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3 Docking Disasters to Avoid

Docking is stressful, and docking disasters are even worse. Watch out for these tough-to-spot issues as you approach your slip

Photo highlighting a line hanging down over a slip next to one where a white vessel is backing into.

Good thing this boat is backing into this slip and not the one two slips over. That line hanging down (see ­arrow) is a fouling ­disaster waiting to happen. Photo: Lenny Rudow

Your boat may be a brawny beast out on the water, but around those gelcoat-scratching, rubrail-bending piers and pilings, it seems more like a gossamer gem. What could be worse than having a docking disaster that scuffs up Mom’s Mink? Not to mention doing so in front of a crowd at the boat ramp or marina. Hence, many of us find docking the most stressful part of a day of boating.

There are so many different styles of boats, docking situations, and weather conditions that it’s impossible to say what sort of mayhem might lie in store for you the next time you try to dock a boat. That said, through the years we’ve identified a few chronic troublemakers that lead to bona fide docking disasters. So the next time you pull the throttles back and prep the lines, be on the lookout for the some common calamity creators.

1. Invisible lines

This is a particular hazard in areas with moderately high currents, which may be strong enough to pull a line into your path but not quite strong enough to pull it to the surface where you’ll see it. Net result? Your prop sucks in the line when you’re backed halfway into the slip, the engine stalls, and the current bounces you between pilings while the fouled line keeps you tethered. The first time this happened to a boat I was on, to make matters worse, someone made a mad scramble to fend from the bow and fell off the sidedeck. So, as always, rule No. 1 is to stay calm.

If you have an outboard, tilt it up and remove or cut away the line, if it can be done safely. Then get the engine back down and started immediately before the current pushes you into a different danger zone. (Tip: Get lines around a piling or two and secure the boat so you don’t drift when the offending line is cut). If you have an inboard, the problem is even more serious as you’ll likely have to don a mask and fins to cut away the line, which can be dangerous.

The best solution to this disaster is, of course, to avoid it in the first place. Anytime you approach a dock or slip, keep a sharp eye peeled for lines that droop into the water or appear to be tied off to a piling or cleat but disappear beneath the water’s surface. If you spot one that could be a potential hazard, have a deckhand grab a boathook and clear your path.


Check out our playlist with demonstrations on how to properly and safely dock a boat.

2. Problematic protrusions

Your slip neighbor may have left a fishing rod or scrub brush in a rod holder that’s angled out, workers may have laid an 8-foot board across a 6-foot dock, or perhaps someone swung down their outriggers to work on them and forgot to swing them back up. Now, for whatever reason, there’s something solid protruding into the space where your boat will soon be.

Again, the trick to avoid physical contact is keeping a sharp lookout as you prepare to dock and look for any abnormalities. There is, however, one more thing to be aware of: Due to the nature of some boats and their many tall appendages, like outriggers and antennae, the problematic protrusions invading your airspace may be elevated. The ones at eye level are easy to spot, but the ones 20 feet in the air are often less obvious. And if your own boat has anything waving around up there, the potential for damage is very real. I learned this lesson the hard way after hearing a loud crack from above while backing into a slip, looking up, and seeing that the now-shattered VHF antenna mounted on my hard top had snagged the tip of another boat’s outrigger that was left leaning out.

Damaged gelcoat on the side of a vessel where a docking accident occurred.

Yeah, that’s not gonna buff out. Making contact with something protruding from the dock can be tough on the gelcoat. Photo: Mark Corke

3. Mechanical mishaps

The list of mechanical mishaps that can result in docking disasters is too long to include here, but common ones include a sudden loss of power, a sudden loss of steering, and transmission failure. Yes, you guessed it, this is experience speaking once again. The worst incident, however, was of my own making. While my boat was headed sideways for a piling located amidships, I darted away from the helm to cushion the blow, forgetting that the engine cutoff switch lanyard was still hooked to a belt loop. I managed to catch the piling, but before I could get back to the helm and restart the engine, the breeze turned the boat perpendicular to the slip. Talk about embarrassing!

While keeping your boat well-maintained and in good shape will go a long way toward preventing this sort of mishap, stuff happens. And this is where a famous adage comes into play: Never approach a dock faster than you’re willing to hit it. Because, no matter how careful you are about noting these potential docking disasters and other problems, some day you probably will.

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Lenny Rudow

New Boats, Fishing & Electronics Editor, BoatUS Magazine

Top tech writer and accomplished sports fisherman, BoatUS Magazine Contributing Editor Lenny Rudow has written seven practical boating books, won 30 awards from Boating Writers International — many for his marine electronics articles – and two for excellence from the Outdoor Writers Association of America. He judges the NMMA Innovation Awards, and is Angler in Chief at FishTalk, his own Chesapeake-based publication. A great teacher and inspirational writer, Lenny hosts many of BoatUS Magazine’s very-popular how-to videos, which can be found on the BoatUS YouTube channel, or at