak! He and his wife have a Grand Banks 32.