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PA Boating Handbook
Boat Handling / Docking

All boats handle differently and inexperienced operators need hands-on practice with a capable teacher to become proficient in handling their boat. A motorboat is most easily maneuvered going against the current or wind. When moving with the current, the boat must be going faster than the speed of the current to maintain control and maneuverability. Boats do not have brakes. To reduce speed quickly, the motor should be put in reverse and power applied. Stopping in this manner requires practice to avoid water washing in over the stern. Consult the owner’s manual for the boat and motor for proper procedures.


Docking is a very difficult maneuver, especially for the new boater. Learning to dock also requires practice with a capable teacher. When docking, a boater must keep in mind that the boat’s steering mechanism is located at the stern (back), which will move first, followed by the bow (front of the boat). Docking is similar to landing an airplane; you must encounter a fixed object but do so softly without inflicting damage. At the same time, environmental conditions such as current, wind and waves can make your approach more complicated.

Depending on the situation, docking procedures vary. Fenders, mooring lines, a boat hook and a heaving line should be ready. The approach to the dock should be planned. If possible, the boat should be headed into the current and/or wind to slow down and to more easily control it. A common method when docking in current is to slip the boat sideways bit by bit toward the dock, pier or slip. When docking correctly, the boat feels like it is moving in slow motion. After docking, a line should be secured from the dock to the bow of the boat. The current will hold the boat against the dock while the remaining lines are tied off.

A docking light is a flood or spotlight type of light permanently installed or permanently mounted on a motorboat that is used to illuminate a boat’s forward course of travel. For specific information on illegal use of docking lights, click here.


Although there are subtle docking differences between propulsion systems and watercraft, the following guidelines apply to most docking conditions:

  1. Survey the dock: Look for moving boats and traffic, available hands, and the locations of cleats or pilings.
  2. Visualize your approach: Determine which side is better. Identify what lines you intend to use and who will do what.
  3. Plan an exit strategy: If things don’t go according to plan, back out and try again rather than continue a flawed approach. Also consider approaching from another direction or selecting another dock. Plan for a no-escape situation: If you get into a situation from which escape is difficult, use spring lines with dock hands or fellow boaters on the dock to help keep you in control.
  4. Approach slowly, docking is no place for speed. Relax and stay focused.
  5. Use only the power necessary to move the boat and maintain control. Alternating between idle speed in gear, and drifting in neutral is one way to slow your movement. Apply very brief bursts of power to help with steering and then shift to neutral to limit your speed.
  6. Deploy boat fenders or other devices to protect the hull.
  7. Use a boat hook to pull the boat closer to dock. If someone is available, hand them a line. Do not jump from the boat to dock!

Additional docking tips for specific situations.

With Wind or Current Ahead. Approach at a moderate angle (about 15 to 20 degrees) slowly and with fenders and lines at the ready. As you touch the dock, reverse power to halt your advance and hand a line to a dock hand. If no dock hand is available, use a boat hook or have a crew member step (not jump) from the boat to the dock to secure the line.

With Wind or Current Behind. In this situation your big concern is pin wheeling if the wind or current takes the stern, so do not tie the bow first. Slow your approach by throttling back. Your angle should be as slight 5 to 10 degrees – coming alongside the pier. Reverse throttle slightly to still your approach; tie an aft quarter spring line. Then tie your bow; tie remaining lines.

With Wind or Current Off the Pier. This is more challenging. You will need to increase the angle of your approach and use just enough power to reach and hold the dock. Now have a crew member toss the line to a dock hand or carefully step on the dock to secure the line. You will be using power against a spring line to pull the boat parallel to the do ck and hold it until you are secured by lines.

With Wind or Current Toward the Pier. Line up next to the pier and let the wind take you in.


When departing, your boat will naturally point into the current or wind–whichever is dominant. If the current is strong, be prepared to counter it, especially if there are boats astern of you.

Untie the line and toss it from the bow, making sure the line is far enough away that it won’t foul the propeller. It’s easiest if a member of your crew does this, because you may need to apply some power in forward gear to maintain your position. If you have to do this yourself, get to the helm quickly to take control. Do not apply propulsion and leave the helm to go to the bow.

Once you’re free, drift backward until you have clearance. Apply light forward throttle while also turning to go around rather than over the mooring line. Once you’ve moved to the side, power away.

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