How to Dock Easier With Spring Lines

Using dock lines to work in and out of a tight slip.

The wind had unexpectedly kicked up to 20 knots, churning up a fierce chop across the bay. We could handle that well enough by adjusting our speed and attitude — the real challenge came back at the marina. We had to pull into a slip defined by a finger pier on one side and by another boat on the other side. The wind was howling unabated across the slip so that it was impossible to line up our boat without getting quickly blown into the other boat. Thankfully, we had a plan B: tying a dock line to the midship cleat and springing the boat in via the line.

Using ropes to work in and out of a difficult slip is a tried-and-true technique called warping or springing. The classic way to use warping is to pull away from a side to dock when there's no room to pull forward or back. With a line secured to a bow cleat and cleated on the dock aft of the bow, put the boat in forward and turn the wheel toward the dock; the aft end will swing out, giving you clearance to back the boat away. (A fender can be deployed as a pivot cushion.) Conversely, you can tie off to the stern cleat and hit reverse to swing out the bow — though this is trickier for sterndrives and outboards as the technique may place your props too close to the dock.

In this crosswind situation, while trying to work into a slip, tying to the bow or stern would prove useless. But belaying the dock line on the midship cleat allowed us to work the boat into the slip without the wind pushing the boat into the neighboring vessel. Also, using the midship cleat — also known as a spring cleat — kept the boat parallel to the pier and prevented the bow or stern from swinging out into the other boat. Here’s how we made it work:

The captain pointed the bow off the end of the pier, and I stepped off holding the end of the already-cleated spring line and secured it around a cleat at the end of the pier. My buddy continued into the slip, allowing the line to come tight, and as it did he turned the helm away from the dock. He kept the engine idling in gear, which kept the boat pinned to the dock while I secured bow and stern lines and adjusted the pre-hung fenders in unstressed fashion. We were home safe.

Fortunately for us, we were working with fixed piers, and the protocol called for docking bow-in. The technique will still work in slips that use pilings instead of piers, but you’d have to make a piling your pivot point. It could also work docking stern-in, depending on your setup. Try practicing on a calm day when there’s no wind and no boat in the slip next to yours. That way, you’ll know what to do when the time comes to warp your way out of trouble. It’s an invaluable way to tame a crosswind.

Quick Tip: To pull side-to to a dock without lines, nose the bow in at an angle on the approach and, when lined up, turn the wheel to the dock and hit reverse.