Docking Tips Continued . . .

Chris Riley by Chris Riley Updated on July 30, 2019. In

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“. . . I just bought a pontoon boat and struggle with putting it in the slip, any comments or suggestions?? Unfortunately, I am in the middle of the rows of slips so I can not just taxi in but must make a hard right turn. I keep bumping into the slips on the next dock over.

The best way to get good at docking is practice, practice, practice. With repetition, you start to get a feel for wind and current. Pontoon boats are generally not as “maneuverable” as mono-hull boats and tend to be affected by wind to a greater degree. If you have the resources, please get someone with experience to teach you (on your boat, if possible). (And, by the way, that person should not be a spouse. You need a professional marine educator.) Short of that, I have some tips.

First, don’t get discouraged. You were not born knowing how to drive a boat just as you were not born knowing how to drive a car. You had to learn. And…because boats don’t drive like cars, it is another learning experience. A boat steers from the stern and pivots on its axis. So, when you steer to the right, for example, the stern of your boat moves to the left (which may be why you are bumping into the slips on the next dock over). Try visualizing “pushing” your boat in to the slip (somewhat like a shopping cart on ice).

Let me ask you; when you get in your car, do you have to look for the place to put the key or do you just grab the key and stick it in? Do you have to look to find the gear shift handle, or do you just reach and grab it? Don’t you just do these things unconsciously? If the answer is yes, you have what is called muscle memory. Your muscles have learned the exact location of these items as they relate to your arm. It seems natural. You don’t have to think about it. However, in your boat, it is a new experience. You don’t have muscle memory yet. In addition, the boat steers from the rear, you have wind or current, or maybe both, to deal with, and you are naturally a bit tense. That is where the practice, practice, practice comes in. You have to get muscle memory.

I also tell my students to use another visualization. As you are approaching your slip, make an imaginary line from the center of the bow of your boat, on a slow arcing curve (in your case to the right), into the middle of your slip. Practice keeping your boat on this imaginary line. If your boat is drifting to the left of the line you need to steer more right. If it is drifting to the right of the line you need to steer more left.

When approaching your slip you need to have some momentum to overcome any wind or current. However, momentum does not equal speed. You want just enough to get into the slip and be able to shift smoothly into reverse to stop the boat. You should also be aware that when you shift to reverse, even with the wheel centered, your stern will tend to “walk” to port because of the counter clockwise rotation of the prop.

If there is not enough room between rows of slips to do this in one continuos arc, you’ll need to use reverse and make a few “course adjustments.” Remember when you do this that, as you stop the momentum of the boat, the boat is more susceptible to wind and current. You need to anticipate the effects of both so that you end up where you want to be. The following graphic illustrates this in a very general way.

Wind and current will determine where you should actually begin your maneuvers in relation to your slip.

One final note: if possible, you want to dock into wind or current. Even if it means going past your slip and turning around and approaching from the opposite direction. It is easier to handle a boat into wind and current and it also helps slow you down as you enter your slip.

Practice, practice, practice until you know, without thinking about it, what effect the wind and current are having on your boat and what you need to do to compensate. With practice, you will become familiar with your boat and react instinctively and confidently as the conditions change.

Hope this helps.


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