Docking a boat can be one of the more stressful times in a day out on the water. Most of the time, you have wide open spaces but being near other boats and docks is enough to make even the most confident skipper a little squeamish. Luckily, if you feel like you need help docking your pontoon boat, look no further than this docking guide.
Prepare to Dock
The key to successful, stress-free docking is preparation. This means making a number of decisions and calculations about your approach, as well as getting your equipment ready before you even start the process. Mental preparation is also important and if you are new to boating or just new to your boat, practicing out in the open can be helpful. Try picking a buoy and use it as a reference to judge how your boat coasts when going from idle to neutral, see what your turning radius is and how much reverse throttle is needed to bring the boat to a dead stop.
Decide How to Approach the Dock
Once you are ready to park your boat, coming in slow is always a good idea. This will give you time to judge the safest and most direct approach, as well as gauge traffic, weather conditions and any potential hazards. Try to leave yourself room to turn and adjust as you go in case of unexpected changes.
Choose Which Side to Dock On
One consideration is which side to dock on, meaning which side of the boat. If your helm is on the starboard side, putting that side towards the dock will give you a much better vantage point of how close you are to the dock and lines and fenders can be in easy reach right from the captain’s chair. That being said, depending on where the dock is located, you may need to back into your spot, which you may not be as comfortable doing. Judge your comfort level and set up your boat accordingly. On most boats, lines and fenders can be easily switched from side to side.
Get the Dock Lines Ready
As you slow to idle speed to approach the dock, this is the right time to deploy fenders and secure dock lines. You will want to have fenders spread to protect the entirety of the side of the boat, two or three should be adequate. You’ll want the fenders at a level to meet the dock, but also to account for any changes in water depth from tides or waves. On most boats a bow and stern line is a must, but if there is a current or wind, you may need a spring line to arrest any front or back motion and potentially a line on the opposite side of the boat to hold you off the dock by attaching to a piling or adjacent dock. You’ll want to secure your dock line to the cleat on your boat and have it untangled and clear of rails or rigging so you can pass it to a dock hand or step off the boat yourself and secure it quickly. Having a dock line that is the right length and strength for your vessel is also important.
The weather and physical conditions are vital considerations when docking. A good way to judge the conditions at the dock itself is to bring your boat to a stop just short of the dock and see how the wind and currents are affecting the motion of the boat.
Docking in the Wind
Wind is a big factor when docking and it is obviously not something you can control. Wind can be coming from behind you, speeding you forward or in front of you, slowing you down. It can come from the sides pushing you toward the dock or away from the dock. It can also catch your bow, turning you in an unexpected direction. Being aware of the possibilities of the effects of wind on your docking scenario can make you look like a pro. For example, if the wind is coming from behind you pushing you in toward shore, you can nose in close, use reverse to slow down and then step off the stern attaching a spring line to stop your forward momentum and a stern line on the same cleat to keep the boat from swinging off the dock. Then by walking forward and securing a bow line the boat will be tied up and you will have made it look easy.
Docking With No Wind
With no wind to complicate things, it is still a good idea to take your time and continue to assess. Modern, lightweight construction of today’s pontoons mean that even a slightest breeze can move your boat from side to side. Keep an eye on indicators of wind like flags, the surface of the water and trees. Don’t be so focused on the dock that you get surprised by changing conditions.
Docking in a Tight Space
Some people are not comfortable parallel parking a car and will drive around the block over and over in the hopes of finding a better place to park. In a crowded marina, you may not have that option. With twin engine boats, with a little practice you can almost walk your boat sideways. With a single engine boat it is key to know your turning radius and how much sideslip you will get from having forward momentum and kicking the boat into reverse. A proficient boater will be able to nose in, turn away from the dock and kick the engine into reverse sliding in sideways while stopping any forward motion. The key to this kind of driving is to practice, practice and practice. If conditions like current or wind are complicating things, it may be necessary to ask a passenger to help, but as the captain, it is up to you to select your helper and ensure that they do exactly what you need them to and when. Communication is key here. Pulling into a dock and having someone secure a stern line while you stay at the wheel in case you need to adjust is an option, but you’ll want to stay in control. You don’t want someone jumping off the boat to secure a line when you aren’t ready for it. Remember, you are the captain.
Docking Your Pontoon
Now we’re down to the details of actually docking your pontoon. The method will depend on where you’re docking, although techniques will be similar regardless. Make sure you’re aware of your surroundings and you feel comfortable with your boat before you start this process.
At a Boat Dock
At a boat dock, try to make a slow approach as you keep the conditions in mind. It is helpful to have a checklist in mind: idle speed, lines and fenders, check conditions, traffic and look for any hazards, decide how you’re going to approach and determine if you’ll need help. Then it is time to execute. Remember, you can always come around and try again, they key is to dock slowly and safely so that you, your boat and your passengers are all in good condition to go boating again.
On a Pontoon Boat Lift
A boat lift is a fantastic invention that helps protect the investment you’ve put into your boat, but to dock in a boat lift, you’ll want to ensure that it is set up to make it as easy as possible. Most boat lifts will have guides of some sort to make sure that you are oriented properly. Whether your lift is a manual, crank style lift or a push-button hydraulic lift, knowing how to get out of the boat and get the boat up out of the water is an important detail. If your lift has a remote control, having it easily accessible is important so you aren’t looking for a key fob at the last moment.
How to Tie a Pontoon Boat to Dock
Securing the boat to the dock is going to be different for each location. Whether you are leaving the boat for lunch or for a few months, you’ll want to anticipate any conditions that may arise while you are away, this includes tidal changes, wind, line chafing and even other boaters.
Pontoon Boat Slip
If you are keeping your boat at a marina, you will have a designated slip to keep your boat in. One of the benefits of a permanent slip is that you can become familiar with docking in the same place in the way over and over again. You may even be able to permanently leave lines in place on pilings or docks, to make it easier to tie off. Just don’t leave yourself without any dock lines on board as you never know when you might need to make an emergency stop.
Pontoon Cleats and Hitches
One of the key pieces of equipment and related skills that we haven’t addressed is the proper use of cleats and the associated knots or hitches. As with all boating skills, much is learned from practice and experience. The first time you stub your toe on a deck cleat, you will learn a valuable lesson. The first time you forget to secure a piece of equipment and watch it slowly float away, you’ll learn. As with all things, a good education is important and practicing skills like how to properly tie a cleat hitch or bowline is going to make your time on the water much easier.