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Full disclosure, I wrote this piece two weeks ago, but was holding off on publishing it until I could get some video and photos to better illustrate some of the things I'm talking about. However, it has basically rained for all of the last two weeks, so you're just going to have to let my words fill your imagination.
Everyone loves to go out to the bar/restaurant on the lake by boat. One thing that can be terrifying to boat owners is docking it, even with experience. It seems simple enough in theory, but then you have that first windy day with only one slot open at the lake bar and you’ve got to pull in next to another, much nicer boat than yours. That is when things get really real. Another terrible moment in boat parking is when you have a large crowd either on your boat, the boat you’re parking next to, or on/around the dock that you’re parking at. Everyone’s got an opinion, that’s for damn sure, and if you don’t nail that docking job, judgments will be made and opinions formed, and you can go from King of the Lake to Lake Jester just like that. I’ve seen (and probably (definitely) participated in) instantaneous arguments, heated exchanges, and questioning of marriages, friendships, relationships, and religion over intense boat docking conditions. In fact, this past weekend I witnessed and participated in all of the above, which leads me to this post. Plain and simple, parking/docking/tying up your boat is difficult and can be extremely stressful. For the non-laker, it might seem like it’s basically the same as parking your car. Well, since you’re here reading about the lake life, you’re probably aware that it most definitely is not the same as the road, parking space, and/or curb don’t move while you’re doing it, but the boat, the water, the dock, and the people do. Also, no brakes. Here are my top tips for parking your boat confidently, effectively, and safely, so you can park like a boss (NSFW language) and Rule The Lake!
Have Clearly defined roles for everyone on the boat
In my boat, there are two people in charge of everything—the driver and the first mate. These roles are interchangeable, however it’s important to define, communicate, and understand each role. The driver is The Captain, and what the Captain says is what will, or needs to, happen. A great first mate understands and accepts this, and implements The Captain’s strategy. Let’s look at these roles more closely.
The Captain decides where to park, which side to park, and bears the responsibility for making decisions, passenger and boat safety, and being a knowledgeable and considerate boat driver. Many people drive boats and many people are not good Captains. Be a good captain (read this guide here). The Captain gives clear instructions to everyone on board, and in high-pressure situations sometimes will deliver said instructions with fire and brimstone, sometimes with yelling and/or insulting, and sometimes will offend boat members. When everyone on the boat understands their roles, The Captain won’t have to resort to these methods, and parking the boat should be a pleasant experience. However, there are many, many tiny and split second factors that determine whether the boat is parked safely, or you damage your boat, someone else’s boat, or the dock, so it’s quite possible for extreme volatility of The Captain. On my boat, we mostly avoid this because we have developed, over time, clearly defined roles, and probably the most important role is that of the First Mate. Mostly. If you're driving the boat, you assume the role and responsibility of The Captain.
The First Mate
While The Captain gets all the glory for a successful parking job (and the blame for a bad one), the First Mate is the one that really makes it happen most of the time. The smaller the room for error, the more crucial the First Mate is. On my boat, once the approach is initiated, the First Mate prepares for action. As the boat approaches the dock, lift, or boat, the First Mate knows to move to the left, middle, or right side of the boat and is prepared to do several things: realign trajectory of boat both verbally and physically, slow the boat down to prevent collision, prevent the rear end of the boat from drifting, and secure the boat to the cleat or lift properly. Here’s how we do it: As I approach the dock/lift, I indicate my plan (right side, left side, etc), my wife will move to the correct position and relay how my line is looking, how my speed is, etc. This is extremely important on a windy day, especially when parking next to or near other boats, because it’s all in the approach. Once the line is good and we’re closing in on the dock/lift, she will use a foot to redirect the bow from the dock/lift if necessary (which is rarely when you’re the King like me (he wrote, sarcastically)), and once we’re in the dock, she will hop off the boat and pull the bow dock line to finish guiding the boat in. As she does this, I shut the engine off, and hop off the boat and take her position at the front or at the back depending on what the boat is doing, while she will either rotate to the stern and grab that dock line, or remain at the bow and tie the line down. If the back end begins to drift, she will extend a hand to a passenger (or me if it’s just us two) to pull the stern back into the dock, then move to the dock line. This is a highly coordinated movement, and we’ve got it down to a science. Of course, there are several variants and variables that dictate our movements and procedures, however because we have clearly defined roles, we understand what is expected, and how to react. Even when there is an explosion of stress and tempers, it’s over as soon as the boat is docked successfully because we understand the situation. I’ve just realized that this guide for parking your boat is also a metaphor for relationships. Apply same rules.
The role of the passenger(s) is/are quite simple: SHUT THE HELL UP.
In addition to that, never question the Captain’s parking job, nor offer advice, or a critique. All passengers should mostly just sit there, be grateful someone took you out on their boat, chip in for gas, food, or beer, and enjoy life. Don’t cast any judgments, don’t comment on the argument you just witnessed, and while the boat is parking definitely DO NOT JUST SIT THERE AND LET THE BOAT HIT SOMETHING!!!!
You’d think this would be obvious, but many boat passengers are not boat owners, boat drivers, boat riders, or boat parking experts. Always watch out for impacts. A good Captain will gently instruct passengers to help with the docking by using their hands or feet to aid in this process. Now, if you’re a passenger on a boat, but also have experience being the Captain and/or the First Mate, go ahead and proactively participate in the parking, but keep the suggestions to yourself. If you have no idea how to help, please ask. Some situations require all hands on deck. It doesn’t take Arnold Schwarzenegger to slow a boat that is easing into a dock/lift, so put your foot out there and press against the dock, lift, or other boat to help. You will probably not be asked back if you could have prevented boat damage, but didn’t.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Experience is everything. If you are nervous about parking a boat, you need to park the boat more often! I totally understand that parking a boat can be extremely nerve-wrecking and stressful, however, if you never do it, you never get any better! If you’ve set up the first tip correctly, just over communicate and go for it. Start with the easy jobs, like pulling into your own lift (which I suppose may or may not be “easy” depending on where your lift is) and progress to harder ones. Here’s a real radical idea: literally go to a dock and practice! Big deal if someone on shore stares at you and wonders (or asks) what the hell you’re doing! In my opinion it’s better to look silly than to damage your boat, and it’s definitely better than damaging someone else’s!
The answer my friend, is blowing in the win
The number one factor that makes parking really difficult is the wind, especially when you’re parking “upwind” i.e. the wind is blowing left to right, and the dock is on your left. Throw in that same scenario and add another boat to your right in a double-slip, and it’s definitely not practice time. This is the time for the true alpha Captain to step in, and it’s definitely an all-hands on deck scenario. If you nag, complain, offer advice, or critique during this scenario, you’re swimming home. The opposite scenario would be parking to your left side with the wind blowing right to left, which is really easy. Still don’t nag, complain, offer advice, or critique The Captain, though. Head-winds and tail-winds are rare it seems, but do occur, and they are also pretty easy, but may cause some contact issues with the dock, so I will address this too.
Undoubtedly, this is the hardest parking situation you’ll have (most likely). The biggest danger with this parking job is the amount of drift you will have, especially in the stern (the back). The key to all windy parking jobs is having the right feel for the waves and how much you will move. How do you get the right feel? Aside from a lot of practice, you should take your time on the approach. Idle while you’re still a ways out and see how much you drift, then adjust accordingly. If it’s possible, I’d recommend trying to approach by going into the wind as this way you can use the throttle to push into and through the wind, thus counteracting the drift of the waves. Get your First Mate and passengers off the boat as quick as possible and grab the dock lines. Speed can be your friend, and basically once you have two people with the dock lines, you’re golden. If you have to approach going with and across the wind, you should lower your expectation of parking like a boss, and be happy with any parking job that doesn’t damage anything. It’s no big deal to bail out and try again! Don’t damage your or another’s boat! My go to move when approaching with the hard tail/cross wind and having to park on the upwind side is to be very patient, and go slow. I like to get almost parallel with the dock while I’m still way to the left it, and let the drift get me almost all the way there, then add some throttle to get me to the corner of the dock or right into the dock/lift. If I can get the bow close enough to the dock, my first mate can jump off and grab the lines. Then all efforts go to keeping the stern from drifting, which can and will happen quickly.
Once your first mate is on the dock and has the dock line, you can kick the throttle gently to reverse, steer into the dock, and as the mate pulls the boat down into the lift, the boat should turn into the dock. If there’s only two of you, The Captain needs to get their butt onto the dock and grab the boat before the drift. Get that front dock line tied as fast as possible while someone holds the middle of the boat, then get the rear line tied down. If you have passengers, some should hop out and grab the outstretched hands of the passengers still on the boat to secure the boat against the dock. Tie the dock lines securely, make sure your boat fenders are out (which you should have done before beginning this process), and you are all set. This is by far the most stressful parking job, especially on a crowded dock or one in a tight space, and passengers that don’t understand their roles will certainly not help. I’ve seen some pretty serious, life-altering arguments that resulted from a stressful parking job. “Stop using the F-word at Mommy” one young boy cried to his father as I sat in my boat 2 feet away from an especially classy group that was having a very difficult time. They certainly did not have clear and defined roles, and the man certainly did not stop using the F-word. Like I said, parking boats can be very stressful (but seriously, don’t throw F-bombs at children, or your spouse, partner, bf/gf, or people in general…unless they hit your boat….then fire away (not at the children though…unless they’re teenagers…come to think about it…just don’t throw f-bombs or other obscenities to people, even when they deserve it…better to just stay classy out there!).
Parking down-wind is probably just as easy as parking with no wind, but there is still some skill to it, especially if you have to pull next to or between another boat/s. Down-wind in this case, as an example, would be left-to-right wind, and parking on the right side of your boat. Let the water and wind do their work and just ease yourself right into the dock or lift. You still need a First Mate to hop out and do the things already established, but really you can utilize the throttle in this situation to get it right in there. The stern will drift into the dock though, so be sure you throttle or pull the boat far enough in. As long as you’ve got your boat roles and responsibilities down (don't forget to put the boat fenders in) down-wind parking should be a breeze.
head or tail-wind
Really the only thing to mention about these, which for me are rare, is that they do cause some issues after being docked, and it’s typically a tail-wind. The most important thing with this is to tie your dock lines super tight, and adjust your boat fenders accordingly. When we go to one of the 2 restaurants on our lake, we almost always have a strong tailwind, and the way their docks are set up, the boat is always getting blown into the front of the dock, which is poorly constructed and will damage the boat. Luckily, the boat has 4 fenders and 17 life jackets, which make great temporary fenders! Line the sides that are being blown into the dock with said items, and you’re all set!
This goes hand in hand with the practice portion, but you have to gain that feeling of when and how to use the throttle, in both directions. A slight bump in speed in either direction can make a huge difference, and sometimes, based on the parking job, you’re going to need to really slam that thing forwards or backwards (usually backwards). However, some people, some times (never me of course) panic and hit the reverse too soon or too hard. This is how you ruin a perfect parking job and everyone looks at you with disdain and scorn because you blew it. Don’t let this happen to you! Typically this happens when the captain doesn’t trust the First Mate, and makes a unilateral decision, who is the one that should be making the final call on speed. If you’re typically the First Mate, be sure you’ve earned that trust by being steadfast in your role and responsibilities by giving clear instructions, and if you’re The Captain, trust your First Mate to take you home! The windier it is, the more likely you’ll need to use a bit more speed, but my general rule is to exercise patience and let the waves, wind, and momentum do their job, and you just steer. Think of using the throttle in small bumps, like thrusters in space, to just make subtle changes in your line of approach. Remember, you don’t have to get it right in there, you just have to get it close. Getting one person on land and/or in physical contact with the dock, lift, or other boat/passenger) is more than half the battle, and the throttle is just for fine tuning. Of course, there are times when you know you’ve made a mistake and you’re going to have to bail out. Slam that thing backwards if necessary and get yourself out of a tight spot, or when that wind is really crazy, hit it forwards enough to get you in a safe/better position, and then hammer it back to stop your momentum.
Whatever you do, don’t forget that forward throttle is forward, and backwards throttle is backwards! I know that sounds like the most stupid and the most obvious thing you could tell someone, and it is. It is also something that occurs.
Now that you’ve made it to the end of this post, go out and apply it! When you’re a pro, you can go the bar and sit back and laugh as the amateurs struggle to park their boat, or marvel at those that Rule The Lake and parked like a champ, or curse as someone who has no business driving a boat smashes into your (or someone else’s) boat and does something like this. Be sure to get their registration number before they drive off. To the person that hit The Reservoir Dog while it was docked and then sped off: I leave you with this.
The "King" of the Lake
I'm Mike, I live on a lake in the Midwest. I boat, ski, swim, kayak, tube, float, drink, and everything else there is to do on the lake, and then I write about it! I have a Golden Lab named Murphy, and when not injured I compete in triathlons. Read More
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