If thinking about mooring at a boat dock has you anxious, intimidated, or worried about your next outing on the water, know that you’re not alone. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed and stressed about mooring at a boat dock, especially if you’re a new boater, and it’s your first time getting a handle on the process. Fortunately, docking a boat doesn’t have to be as complicated as it looks, as the right preparation, know-how, and steps can get you docking like a pro. In this step-by-step guide, you’ll learn how to approach the dock safely, what to do during the docking process, and how to tie your boat off correctly.

Step Zero: Understand How Your Vessel Handles.

Before you attempt to moor at a boat dock, you must have a clear understanding of how your vessel handles. This includes knowing how fast or slow it accelerates, its turning radius, and its stopping distance. If you’re not confident in your ability to handle your boat, it’s best to practice in an empty bay or anchorage before trying to dock in a busy area.

Step One: Prep Your Dock Lines & Fenders.

Before you begin the docking process, you’ll need to prep your boat with the dock lines and fenders. Your dock lines are used to secure your boat to the dock, and the fenders act as bumpers, providing the boat with protection from dock contact. You may need two to three fenders on either side of the boat to ensure that the side of the boat is fully protected from damage.

Step Two: Survey the Docking Area & Line Up Your Approach.

Once you’ve prepped your boat, it’s time to survey the docking area and line up your approach. This step is important as you want to make sure that there are no obstacles in your way and that you have a clear path to the boat dock. When surveying the area, also pay attention to the wind and current, as they can affect your docking process.

Once you’ve found a clear path, line up your boat so that you come in at approximately a 30-degree angle, as this is easier in most conditions. If you’re finding the wind to be against you, blowing you away from the boat dock, approach at a steeper angle of at least 45-degrees. This puts more of that resistance on the bow of the boat and keeps your approach straight.

Should the wind be with you, pushing you into the dock, let it do so, and come in at a much shallower angle of 15-degrees. This makes the wind do most of the work for you, pushing you right into your spot and leaving you free to tie off your lines.

Step Three: Slowly Enter the Docking Area.

When you’re ready to enter the docking area, do so very slowly and carefully. The key to a successful docking is to use just the right amount of throttle to carry yourself to the right spot. However, you may also use the throttle in short bursts, so long as you’re careful not to overdo it. As you get close to the boat dock, reduce your speed and start your turn, aiming to glide in as close to the dock as possible without hitting it. Make sure your speed is no faster than what you’d be willing to collide with the dock at.

Step Four: Tie Off or Try Again.

At this point, you should be able to easily decide whether you’re close enough to tie off your lines, or try your approach again. Remember that even experienced boaters may need several attempts before they’re satisfied with their approach, so don’t be afraid to take another run at it in order to get it right.


The above steps will get you through most scenarios, but what about some more specific conditions?

  • Pulling Into a Slip. A slip is a common type of boat dock that looks more like a parking spot for a car. It surrounds the boat on three sides and offers little room for movement within. The main idea of pulling into a slip is to do it straight, and do it backwards. Backing into a slip will give you the most control over your boat in terms of both speed and direction, as well as give you the easiest setup for exiting it again.
  • Pontoon Boats. If you have a pontoon boat, the only thing you have to do differently than with other boats is to keep an even closer eye on the wind and current. These factors affect pontoon boats more, and a stiff breeze can easily blow you off course. Making use of small bursts of acceleration can counteract most winds, but until you have enough experience to feel comfortable, this would be a good time to enlist as much help as possible.

Step Five: Tying Off Your Boat.

Getting your boat to the dock successfully is one thing, but ultimately useless if there’s nothing holding it there. This is where docking equipment comes into play, and you’ll want to have all of this prepared ahead of time.

There are three pieces of equipment you need to know about for tying off your boat; docking/mooring lines, cleats & pilings, and fenders.

  • Docking/mooring lines. As the cornerstone of your equipment, lines are a specialized rope and always something to keep in large supply. These can be referred to in different ways, depending on how they’re used, but the most common are bow and stern lines.
  • Cleats & pilings. These are what you’ll be tying your lines to. Cleats are small, t-shaped metal pieces found attached to the boat dock and outer rim of your boat. Pilings are larger, much simpler wooden posts, usually seen on a pier or older style dock. Cleats are often the preferred choice when tying off a boat as they are simply easier to use since pilings require the use of specialized knots to be effective.
  • Fenders. As mentioned above, fenders, otherwise known as bumpers, are what keep your boat from making direct contact with the dock while tied off to it. Without them, the side of your boat would rub against the dock with every ripple in the water, resulting in tremendous damage over time.

Now that you know what equipment to use, you’ll need to know how to use it. By this, we of course mean tying knots, as tying off a boat is a little different from tying off other equipment or vehicles. The three most common knots are the cleat hitch, clove hitch and bowline. The first of these is, as the name suggests, used specifically on cleats, while the other two are effective on straight bars, such as boat railings or if you’re trying to tie off on a piling. If you follow the links, you’ll be able to see animated versions of how to tie these knot types.

Your first approach to a boat dock may still seem intimidating, but following the above steps will maximize your chances of a successful docking quickly, and safely. Ensuring your equipment is ready, keep an eye on your surroundings and weather conditions, then start with a slow approach. Finish things off with the appropriate lines and knots, and you’ll have achieved your first docking! Happy Sailing!