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by Ed

Sooner or later, you will have to do it: back a boat into a slip—or “go stern-to”—at a dock. Unfortunately, no single-screw boat reverses in a straight line because of a difference in pressure on the propeller blades, partly due to the angle of the shaft. The boat tends to ‘walk’ to one side, but this is predictable and with practice, you can use this to your advantage, as well as compensate for it, when reversing.

Is your propeller right-handed or left-handed?
This is the first thing to determine. If, when viewed from behind, a propeller in forward gear turns clockwise, or to the right, it is called right-handed; one that turns to the left is called left-handed. In reverse, a right-handed prop will turn to the left, or to port, and make the boat’s stern walk to port. A left-handed prop will move the stern to starboard. Most boats use right handed props.

Before you get to your first anchorage on a strange boat, it’s imperative to know which way the stern is going to move in reverse. This is because you won’t be able to correct its motion by steering until your boat gains momentum in reverse, since the rudder has little control over the way a boat moves when very little prop wash is running across it. Some boats will turn almost 45 degrees before they are going fast enough in reverse to begin responding to the rudder and steering. This is particularly noticeable on boats with long keels, and ones where the propeller is not close to the rudder. Some modern fin-keel designs do back quite easily, however.

Since you probably can’t see your prop, here’s an easy way to figure out what it will do. While moving the boat forward slowly in a straight line, put her in reverse, and give her some throttle. The stern will definitely move to one side or the other.

Dealing with the wind
Say you have a right-handed prop (if the stern moves to port when in reverse). The next thing to consider is where the wind is blowing relative to the boat. If it is blowing onto the stern (i.e. off the dock you are heading for) you can discount it—it will actually help you. A wind from the side always tends to turn the bow of the boat. If it is on the port side, it will make the stern twist even more to port. Conversely, a wind blowing from the starboard side will tend to counteract the effect of the prop.

If the wind is blowing straight onto the dock or slip you are trying to reverse up to, you will have less of a problem if you can drop a bow anchor first. If however, you have to back into a slip without first anchoring, it is very important to keep the boat straight; if the bow slips to one side, a strong wind will catch it and turn the boat sharply. In this case you might be better coming in bow first.

Looking forward
It may feel awkward, but the helmsmen should actually concentrate on looking forward, to see which way the bow is starting to swing. It’s much harder to see this when looking aft, particularly on a full-keel boat. Once moving through the water, most boats respond best with the rudder almost amidships and with fairly small rudder movements. Small, but timely corrections, when the bow first starts to swing slightly, will avoid the wild gyrations one often sees. This is particularly important when backing into a slip without having dropped an anchor.

Practice, practice, practice
Before you attempt to go stern-to, practice reversing up to an object in open water. A navigation buoy makes a great imaginary dock. Try backing up to it from different directions and watch how the wind effects your course. Keep practicing until you can get your stern close to the buoy without wiping out too many imaginary boats either side of you!

Ready, set, go stern-to
Let’s assume you have had lots of practice and want to tie up at the bustling waterfront of a quaint Mediterranean or Caribbean town. The wind will be blowing steadily on your port side, making things a bit challenging.

If you are planning to put down an anchor, be certain in advance that you have enough anchor rode—you don’t want to make the mistake of running out of anchor line with your stern still 20 feet from the dock!

Before you begin, rig fenders on both sides (but particularly on the downwind side), and have two stern lines ready. Drop your hook in the middle of the channel, slightly to windward of your intended spot on the wharf, making sure that you are not crossing other boats’ anchor lines. As you drop the anchor, the stern of the boat should be pointing about 20 to 40 degrees to port of your eventual course . The more your boat tends to walk in reverse, the less you have to allow. If you have a left-handed prop, you should start out at least 45 degrees from your course.

With the rudder slightly to starboard, give the engine plenty of throttle. Initially, the rudder will have almost no effect, so the stern will start to swing to port. Once the boat gains speed, drop the revs to just above an idle and, assuming the boat has enough way on, it will start responding to the rudder.

The trick is to keep the boat moving while keeping the stern pointed slightly upwind. Ideally, the boat will follow an arc, ending up slightly to windward so that in the final approach, when the stern has to point towards the dock, the wind does not blow the yacht downwind of your space.

Handling the anchor line
It is important that the crew letting out the anchor line keep no more than a loose turn around the windlass so that the boat is not slowed too much. If the stern does start to turn too far to windward (and the helmsmen should always be the judge of this), ask the crew to put slight resistance on the anchor line, to start the correction, but not enough to slow the boat. It’s common to see anchor-line crew being too aggressive, causing the boat to swing violently or stop, messing up an otherwise perfect approach. If the boat is too far to windward of your space, have the crew put slightly more pressure on the anchor line to allow the wind to take the boat sideways.

If you get below your space, cut your losses and try again.

Snug in your berth
Hopefully you have enough crew to take the stern lines ashore and to adjust fenders as you tuck in between the boats to either side. Once the dock lines are secured, tighten up on the anchor line and, if you have done everything right, your boat should lie perfectly between the other yachts on the dock!

Before you try docking at any busy waterfront, with its constant supply of onlookers, please, please, practice in simpler, more private situations and get to know how your boat handles. It can be very satisfying when everything goes as planned, but both your boat and your ego can get damaged if it doesn’t!

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