If you've ever sipped a beverage while sitting in a waterside restaurant then you've probably witnessed some awesome docking ... sometimes in a can't-look-away-from-the-wreck awesome. To avoid being the star of a Youtube video you will want to use these docking tricks and tips, many of which only require a bit of practice.
As with anything worth doing, a little bit of effort goes a long way, and practice will enhance that effort! For the first few times you take out your new boat try to do it when the marina is not busy and few boats are underway. A weekday morning when the tide is slack creates the best learning environment. Don't forget to tell the marina staff that you will be in and out of your slip and won't require any help. You will feel less pressure if you have no audience as you practice your close quarters maneuvering.
If you are fortunate enough to work with a training captain, start your very first time at the helm well after the boat is out of its slip. Discovering what it takes to slow, stop and actually reverse your boat combined with how it is affected by tide, current and wind are the first steps to successful docking. Performing these skills while away from the dock allows a new helmsman to build docking confidence without concern for the occasional oops! Soon these skills will become instinctive with diligent practice.
Whether this will be your home port or your temporary tie-up for a weekend adventure, there's a first time in every marina. Everything looks different from the water so try to learn as much as you can before coming in to your slip. One easy way to explore your options is to stop at the fuel dock first. Fill your fuel tanks or pump out the holding tank then take a walk over to your assigned slip. Scan the surrounding docks for protruding bow pulpits or swim platforms that may require extra maneuvering. Is the power pedestal positioned that you must go bow or stern in? Will the starboard or port side be against the finger pier? Is the pier floating or fixed, as each calls for different fender requirements?
For those boaters in tidal areas, be sure to see from which direction and how fast the current is moving. You may need to compensate and overshoot your slip, allowing the dominant force of wind or current to help your maneuvering. Don't fight the force. Let the force be with you.
While every helmsman should become adept at maneuvering with engines only, it's not cheating to use the tools you have at your disposal. Bow and stern thrusters are a bonus when you must slide right into a side-tie slip, but it's important to know their limitations. Get comfortable with how much power is available, either battery- or generator-assisted hydraulic thruster.
Remember that pilings are your friend, unless they are cement! It's OK to lay your boat's rub rail against a sturdy wood piling, sometimes using it as a fulcrum when the wind or tide challenges your maneuvers. And for good measure, have a walking fender -- one that's loose and easy to grab -- ready for your mate to strategically place when contact is unavoidable. Boat poles can make the difference between getting that line over the piling or launching a dinghy to make it happen. One pole is essential, two is preferred, and three assures you will have a boat pole available when the others go in the drink! A floating boat pole is wonderful, but you still need a second pole to retrieve the first.
Dock lines with large loops are terrific for placing over pilings without choking them. A choked line is difficult to remove from a piling and may need to be left behind. Either splice in a large enough loop or learn to properly tie a bowline, which will create a loop of the size you desire. Many boaters purchase prepackaged cut and spliced dock lines. That's usually fine for smaller boats. Be sure to have long enough lines to spring forward and aft to deal with tidal changes once you've landed safely and are permanently securing your lines.
This is always a great topic for a dockside discussion, but our first docking line is almost always a breast line. ?is docking line is attached to the centermost cleat on your boat and unlike the spring line, the breast line is secured at the dock perpendicular to the boat and as short as possible.This is a temporary line that prevents the boat from blowing off the dock or moving too far forward or aft. Once you have successfully landed, readjust this line to become a spring line.
With a bit of practice the breast line can often be secured to the dock without your mate ever leaving the boat. no jumping from the side deck and no dockside help needed! But if you do require help, $5 makes a nice thank you to the marina dockhands.
Unless you are single handing, it is essential to keep your crew in the loop. Plan your docking strategy, then share the plan with your crew, agree to it and be prepared for changes. It helps if you walk in each other's deck shoes and understand the responsibilities of each crew member but minimally you must find a way to communicate what is occurring --breast line is ON! When the line is secured or Secure stern line first! When the helmsman feels a change in the plan is required.
So how do you talk when the wind is howling or your boat is too big to hear each other clearly? Technology is a wonderful thing and options are plentiful. In addition to a two-way hailer there are head-set selections for every budget. Be sure you recognize the possibility of snagging wires and cumbersome battery packs so try before you buy when possible. After you become competent with each other's roles then short, key words can help describe a multitude of situations. No need for long explanations to get the job done.
Docking is an art that can be refined with practice, or for some lucky boaters it is plain ole raw talent. Just remember that sometimes you watch the show and sometimes you are the show.
Nighttime on a boat can be magical. Everything, even familiar territory, takes on a new feel which can be strange but far from scary. In fact, boating at night not only lets you potentially venture farther in one outing, it can also become your favorite way to spend time aboard.
Boating overnight can include either navigating and maneuvering in the dark, or spending a safe night at anchor or in a slip. Let’s break down these two concepts and highlight some tips for how to do each.
Whether you’re coming back from a waterfront dinner, taking a moonlight cruise, or heading to a distant anchorage, you’ll need to be ready for nighttime operations.
1. Prepare the boat and check the safety gear
Locate all personal flotation devices (PFDs), put fresh batteries into your headlamps and flashlights and place the binoculars near the helm. Check that the engine, radio and electronics are in good working order. Test the running lights and bilge pumps.
Gather your crew and lay out the rules of engagement including staying in the cockpit, wearing PFDs and safety harnesses, and following the protocol for an emergency be it crew overboard, collision, fire, etc.
Agree on communications with the captain and set a watch schedule. Know how to call for help in case of an emergency. It’s best to not single-hand at night due to fatigue. If you must make a passage at night alone, set an alarm for every 30 minutes in case you drift off while standing watch.
2. Boat defensively
Visibility is reduced and your senses may play tricks on you in the dark. Distances are harder to judge, and boats, markers, and obstacles are difficult to see. Slow down and be methodical in your navigation. Familiarize yourself with the charts for the area where you’ll be boating well ahead of time and learn the aids to navigation you’ll encounter along the way. Learn your light signals (on other boats and on shore) before departure.
Preserve your night vision by using only red lights inside the cabin or in your flashlights. Scan the horizon a full 360-dgrees every 15 minutes – more often if you’re in a busy traffic area. Turn off music and listen. You may hear fog horns, whistles, bell buoys, or other boats approaching.
3. Keep an eye on key data
Is the engine running smoothy with a steady temperature? Is the bilge pump running more often than it should be? Is all gear (and lines) secured? Trust your instruments but make sure your chartplotter is updated and your radar and instruments are working before you leave the slip. You should have checked the weather forecast before departure but keep an eye on changing conditions.
4. Dock and anchor with caution
When maneuvering at night, don’t use headlights or spotlights until you’re close to your destination whether that is a dock or an anchorage. Use light too soon and you’ll destroy your night vision. As the old saying goes, approach a dock only as fast as you’re willing to hit it. Advise crew to move slowly and deliberately when stepping onto a dock or tying lines to cleats. Double-check knots and hitches before leaving the boat unattended.
It may be difficult to judge a good anchorage in the dark including how far from shore or other boats you are when you drop the hook and whether there’s a current running. Slow down and take good bearings, making sure you have room to swing. Be extra careful when working with the windlass at night when fingers, clothes and hair can get caught before you notice. You may need to set an anchor watch with your crew or set an anchor alarm on your plotter.
The best experiences
Nighttime is the right time on a boat for so many reasons. You may see phosphorescence as fish swim by or a night sky like you don’t experience on land. You may hear dolphins exhaling as they amble by. You may be rocked gently to sleep in an idyllic anchorage.
Most importantly, running through the night will expand your horizons. Once you stretch your wings, you can explore distant marinas where you can get a slip to get that good night’s rest aboard. (Check out Snag a Slip for slip reservations as you travel.)
The key is preparation, vigilance and a methodical approach to everything from driving to tucking into a warm berth. Then, enjoy all that the wee hours on a boat can bring.
Boaters are a fun loving yet superstitious bunch. For as long as mankind has sailed the seas, there’s been ceremonies to mark the launch of a new vessel. It’s how boaters celebrate welcoming their boats into the world, and ensure safe passages for a lifetime of adventures on the water.
The practice of christening boats actually started thousands of years ago in ancient Greek and Phoenician civilizations as religious ceremonies performed to ensure safety for sea-going vessels. These ceremonies date back thousands of years and varied around the world, some even involving human or animal sacrifice. Our current, less savage, practice of christening a boat with champagne arrived in 1891. It was Britain’s Queen Victoria who first smashed a bottle of champagne against a hull, launching the Navy cruiser HMS Royal Arthur.
Hosting a proper christening ceremony not only connects you to a nautical tradition rooted in ancient times, but is a reason to celebrate with friends and family. Here’s what you’ll need, and what you’ll need to do, to launch your boat in style!
-Your boat (It goes without saying, but we’ll say it anyway)
-Friends and Family to Join in the celebration ceremony
-Lots of champagne, wine or sparkling cider (To drink)
-A branch of green leaves (We’ll explain)
-A pre-scored ceremonial christening bottle in a fine-mesh containment bag (This ensures the broken pieces of glass don’t end up in the water.)
There are actually days on which you should NEVER christen your boat, or you chance bad luck and misfortune. As you’ll see, most of the days to avoid are based on religious events, and sailors and seafarers have followed these traditions for centuries. For that reason, you’d be wise not to break with tradition. Here are the days to avoid:
All Fridays – Yes, any Friday is considered bad luck. This is likely for religious reasons, as Jesus was crucified on a Friday. This may seem like an unusual reason. Even so, the US Coast Guard waits for the weekend to christen their new boats. It’s simply part of a long tradition, and boaters won’t break it.
All Thursdays– You may be aware of Norse mythology, and “Thor” the god of storms and thunder. It’s believed that holding a boat christening ceremony on a Thursday provokes Thor and turbulent seas. So, to avoid the rath of Thor, just pick another day.
First Monday in April– This day has another religious connection. It’s marked as the day when Caine slew Abel, condemning Caine to a life of wandering.
Second Monday in August– This day is denoted as the day God destroyed the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah with fire and brimstone.
December 31– It was on this day that Judas felt so much sorrow and regret, seeing Jesus condemned to death, that he committed suicide by hanging.
Once you’ve decided on a fitting day, go ahead and get out the invitations to gather at the location you choose to christen your boat. The most common places to hold a boat christening ceremony are marina slips, anchorages and moorings. And, you’ll want to make a quick maiden voyage if you’re christening at a location, being sure to rig the vessel before the ceremony, avoiding any possible delays or glitches.
Once everyone arrives at the boat, gather them together and prepare for a toast. If you’re deciding what to serve, boat captains traditionally served red wine when christening a boat. Today, a wide range of spirits are enjoyed, with champagne being the most popular. But some prefer other liquors such as rum or brandy.
With the guests gathered and their glasses full, it’s time for the toast. Begin by welcoming guests, thanking them for coming, and reveal the boat’s name. You can then say a few words about the boat. It’s common to talk about the merits of the boat, and where you plan to sail it. You can even include a poem.
Once the toast is done, you should lay the branch of green leaves on the deck. The branch symbolizes safe returns from your journeys, and serves as a good luck symbol. You don’t need to be concerned about what type of branch you choose – any branch with green leaves will do. The branch will need to stay on the boat through the christening ceremony and the maiden voyage. After that, you can toss it overboard.
After the toast and the laying on of the branch, it’s time for the most exhilarating part of the boat christening ceremony – breaking the bottle! First, move everyone to the bow (front) of the boat. Once there, the captain traditionally breaks the bottle somewhere over the bow – a cleat, anchor roller, or anywhere else. However, don’t break the bottle directly on the bow itself, as it can chip paint and damage woodwork.
If you’re not keen on breaking a bottle, you can also pour a bit of champagne, or your preferred drink, over the bow.
The fact is, no christening is complete until you take a maiden voyage of some sort. It doesn’t have to be a long one, even drifting out to your anchorage or mooring qualifies. Once you’ve done this, there’s nothing more to do but enjoy the congratulations!
If you bought a used boat that already has a name, and you want to change it, there are rules to follow as well. Again, boaters are a superstitious lot, and we don’t want bad luck and misfortune to befall your boat.
Before you plan a christening ceremony, you’ll need to thoroughly remove all instances of the boat’s old name and identity. You even need to completely remove the old name BEFORE you say the new name out loud, or bring onto the boat anything with the new name.
To remove the old name on the exterior, you’ll need to remove the exterior paint or lettering. To do this right, you’ll also need to check whether the boat has ever been repainted. If it has, you’ll need to get down to all the previous layers and literally scrape off the old name. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to simply paint over the old name. The same goes for the interior of the boat. Make sure there are no fixtures, badges, clothing, coffee mugs, engravings, upholstery, or decorations remaining with the old name. You get the drift! Now if you have paperwork like maintenance logs, receipts or cruising journals, you’ll also need to cover the old name with whiteout.
The rules of this tradition are so steadfast that if you get through the whole process, christen your boat and then find a trace of the old name, you must christen it again!
We know this is a lot to do, but for the love of your boat and maritime tradition, it’s worth it. So, let us be the first to say “congratulations” on your new boat!
The scenic Canal du Midi in southern France is a must for boaters! Cruising this 300-year-old waterway, you will savor the slow easy French pace, passing medieval villages, country farms and vineyards in the heart of the Languedoc wine region. Le Boat, the largest charter boat operation in Europe, offers surprisingly affordable, entry- level charters to this canal (and hundreds of other waterways). This historic passage is easy to navigate, scenic, fun and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Boating at a mellow 5 kilometers an hour aboard your vessel of 30-45 feet, the big excitement is passing through the lock system every few kilometers and arriving in ancient villages as your daily destination on your personal private cruise ship.
Don’t expect a luxury yacht holiday, however, because you are the crew and captain, you will be driving the boat or donning gloves to handle the dock lines in each “écluse” (lock). But it’s entertaining and affords a sense of freedom by chartering your own boat and navigating these centuries-old canals. Le Boat provides itineraries of how far you should voyage each day, but it’s truly up to you.
Our weeklong voyage started in Castelnaudary, a small, pretty village. Le Boat’s base in Castelnaudary is in the Grand Basin with a lovely view of the cathedral and village across the waterway, just a short walk over an old stone bridge to town. We could also see the majestic Pyrenees Mountains to our southwest along the French-Spanish border.
Our first night, after our swift check in and orientation aboard our 40’ Horizon, we strolled to town, enjoyed local Languedoc wine and dinner at the Maison du Cassoulet sampling the specialty dish of slow-cooked white beans, tender pork and duck. Traditional “cassoulet” was a staple historically, especially in meager winters. Wow is it yummy and filling!
While returning over the old stone bridge back to our boat within the fleet, twinkling lights of the village reflected in the canal. We were excited to embark the next morning after a quiet comfy night’s sleep in the berth of our Horizon — Le Boat’s most modern vessel, equipped with a head, shower and full galley kitchen.
Before bed, I read about the fascinating history of the Canal du Midi. It was initially commissioned in 1516 by King Francis who hired Leonardo DaVinci to survey and create the route. Canal construction didn’t commence until 1667 and was completed in 1694, connecting 240 kilometers from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean with aqueducts, bridges and 91 locks to overcome the 620 feet height change in water level.
Designed as a trade route to shorten the otherwise long passage around the Iberian Peninsula, it’s also called the “Canal des Deux Mers” or canal of two seas. This vital trade route for two centuries is now a meandering waterway for pleasure boaters as well as bicyclists riding the tow paths paralleling the canal.
On the first morning, our first lock was the most dramatic, departing Castelnaudary via a series of four locks that descend 9.5 meters in consecutive rushes of water. Captain Greg (my husband) and I established our duties: he’d drive into the narrow stone chamber (thankful for bow thrusters) while I secured lines to the lock shore, ready to adjust as the water floods out.
We traveled in tandem with two other boats, a Swiss family and a German couple. All were experienced boaters, so we developed an efficient rhythm of entering the locks sequentially, tying up, descending and exiting in order.
We cruised 15 locks by noon, then tied to a canal bank for the daily lunchtime lock closure of 12-1:00 p.m. We’d provisioned in Castelnaudary for the perfect picnic of flaky croissants, local ham and cheese, and a glass of Languedoc rosé on our boat’s top sun deck.
When the “Eclusier” (lock operator) returned to open the lock for us, we cruised the canal again with the occasional excitement of encountering oncoming boats in the narrow canal. Some boat captains were better at steering than others.
Our first day, we clocked 19 locks, 26 kilometers from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. We chose to stay overnight in Villesèque, a lovely anchorage with a few other boats tied to the shores. There was no marina, but we could walk to the tiny village over a charming stone bridge to see the church and the Sully elm tree planted in the square, among the last elms still alive in France.
We toasted to our first boat day with wine and cheese on our top deck, and invited over our boat neighbors, a delightful South African couple who proved Le Boat’s international appeal. He’d never boated before, but Le Boat states that you need no prior boating experience.
On Day 2 we cruised under sunny early October skies, loving the canopy of iconic Plane trees that drape some of the river. Unfortunately, much of the 40,000 Plane trees along the 240- kilometer stretch are diseased. Over 25% have the blight and are systematically being cut and burned, a huge undertaking. In parts of the river, trees are being removed, and replanting different species is underway, but it will take time to reestablish the majestic trees.
We arrived midday at the marina of Carcassonne and docked our boat well-positioned for exploring the city, with views of the waterfront park and tour boats coming and going across the Aude River.
Carcassonne exceeded my expectations, and I know now why it’s the second most visited tourist attraction in France (#1 is the Eiffel Tower). La Cité is a massive, fortified castle with 52 spiraling turrets and imposing double walls of rampart circling 3 kilometers perched above a medieval village.
We immediately rode our bikes, provided by our Le Boat charter, up to the fairytale citadel. You can also ride le Petite Train for 7 Euro. Crossing the castle drawbridge, we stepped in to La Cité and the 13th century. Be sure to pay to enter and appreciate the scale of the ramparts and the view of Carcassonne’s lower city and the Pyrenees to the west. Then stroll the maze of medieval cobblestone streets filled with shops and cafés. Lunch at Comte Roger was a chic culinary treat. A real luxury would be to stay at the five-star Hôtel de la Cité for an elegant evening in the illuminated castle.
Back in Carcassonne’s village, we found the grand pedestrian plazas marked by statues and fountains, boutiques, bakeries and casual bistros. It’s a fun city to explore on foot, with provisions aplenty for boaters.
The next morning, after fresh pain au chocolat, we hopped on our bikes to cycle to wineries. Greg guided us with his iPhone’s Komoot app, which maps out recommended hiking and biking routes. Château Auzais (est. 1872) was a wonderful tour and tasting. Our guide described the Occitanie wine’s bouquet as the convergence of Atlantic winds melding with the Mediterranean, as we sipped our favorite wine aptly named “La Cité des Ventes.”
Château de Pennautier was another fantastic estate. The gorgeous 1620 castle was home to the financier of the Canal du Midi construction — the same architect who designed Versailles. The château’s authentic furniture is gorgeous. Reserve an interior castle tour or just stroll the beautiful gardens. From here, we visited the sister winery and restaurant for a lovely lunch and wine tasting of Pennautier’s whites, rosés and reds.
We planned to boat the next day to Trèbes from Carcassonne but biked instead. The tow paths along the canal are ideal, in fact you can cycle faster than you can boat. We waved to fellow charter boats as we breezed by vineyards, farms, locks and bridges. Our return into Carcassonne provided stunning views of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites at once — La Cité Castle and Canal du Midi.
Our return trip from Carcassonne to Castelnaudary only took a day through 24 locks and 30 kilometers with our now well-orchestrated rhythm of navigating locks. Our timing was good for the opening of most locks, and we traveled solo, as mid-October is end of the season the lock keeper told me. Summer is very busy on the canal, with boats in a queue for their turn in locks, and busier marinas.
As for the voyage, I recommend you plan one-way (for an upcharge) for the adventure of all new places along your voyage. The round trip had us retracing our passage, viewing previous scenery. We prefer the excitement of not knowing what’s around the next river bend and discovering new villages.
Also ascending the locks, going upriver, is more difficult. Captain Greg would let me off on a dock before the lock, I’d walk ahead and retrieve his tossed lines to secure the boat, we’d adjust during the rush of cascading water, then I’d board our boat when it came to the top of the full lock.
We felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment, having completed our week with success (i.e. no one fell in, no damage to boat). Our final day was leisurely aboard the boat, walking Castelnaudary’s village to a delightful bakery, to the cathedral and up the hill to the windmill, a wonderful 17th century Moulin with splendid views of Black Mountain and the French countryside. We biked along the canal, then relaxed on our boat’s sun deck viewing the Spanish peaks where we planned to ski in winter.
Our check out was quick but thorough. Le Boat’s fleet varies in age, so I was happy we’d opted for the newer spacious Horizon model. Funny, other couples posed for selfies by our boat preferring our more sophisticated-looking vessel for their posts. Some of the older boats are a bit banged up from lock passages, a testament to the “no license or experience required” policy of Le Boat.
We’re already browsing Le Boat’s itineraries: Italy, Germany, Scotland, Ireland, England, the Netherlands or Canada for our next charter adventure.
PHOTOS BY GREG BURKE
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