Docking Stern To

Boat Docking's front coverStern To — by Charles T. Low, author of Boat Docking for Boat Safe

Stern to docking has many advantages over docking with the bow in towards land. In many boats, it’s just easier to load gear and get on and off from the cockpit than over the bow. Although docking this way is commonly done, it’s also common to see it not done, and not only for reasons such as protecting the rudder from grounding or hitting the dock, important though that is.

There are many reasons for not docking stern to, but one of the main ones is that it is difficult! I propose, in this short essay, to demonstrate why it is not more straightforward. You might pick up some tips which will help you to maneuver your boat backwards into its slip, or you may at least understand better when to try it and when not!

This isn't as easy as it looks! There is no shame in behaving prudently, and prudence often means doing things the easier way, or, more accurately, the more possible way. Most of us, even those who routinely dock stern to, have experienced dockages or weather in which even docking bow in stretched our skills and strained our cool reserve. I won’t belabor this further, but even though it seems self-evident, remember to dock stern to only if you can.

Why does it have to be so hard? Many, but not all, boats steer poorly in reverse. There are many reasons for this, including very little water flow over the rudder, asymmetric propeller thrust (the sideways force exerted by the propeller, especially in reverse gear), which renders sternway steerage almost impossible in some boats, and the simple dynamics of the hull-water interaction, which work much better when making headway. If a wind is blowing, it frequently compounds reverse steerage problems, and a vessel which can be controlled in a fresh breeze when making headway may become less predictable when making sternway.

A simple trick to counteract asymmetric thrust is to use the propeller as minimally as possible. Get the boat moving astern just barely enough to enable the rudder to steer, and then go into neutral and drift backwards. It doesn’t work for every boat, but it does for many.

Twin screws — Having and using the effects of twin screws can be a real boon under these circumstances. Even twin screws have limitations, but some vessels with them can even be made to walk sideways against a wind, given an experienced operator. I am going to leave the details for another time, and assume for the moment that you have a single-engine boat, as currently do I.

Using forward propulsion to steer when making sternway Contrariness — Another problem to overcome is that of “contrary motion and propulsion” — in this instance, I’m talking about using forward gear while you’re still going backwards. Forward gear is commonly used when making sternway (briefly enough to allow the vessel to continue movement astern), firstly because steering is so much better in forward gear than in reverse (in many boats), and secondly as a means of putting on the brakes!

However, it gets more complicated than that because the concepts and techniques for “contrary steering” are completely different depending upon whether you’re making sternway and then putting the boat into forward gear, or making headway and putting the boat into reverse gear. Again, I think it’s too much to get into all of the niceties just now — we may get around to it eventually, and it’s all in the book, but at least know that there’s something to know!

Inboard or outboard? For steerage astern, would you rather have an inboard or an outboard engine? (Inboard/outboards are classed with outboards in terms of their steering mechanics.) Well, both propulsive designs have advantages and disadvantages, and for every boater who is sure he or she knows which one is best, another has a considered and differing position. In this instance, however, I vote for the outboard, because being able to actually swing the propeller itself from side to side affords better reverse gear steerage (acknowledging that there are always exceptions) than does a rudder. Do not construe this to mean that I prefer inboards, or outboards, or rowboats, or anything. My comments relate very narrowly to docking stern to.

Keels — Even more to the point, would you rather have a boat with or without a substantial external keel? As usual, there are pros and cons. For example, sometimes a full keel exacerbates the effects of asymmetric propeller thrust. Just as often, however, it allows the hull to track straight and true, and to tolerate a cross wind better, so in general, a boat with a keel will back into a slip better.

What to do? One solution for all of these things, as I mentioned above, is simply not to do it! Go in forwards. Many boating experts never dock stern to, or they maneuver the boat only partly into its slip, and walk it the rest of the way in by hand. However, without going into all of the technical details, some of which have been discussed in this space before and some of which are planned for the future, another approach is to learn more about your boat. Practice backing into slips, starting in calm weather some place where there is lots of room for error. My hope is that it will be more rewarding and less frustrating for you if you at least know what you’re up against, and why the boat doesn’t just back up in a straight line when you engage reverse gear.

So, when practicing sternway boat steering, consider all of the things we have touched upon: poor reverse steerage, asymmetric propeller thrust, adverse hull dynamics, wind, and contrary motion and propulsion. If you ever get it all figured out, please let me know, because I think you will be the first — this can be tricky, and I have met no one (myself definitely included) who couldn’t still hone their skills a little more.

Conclusion — With practice and training, most boaters find that they rebel against their boats’ idiosyncrasies less and less, and learn to anticipate them and actively use them more and more. The boat may not not back up in a straight line, but you will learn how it does behave, and how it does respond to control inputs, and you will increase the likelihood of joining the elite club of “stern to dockersâ€.

The Bahamas via Hong Kong

Making deliveries, I’d decided, was a fine way to get in a lot of sailing and improve my skills. Even better, it was an excuse to avoid my real work of writing technical manuals. There were ads for delivery companies in Cruising World so I made some replies. My first job was as mate on a new Moorings 352 from South Carolina to Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands. This was a pleasant voyage with no particular disasters. Nothing broke, fell off, or otherwise disturbed the tranquillity of what amounted to a pleasure cruise. The water in the tanks did become undrinkable due to outgassing from the new fiberglass, but we had other drinkables on board so were not really in distress.

My next delivery was the total opposite. Really opposite, as we were going from Tortola to Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Nor was it a pleasure cruise, but that was last week’s story .

Now that there were some serious ocean deliveries under my safety harness, I decided to advertise my services. Being a technical person, I instinctively turned to my computer. A couple of ads on the Internet and a listing with some on-line crew services should do the trick. Sure enough, on July 12, there was an e-mail reading:

“We are sailing a new 77’ ULDB from the west coast to Hong Kong. The boat should be ready to go in Nov. If interested let me know. ”


Was I interested? Does a wild bear read magazines in the woods? I e-mailed my response and a sailing resume. There had to be a thousand people vying for this crew position, all of them better qualified than I, so my expectations were of the, “Sorry, we’ve found someone better suited,” variety.

A week or two later an evening phone call turned out to be Al, the Captain of the venture. We talked for nearly an hour about my experience and other deliveries. He told me that the boat owner was a gentleman in Hong Kong who was having the boat built for racing in that area. Because the rules were different there, length restrictions didn’t exist, so 77 feet was picked as a reasonable step up from previous boats. There were to be water ballast tanks in the sides, similar to the BOC single-handers. Finally, I asked where he was. It turned out that he was in Taiwan. It was pretty obvious that he wasn’t calling on his nickel. After the call, I was fairly confident that I’d made the cut. Still, there hadn’t been those magic words, “Jim, I want you on the crew.”

After another couple of weeks with no word, I started to get concerned. Did my eagerness to go make me read acceptance into what was only a preliminary interview? I sent another e-mail asking am I in or out? If I was out, I’d have to look for serious work. If I was in, I’d forget about working and concentrate on teaching sailing and working on my own skills. On August 4th, the answer came:

“Yes, I very much want you aboard. I will try to call Monday morning your time with an up-date.”


Maybe I’d better order some extra gear!

As the weeks went by, I continued to sail every chance I got. Temperatures in Phoenix were still the triple-digit range, so there were plenty of students that decided now was a good time to spend a weekend in San Diego learning to sail larger boats. In addition to the students, I had friends that were also eager to spend a weekend sailing in temperatures that wouldn’t roast their brains. I was sailing two to three weekends a month all summer.

One thing any instructor learns pretty quickly is that you learn more from your students than they learn from you. For example, a few years ago a student asked me if it was possible to sail Sirius, the O’Day 34 we were on, into the slip. The winds were light and we would be heading into the wind in the slip so I said, “Let’s find out.”

Ignoring their looks of trepidation, I prepared the boat for a sail-only docking. With the jib furled, I held the mainsheet in my hand and sailed the O’Day like a dinghy. I placed the largest student on the side deck and told him he might have to push the boom forward to make the sail act like a brake. The fenders were in place and the dock lines ready when we turned into the row of slips. When we were about a boat length away, I spilled the main to let our momentum carry us into the slip. Sirius slid neatly into place. As we gently bumped the starboard fenders, I leaped over the side onto the dock with a line in my hand. As I cleated the line, another student got the idea and did the same to the other stern line. In a minute we had all four lines secured. The student on the boat called out, “Should I push the boom forward now?” Maybe he wasn’t the tightest knot in the line.

Needing a little vacation myself, I decided to go to Portland over Labor Day and have a look at the boat. It was a good excuse to spend some time there, eat some seafood, and play tourist. If the weather was good, maybe I’d take a riverboat tour up the Columbia. It’d be nice to be on the water with someone else responsible for everything.

I got to the boat yard after lunch on Saturday. The owner had graciously consented to give me a tour of the yard and the boat. When I arrived, he was applying glass cloth and resin to a frame. Not in the boat, but in the shop. The boat was in the shed next door. The hull was completed, but nothing else. No frames were in place, much less a deck, interior fittings, etc. I’d flown 600 miles to look at a 77-foot bathtub. Still, it was impressive and I was given the VIP tour. Every possible component was explained and samples of the hull material were trotted out so that the details of this construction technique would be clear. I left the yard impressed with the quality of workmanship and attention to detail I saw. There were also some major doubts about the schedule. Here it was Labor Day and it looked as though months of work were to be done to complete the boat, to be named “Outrage.”

My concerns were well-founded and I eventually received an e-mail titled “Major Delay.” The departure was now set for February.

I got the call to go to Portland on February 1st. I finished my local obligations, and attended a couple of “Bon Voyage” parties. At the last one, my entertainment was a video of the movie “White Squall.” With friends like these, enemies are truly superfluous.

After I arrived in Portland on Sunday, I learned that the boat was still not quite finished. In fact, the mast hadn’t been stepped nor the steering connected. These are fairly essential items on most boats, so we spent a couple of days sorting charts, provisioning, and buying last-minute gear.

A personal crisis arose on Tuesday when we had almost everything ready to go. It was serious enough that I had to leave the crew. After months of planning and preparation, it was not to be. Aside from the personal problem, I was waterlogged with disappointment over missing what had to be the trip of a lifetime. It was a doubly-depressed trip back to Phoenix.

They say that good things happen if you lead a clean life and think good thoughts. This is probably true, but I got a break anyway. In my e-mail, there was an opportunity to crew on a 40-footer for a month in the Bahamas. I started the exchange of e-mails again. This time at a furious pace as the boat owner wanted to leave almost immediately. We negotiated a date that would permit me to handle my personal affairs and give us a month to go gunkholing in the Islands. All my gear had to be unpacked and repacked for a different kind of trip. By now, packing for sea was getting to be a reflex, so this only took a couple of hours.

The plan is to meet the owner, Bob, in Ft. Lauderdale on February 14th. We’ll sail in the upper keys for a few days as a shake down cruise, then head for the Bahamas. The plan, if you can call it that, is to sail around the islands and try some of the more remote anchorages and end up in Georgetown with the rest of the tourists. By starting from the keys, we’ll be going more or less with the Gulf Stream on the way over. Coming back we’ll just have to tough it out if conditions are less than favorable. I’ve made several other crossings of the stream and only one was bad enough to be noteworthy. With a more modern boat, maybe these will be nice.

Stay tuned for the Bahama Mama of all cruises .