How to Come Alongside When Sailing

When learning how to sail, one of the most nerve-racking and intimidating parts is when you have to attach and detach the sailboat from the dock, wharf, jetty, or even another boat. This can be even more worrisome when the wind or tide is especially aggressive resulting in a more complex equation for coming alongside.

Coming alongside is an essential skillset of any sailor and surely requires a bit of practice. However, even the best sailors have to try multiple times when the weather isn’t the most favorable. Luckily it’s possible to master the skill of coming alongside when sailing by learning the ins and outs of this routine.

So how do you come alongside? The quick answer to how you come alongside is:

  1. Approach the dock
  2. Get a crew member ashore
  3. Cleat off
  4. Align the boat
  5. Secure all of the lines

Now, that’s the short and sweet version of coming alongside when sailing, but there’s definitely a lot more to it. Does the approach depend on the wind and tide directions? What happens after my crew member gets ashore? What’s the proper method for securing my lines?

All of these answers and more will be answered. To start, let’s learn how best to prepare for coming alongside before actually coming alongside.

Preparing to Come Alongside

Before coming alongside, it’s smart to prepare your sailboat and crew members so everything’s in order. To be honest, most of the responsibility is on the helmsman during this maneuver, but a plan of action must be discussed amongst everyone on board.

1. Attach the Fenders

First things first, you’ll want to attach your fenders to either side of the sailboat (port or starboard) that the sailboat will be approaching. If you’ll be squeezing into a space where another boat is going to be on the opposite side of the approaching side, it’s a good idea to attach the fenders to that side as well to avoid any damage in case of a collision.

2. Assign a Crew Member to Go Ashore

When coming alongside when sailing, a member of the crew will have to go ashore and cleat off the sailboat. This crew member will be the first person to touch the dock and they’ll need to be able to act fairly quickly depending on the situation. Once they get ashore, they’ll need to quickly secure the sailboat to the dock to kick off the final stages of coming alongside.

Coming Alongside a Dock

Now that you and your crew are prepared to come alongside a dock, you’ll need to follow a particular set of steps to ensure your sailboat will be securely fastened to the dock. The steps to coming alongside are always the same apart from slight variations when considering winds and tides. We’ll get into these nuances when coming alongside, but rest assured you’ll have enough equipment in your knowledge toolbox to handle any future maneuver.

3. Approach the Dock

As mentioned before, the very first action item when coming alongside with a sailboat is to properly approach the dock. Now, at this point you’ll already want to have your sails down and only be powering the boat via the engine. The reason for this is you’ll need to remove as much force from the wind on your sailboat as possible and take maximum control using the sailboat’s engine.

When coming alongside, the preferred situation is when the wind is upwind and, thus, your point of sail is into the wind. The reason for this is that it makes it easier to slow down the forward motion of the sailboat when approaching as well as making it easier to depart when the time comes to leave.

As you approach the dock under power, you’ll want to make sure that you’re coming in at a 20-degree angle (maximum 30 degrees). You’ll also want to make sure your speed is relatively low so your crew member who will be going ashore has sufficient time to cleat off. Once you know you’ll have enough speed to reach the dock, switch the engine’s gear into neutral.

After going into neutral you’ll want to hit the gear in reverse and back to neutral. This will not only slow down the sailboat but it’ll also swing the stern toward the dock so your sailboat will become more aligned with the dock and your crew member can more easily cleat off. Switch the engine’s gear into reverse enough so the sailboat slows down to a crawl.

4. Get a Crew Member Ashore

As your sailboat approaches the dock, your crew member who’s been assigned to go ashore should be ready and waiting to make their move onto the dock. Since your sailboat will be coming bow first at an angle of about 20 degrees, your crew member should be at the bow of the sailboat.

While at the bow, your crew member should also have a mooring line in hand that’s attached to the stern of the sailboat. The reason the crew member should be at the bow of the sailboat is due to the fact that it’ll likely be the closest to the dock as the approach takes place. Once the distance between the sailboat and the dock are close enough, your crew member will have to hop onto the dock.

I need to make an important point here. Do not let your crew member lunge forward onto the dock, which means they should easily be able to hop onto the dock without any exaggerated jumping. No crew member should have to jump onto a dock in such a way since it’s quite possible they can get injured by doing so.

Once on the dock, your crew member should quickly get to the closest dock cleat that will eventually line up with the sailboat’s stern. This is where they’ll cleat off to ensure the sailboat has made successful initial contact with the dock.

Getting your sailboat to approach the dock just right while getting your crew member ashore safely is by far the most difficult part about coming alongside. Don’t worry if you have to try several times. Even the most experienced sailors have to from time to time.

5. Cleat Off

Getting a crew member ashore is probably the more exciting part of coming alongside when sailing because it feels like a lot of action is going on. To be honest, it’s definitely one of the more exciting moments since most of the difficult parts of coming alongside are over!

The moment your crew member is ashore and located where the sailboat’s stern will finish with respects to the dock’s cleats, they’ll need to cleat off. Once the mooring line is securely fastened to the dock, making sure the slack of the mooring line is snug is certainly ideal.

One of the more important reasons you want to get the stern’s mooring line attached first is to have another form of breaks as the sailboat approaches the dock. Your crew member that’s ashore should either give or take the mooring line’s slack depending on how close you want the sailboat’s bow to protrude forward.

During this point of the maneuver, you’ll likely be communicating with your crew member ashore to request them to either give or take the mooring line’s slack. Once you know the stern of your sailboat is securely fastened to the dock, you’ll want to make sure your sailboat is properly aligned with the dock.

6. Align the Sailboat

Now that you’ve successfully got your crew member ashore and they’ve cleated off properly, the next step is to ensure your sailboat is correctly aligned to the dock. Now, this stage of the maneuver requires you to know from which direction the wind is coming since it’ll alter the way you align the sailboat.

At this point, your sailboat is securely cleated off at the stern but the bow of your sailboat is free to too much away from or toward the dock. The main goal for you now is to get the bow of your sailboat parallel to the dock so your crew members can secure the rest of your lines. Thankfully, this is a fairly easy process and only requires you to know which direction the wind is coming from.

If the wind is blowing off the dock, your bow will be further away from the dock than you’d like. In this case, slowly put the engine in the forward gear and steer the sailboat into the dock. What’s going to happen is the bow will swing toward the dock giving your sailboat a better alignment to the dock. If the bow gets a bit too close to the dock, all you have to do is adjust the steering so your sailboat can be more parallel to the dock. While doing all of this, make sure the engine is still slowly engaged.

If the wind is blowing toward the dock, your bow will be too close to the dock and likely banging into it. Good thing you put on those fenders! In this case, slowly put the engine in the forward gear and steer the sailboat away from the dock. What’s going to happen in this scenario is the bow will swing away from the dock, which will give you the opportunity to better align your sailboat with the dock. Again, you’ll want to make sure the engine is still engaged, but slowly.

Throughout this stage of the maneuver, you’ll need to communicate with your crew member ashore to make sure they either give the stern mooring line enough slack or pull it in some. Getting the fenders on the sailboat touching the dock snuggly while ensuring the sailboat is parallel with the dock should be the end result and your ashore crew member will be key in achieving this goal.

7. Secure the Lines

Once you and your crew have got the approach, cleating, and alignment all wrapped up, you’ll be at the home stretch of coming alongside! At this point, all that needs to be done is to secure the rest of the lines to the dock as soon as possible. If you have more crew members, now would be a good time for them to help out to finish things off.

After properly aligning your sailboat to the dock, have your crew member who’s ashore to tie off the stern mooring line once and for all. If you have another crew member on-board, have them grab the bow mooring line and hop off the sailboat to quickly attach it to the cleat on the dock. If you don’t have another crew member, simply toss the bow mooring line to your crew member ashore once they’re finished up with the stern.

Once you’ve got both mooring lines securely fastened to the dock, you can safely put the engine’s gear in neutral and turn off the engine. Congratulations, you’ve successfully come alongside with a sailboat! This is a huge achievement and an incredibly valuable skill set to have for any competent sailor.

But not so fast. If the weather (especially the wind) is a bit too strong or you know it might pick up later on while docked, you might want a way to make sure your sailboat is definitely not going anywhere. Thankfully, that’s exactly what spring lines are for and are incredibly easy to use.

To properly secure spring lines, you’ll want to make sure your mooring lines are properly attached first. One spring line will come from the bow and be tied to a point aft on the dock, but closer to the center of the sailboat away from where the stern mooring line is attached. This is called the forward spring because it prevents the sailboat from moving forward. Conversely, the other spring line will come from the stern and be tied to the point well forward on the dock, but also further away from the bow mooring line. This is called the back spring or aft spring.

Clearing a Dock

Coming alongside is an extremely valuable skill that you’ll use time and time again as a sailor and certainly takes some practice. The flipside of that is leaving the dock, which is far more easy than coming alongside. You probably already had this in mind, so it should come as no surprise, however, there are some details to take into consideration when clearing a dock.

Similar to when you came alongside, you’ll want to ensure you have maximum control over the boat while clearing a dock. This means you’ll want to engage using the engine of your sailboat and keep the sails down for the moment. Don’t worry, you’ll be putting up your sails soon enough.

Before moving forward with clearing a dock, you’ll need to know which direction the wind is coming from. The reason being is that, depending on the direction of the wind, you’ll have to decide which of your lines to release last.

The easiest clearing maneuver is when the wind is blowing away from the dock or astern since all you have to do is release all of your lines except the stern mooring line. By keeping the stern mooring line attached, the bow of your sailboat will be pushed away from the dock allowing you to leave the dock going forward. Ideally, you should always be going forward when leaving a dock after coming alongside.

Now, it’s a bit of a different situation if the wind is coming toward the dock or upwind. In this case, you’ll need to release all of the lines except for the forward spring line. Yes, you’ll need to make sure the forward spring line is attached to the dock if you haven’t already. Once you only have the forward spring line, you’ll want to power forward until the stern kicks out from the dock. After that, release the forward spring line and hit the engine in reverse so you can safely leave the dock astern.