Could you dock in an open pen without the embarrassment?

Part 2: How to Dock a Single-Engine Boat

Oh, dear, docking duties again. The shoulders tense up and the palms turn sweaty, not only because you have an audience but, to make matters worse, the marina management insists that you berth stern to, into a pen. Sound familiar? Well don’t panic, help is at hand.


Our demonstration craft for the day was a Hanse 400 deep-keel yacht, kindly supplied to us by Team Windcraft Victoria. But the basic principles are the same for just about any single-screw powerboat. The only differences are that the yacht has a keel and therefore tends to pivot in a turn, as opposed to a powerboat that turns slower because its weight is spread across the entire length of the hull, and a yacht generally has a much larger rudder than a powerboat, making it more manoeuvrable at slow speed.

But as always preparation is the key. It’s important before you start with any docking procedure that you are clear on your intentions, so if something does go wrong you can address the situation. This includes being aware of your surroundings, other boats in the vicinity, wind direction and any tide or current.

Step 1: Make sure that you place fenders appropriately — tied to swing just above the water surface for low-lying marinas but higher up for other types of berths — and you have your own lines prepared and attached to the cleats on your boat well before you commence your manoeuvre . Never rely on their being lines on the dock.

Now commence your approach, heading down the fairway towards the pen, which is at right angles to the direction in which you are heading and about 30m away on the starboard side. At this stage, you should be gently idling and steering by using the wheel and forward engine momentum.

Step 2: Once the bow of the boat almost reaches the pen you can turn your wheel hard to port. As the boat commences to swing to port, place the engine in neutral. The boat still has forward momentum and will continue its gentle swing.

Step 3: As the boat gently swings, your aim is to wait for the stern to come around almost facing the pen, at which point the boat will be almost, but not quite, parallel to the finger of your berth. At this stage, engage reverse and turn our wheel hard to starboard. This will stop or ‘wash off’ forward momentum and very soon you will start to move astern. Then the stern will come around to face the entrance to your berth.

Step 4: As soon as you gain reverse momentum, place the engine in neutral again and use the helm to steer astern. Engage the engine momentarily, only in short bursts, when needed to maintain momentum. This has the effect of allowing the rudder to steer the boat, which is far more efficient when going astern than having the engine engaged with the propeller causing turbulence across the top third of the rudder. This also minimises any issues that may arise due to prop walk (see more details below).

Step 5: Continue moving astern using a combination of short bursts of the engine, just enough to maintain momentum, combined with slight adjustments to your helm. Should the cross breeze start to blow your stern away from the dock at any time, swing the helm hard to port and momentarily engage forward gear. This will quickly move the stern in, before you continue reversing back until snug in the pen.

Step 6: Once in the pen, take your pre-prepared line attached to an aft cleat on your boat, cast it over the cleat on the dock (or have the dockmaster attach it) and secure the loose end back to a cleat on deck. Don’t be frantic. Just maintain a nice, even, relaxed temperament and secure the lines.

Step 7: Having secured the stern line, centre the rudder and engage forward gear. This causes the boat to spring off our stern line and hold against the dock. Easy!

Step 8: With the boat held firmly in position and unable to move any farther forward, attach a line (a springer) to stop the boat going backwards when the engine is shut down. A line from an amidship cleat on the boat going forward to the dock does the job perfectly.

Step 9: The final line is a bow line to stop the bow from moving out. If there is someone on the dock they may assist by passing the line over the cleat and handing it back so you can secure it on board. Otherwise, cast your line over the cleat on the dock. With the boat now secured to the dock you can safely switch off the engine.

There you have it, docking a single-screw boat, stern to, into a pen. Now all that you need to do is practice, practice and then practice some more. Good luck and look out for our next feature in this series.


Transverse thrust otherwise known as “prop walk” affects all single-screw boats. Basically, it is so because the propeller is more efficient at the bottom of its rotation due to an increase in water pressure and density with the increase in water depth. At the top of its rotation, the prop thrust can also be affected by hull shape and obstructions, thereby altering the direction of thrust.

Remember, propellers can be either right or left-handed. Looking forward from the stern, if the propeller turns clockwise it is regarded as right-handed, while anticlockwise is regarded as left-handed. Either way, as the propeller rotates it produces a side effect that we will hitherto refer to as prop walk.

When forward power is engaged on a right-handed propeller it will try to ‘walk’ the stern to starboard and the bow will swing to port. The helmsman automatically corrects for this by adjusting the helm slightly. When reverse gear is engaged in the same vessel the stern will ‘walk’ to port and the bow will swing to starboard. Adjusting the helm while in reverse will not counteract this, at least over a short course, as is the case when berthing. (The direction of ‘walk’ and bow swing will be the opposite for a left-handed propeller).

Skippers of single-engine boats should be aware of prop walk and acutely aware on how it affects their boat in forward and reverse. And knowing which way your vessel ‘walks’ can be used to advantage when going astern. In fact, expert docking in a single-screw boat is considered a mark of good captaincy.