There are a couple ways to come into the dock. The method new skippers gravitate towards at first, because it's easier, is to come in with plenty of speed and do a final turn up into the wind at the end to avoid banging into the dock. Or they don't even do the turn and just bang into the dock... I guess this would be a 3rd way, but highly undesirable.
The preferred method more properly utilizes slow sailing. Docking and COB are the main reasons we teach slow sailing. When you have a firm grasp on slow sailing, you will be able to come to a stop 1" from the dock as your crew casually steps off the bow.
Here are the steps for docking like a pro:
(Credit where credit is due, I've had this best explained to me by Robert O. Come work the keelboat dock during open house sometime and watch Robert dock a keelboat singlehanded to get an idea of the ideal you're shooting for.)
- When you're coming in to the docks watch the wind socks to get an idea of the wind direction at the dock, which may be different than it was when you were out sailing.
- Pick an exact spot on the dock. This is where you're going to try to end up. You don't have to tell anyone else the exact spot. If you don't hit it exactly, and are a foot off, no one else will be the wiser, it will still just look like a really good docking to them.
- Come in way downwind, right next to the second dock. You want to give yourself plenty of room to bleed off speed. At this point the mainsheet should be all the way out, and you are controlling it with the falls, which is quick and doesn’t risk a jam.
- Turn up hard onto what you think your slow sailing course will be with the mainsheet all the way out. You want to aim for a Close Reach course, which is about 60º to the true wind. This is practically the only time you use the true wind instead of the apparent wind when sailing. The quick/hard turn is important and does two things: 1) It bleeds off some speed, and 2) it immediately lets you know if your angle is right, so if it's not you have plenty of room to adjust.
- De-power (let the main out). The dinghies coast further than you would think, and you don't need full speed between the docks, so bleed some speed early.
- Aim a little above your spot. Much like when doing COB, you want to aim a little high to account for side slippage. This holds true when docking too. And the slower you're going, the more you'll side slip, so you want to account for it.
- As you get closer, let your speed come down more and more. Towards the end you want to be doing quick, light pulls on the falls to get just a tiny bit of speed as needed. However, until you get to the dock, don’t let your speed get to zero. If it does, there’s no water flowing over the centerboard, and the next time you power up you’ll be pushed sideways before you start moving forward.
- As you get to the last couple feet from the dock you should barely be moving, and the boat will come to a gradual stop with hopefully the lightest of taps on the dock.
We'll never get it perfect every time, and you still have the turn-up option at the end to bleed off speed. Or even better, if you realize you're coming in too hot, is to step forward and backwind the main, which will stop the boat quickly and can still be used when coming into a crowded dock and squeezing between two boats, where you don't have room to turn.
By shooting for the perfect docking every time, even when you don't quite get it, your dockings will start to make you look like a pro (in the area that everyone is watching you, too!), and you'll get a better control over slow sailing, which comes in very handy in other ways.
One final note: This does not work in tides so low that you have no centerboard. But that’s a different blog entry.
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I would just add that if you have a choice, and assuming the usual SW wind shown, go in and tack near the sea wall and approach the dock on starboard tack. That way, if something goes wrong and you have to bail out, you can just head out and try again. We've all seen boats coming in on port tack, stalling out, then trying to jibe next to the sea wall, which is always a bad idea (maybe the subject of another blog).
How do you "backwind the main," and can you do it when the jib is furled? If you do it by pushing the sail away, won't it turn the boat?
Gary, good questions. You do back the main by pushing the boom all the way out/forward. The jib being furled or not doesn't really matter, except that if the jib is out and full (ie, driving the boat, but this shouldn't be the case when docking), then it's counter-productive to backwinding the main to slow the boat down.
On backwinding turning the boat, that's a good question. A couple things can happen. If the wind isn't directly ahead, but more from the side, then backwinding the main will tend to push the boat sideways. If the wind is dead ahead, then pushing the main all the way out can indeed turn the boat, but usually by that point you're almost to the dock and going slowly enough it doesn't matter and will be minimal.
Neil brought up a good point in the email thread, about tacking away if you're coming in way too hot or if something doesn't feel right. If you're coming in really fast, tack out and try again. Come in lower, try to find the slow sailing course sooner, and de-power earlier. But if you're coming in just a LITTLE fast and want to slow the boat down a little quicker, backwinding can be a good last-few-seconds maneuver.