How to Dock a Boat With a Single Engine—Like a Pro—Three Simple Tips

A Tight Squeeze Requires Skill


Docking a Boat is Not Difficult

Pulling into a crowded marina without knowing exactly how to maneuver your single screw boat is one of life’s least pleasant experiences. You’re convinced that all eyes are trained on you, and you may not be wrong.

A dual engine boat is easier to handle, so the conventional wisdom goes, because you can back one engine while putting the second in forward, thereby maneuvering around the most difficult obstacles. But docking a single engine boat is not difficult. Why are so many boaters intimidated by it? Boating is supposed to be fun.

The problem with docking a single engine boat is its simplicity. It has one propeller and that propeller moves the boat forward and reverse. The problem is compounded by the perception among boaters that a single screw boat is difficult to handle. Without the knowledge you will get from this article, you may be driving your boat by instinct, and steer into the dock at an angle, then swing your helm at the last moment, and hope that: a. you don’t collide with the dock; and b. that you don’t wind up too far away and have to try again. That maneuver is scary when the slip you’re aiming for is narrow and surrounded by other boats. It is made scarier because your pulse rate is up, and you're emotionally invested in an action that should be simple.

The good news is that the idea that docking a single engine boat is difficult is simply wrong. The problem is that so many boaters make it complicated when it’s really simple. Remember the old philosophical principle called Occam’s Razor? It’s the theory that among all possible explanations for something, usually the simplest answer is the best. You don’t have to memorize a bunch of rules that you will forget as soon as you’re in a tight spot. So here is the simple answer to docking a single engine boat: These rules apply whether you own a high performance powerboat or a small flats boat.

1. The Stern Moves First.

You probably heard this when you first started boating but didn't grasp its importance. If you operate a single screw boat, knowing this means everything. Consider posting it on your steering station. The stern moves first, both in forward AND reverse. Power boats seem to steer like cars. I use the word seem, because your senses tell you that the boat is acting like a car. You turn the wheel left and the bow turns left. But the bow only looks like it’s doing the turning; it’s not, the stern is in charge. The bow is moving because it’s being pushed that way by the propeller—on the stern, pushing the water against the rudder, and the stern moves first. Drill this into your brain so that you won’t have to think about it.

2. Forget the Throttle

All that you need to do with the throttle is to engage it at the lowest setting. Consider putting a sock or plastic cup over the throttle to remind you of this rule. The reason to forget the throttle is that it has little to do with getting you next to the dock, as you will see in the next rule.

3. The Maneuver —The Simplicity Continues

Pull your boat parallel to and a few feet from the dock. Yes, parallel, not angled into it. Next, put your helm all the way away from the dock. If the dock is to starboard turn the wheel to port, and vice versa for a portside approach. Now, put it in forward and slowly say “forward one thousand,” and then put it in neutral. Then immediately put it in reverse and say “reverse one thousand,” and put it in neutral again. Repeat this simple maneuver until you gently move the boat right next to the dock. You will notice an amazing thing. The boat appears to be pushed at the dock by some invisible hand. The short bursts of forward and reverse make for a smooth approach.

Bow Thruster - If you have it, use it, but practice docking without it.


YELL for help if you have to


Wind Considerations

Wind can make a difference. The above maneuver will work even with a slight wind off your beam pushing you away from the dock, but a very strong breeze calls for common sense. If the water is choppy it can make the maneuver only a bit more difficult.

  • Reduce your “sail area” as much as possible. Sail area on a powerboat is the term that applies to flat surfaces that catch the wind, such as cabin bulkheads and windows. This is especially pronounced on a trawler with an enclosed bimini top. The simple solution to the problem is to open all of the windows so that the wind will pass through rather than push against the surface as if it were a sail.
  • If you have a bow thruster use it if necessary. When practicing the maneuver described in this article, avoid using the bow thruster. Rely instead on working and learning the maneuver itself. But if the wind is blowing you off the dock, use the thruster. Oh yes, check your bow thruster every time you get underway. When the time comes to use it you don’t want to discover that it's stuck because it has become a home for solidified sea critters.
  • Don’t be shy. Shout for assistance or radio in advance when you’re in a strong blow.
  • Your boat has an anchor—use it. If the wind is extreme, find a sheltered harbor and drop the hook. You can head for the dock when the weather calms down. Knowing how to anchor a boat is as important as knowing how to dock the boat.

Now that you can dock your single screw boat like a double, you can contemplate all the gas money that you’re saving by having only one engine.

Copyright © 2014 by Russell F. Moran - All Rights Reserved

Comments 11 comments

Grisham 2 months ago

This is great. . .I have three heavy books on piloting and had to weigh through 30 pages on docking and still not clear. . .this cleared it all up

livetech profile image

livetech 11 months ago from United Kingdom

Really helpful article, I could point a few people towards this who need some hints! -thanks

George Mardre 3 years ago

A single screw will always back to the left. Port. Or right if you're looking back. So, just line up over... And put her right in the slip.

FBohman profile image

FBohman 3 years ago from Orange County, CA

Like a boss! Very nice hub. Thumbs up!

rfmoran profile image

rfmoran 3 years ago from Long Island, New York Author

Thanks for stopping by. Yes, little bursts from the engine is the key.

LeTotten profile image

LeTotten 3 years ago

I enjoyed your article. I used to own a Kadey Krogen Manatee and I became pretty good at docking it unless there was current combined with wind. Very little keel and lots of windage really complicated things. Combined with the fact that I am woman and that seems to increase spectators and comments. But I found if you used little bursts of power going forward and reverse you could nudge it into place. So, your "forward one thousand, neutral, reverse one thousand" works well. Also, if I could get a line to someone on the dock they could help drag me in. It was a great time and I miss my boat!

rfmoran profile image

rfmoran 3 years ago from Long Island, New York Author

Thanks for visiting Jack. I can't imagine a 32" prop!! That's when you need a bow thruster

Jack Durish 3 years ago

Bow thruster? Cheating. It isn't a single engine boat if you have a bow thruster unless, of course, the bow thruster is the single engine.

Long, long ago, I was a Sea Scout and we had a 35' Navy surplus captains gig with a slow turning diesel and a 32" prop. Imagine the propeller walk on that thing. I mastered the use of spring lines while maneuvering in and out of tight slips.

NicheMarketing2 profile image

NicheMarketing2 4 years ago from Nashville, TN

I just bought a new(to me) 26' Tiara with twin Evinrude 250's, a big step up from my old 16' bass boat.... docking has been an adventure thus far. Trying to get the hang of duel throttles is very worrisome at times. Great Hub!

rfmoran profile image

rfmoran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York Author

Thank you so much! Hey, you should write a Hub about your boat on the tracks incident.

Goody5 profile image

Goody5 4 years ago from Bohville, USA, Just below the Mason-Dixon line in the land of the pleasant living

I just had to stop by, and visit your hub after you told me all about it. I voted it up, useful, awesome, and interesting. I don't know why everyone has been scared to leave you a comment here, but for those who don't know this is indeed very good information. I currently don't own a boat any longer, but when I did loading it up could sometimes be a challenge. The most challenging thing was the time that the trailer springs broke as I was crossing some railroad tracks. Some teenagers were harassing us as well, but we managed to clear the tracks before a train came along. Well I believe I've said enough here, and now you have your first comment. It's been an honor!!!

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