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How to Dock a Single-Engine Boat Like a Pro in 3 Simple Steps

Russ is a boat owner who knows that getting a single-engine boat back into its slip is way easier than people make it out to be.

Docking a single-screw boat, even into a tight slip, is much simpler than it's made out to be.

Docking a single-screw boat, even into a tight slip, is much simpler than it's made out to be.

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.

According to conventional wisdom, a dual-engine boat is easier to handle because you can back one engine while putting the second in forward, thereby maneuvering around the most difficult obstacles. Luckily, docking a single-engine boat is not that difficult either.

The problem with docking a single-engine boat is its simplicity. It has one propeller, and that propeller can move the boat forward or backward. If driving by instinct, you might steer into the dock at an angle then swing your helm at the last moment and hope that you don’t collide with the dock or end up too far away and have to try again. This maneuver is extra daunting when the slip you’re aiming for is narrow and surrounded by other boats. It's even scarier if your pulse rate is up, and you're emotionally invested because there are people watching.

Luckily, the notion that docking a single-engine boat is difficult is simply wrong. So many boaters make it complicated when really, it’s quite simple. Remember Occam’s Razor? It’s the theory that among all possible explanations for something, usually, the simplest answer is the best. That holds true here as well.

How to Dock a Single-Screw Powerboat Into a Slip

Ready to dock a single-engine boat into any slip easily? These steps work whether you own a high-performance powerboat or a small flats boat.

1. Remember That 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 in reverse.

Powerboats seem to steer like cars. I use the word "seem" because your senses tell you that your boat acts 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 moves because it’s pushed by the propeller on the stern, which pushes the water against the rudder such that the stern moves first.

Drill this into your brain so that you don’t have to think about it.

2. Forget the Throttle

All you need to do with the throttle is engage it at the lowest setting. Consider putting a sock or plastic cup over it 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 step.

3. Alternate Between Forward and Reverse

Pull your boat parallel to and a few feet from the dock. Yes, you want your boat parallel to the dock—not angled into it.

Next, turn your helm all the way away from the dock. If the dock is to starboard, turn the wheel to port. If the dock is to port, turn the wheel to starboard.

Next, put it in forward and slowly say “forward one thousand” then put it in neutral. Immediately put it in reverse and say “reverse one thousand” then put it in neutral again. Repeat this simple maneuver until you gently move the boat in line with the slip.

You will notice an amazing thing; the boat appears to be pushed toward the dock by some invisible hand. The short bursts of forward and reverse make for a smooth approach.

A tight squeeze requires some skill, but anyone can learn to dock their boat.

A tight squeeze requires some skill, but anyone can learn to dock their boat.

Docking Tips and Techniques for Windy Conditions

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 a bit more difficult. here are some tips for docking when it's windy:

  • Reduce your “sail area” as much as possible. Sail area refers to any flat surfaces that catch wind, such as cabin bulkheads and windows. This is especially pronounced on trawlers with enclosed bimini tops. The simple solution to this problem is to open all of the windows so that the wind can pass through rather than push against the surface.
  • 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 learning the maneuver itself. If the wind is blowing you off the dock, however, use the thruster. 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 a boat.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


seighlor on January 12, 2019:

Thank you. This is a great suggestion. I've been practicing. Don't yet have it quite down pat but I'm getting close. At my present stage I'm still having to goose the throttle a little on occasion to get the bow out. But I'm enjoying the practice and find the results quite satisfying.

Frederick on August 28, 2018:

Best article on docking that I have found. Thank You.

Lisa on June 22, 2018:

Thanks for this article, I have a 23 foot boat and trying to dock it in between two boats has been a nightmare!!! I also have the issue of a narrow river with a current. Hopefully this works for me .

Captain Lori on November 30, 2017:

Thanks! How about docking into a slip, not side ties?

H.B Sumon on November 20, 2017:

this is a wonderful article for handle single boat.

Acl on March 14, 2017:

Does this apply to a single outboard?

Grisham on August 16, 2016:

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

Paul Levy from United Kingdom on November 03, 2015:

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

George Mardre on July 11, 2013:

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.

Fred Bohman from Orange County, CA on April 23, 2013:

Like a boss! Very nice hub. Thumbs up!

Russ Moran - The Write Stuff (author) from Long Island, New York on April 08, 2013:

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

LeAnna Totten on April 08, 2013:

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!

Russ Moran - The Write Stuff (author) from Long Island, New York on March 27, 2013:

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

Jack Durish on March 26, 2013:

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 from Nashville, TN on August 15, 2012:

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!

Russ Moran - The Write Stuff (author) from Long Island, New York on August 14, 2012:

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

Goody5 from Bohville, USA, Just below the Mason-Dixon line in the land of the pleasant living on August 14, 2012:

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!!!