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An article written by our staff and featured in The Charter Connection

by Ed
April 2006

Sooner or later you will have to do it – back a sailboat into a slip or stern-to at a wharf!

The first thing to realize is that no single screw sailboat reverses in a straight line. This is because there is a difference in pressure on the propeller blades, partly due to the angle of the shaft. The easiest way to think of this is that the lower half is in denser water than the upper half, so the boat ‘walks’ to one side. A propeller that is turning clockwise in forward gear, looking from behind, is called ‘right handed’. A right handed propeller will turn counter-clockwise in reverse, so the stern of the boat will move to port. Before the boat gains momentum in reverse, the rudder has very little prop wash running across it, so turning the wheel has almost no effect. Some boats will turn almost 45 degrees before moving fast enough to be able to steer. This is particularly noticeable on boats with a long keel or when the propeller is not close to the rudder. Some modern fin keel designs do however back quite easily.

The first thing to do before you get to your first anchorage on a strange boat, is to confirm whether you have a right or left hand prop. With the boat moving slowly in a straight line, put her into reverse and give her some throttle. The stern will definitely move to one side or the other.

Say you have a right-handed prop (i.e. the stern moves to port in reverse). The next thing to consider is where the wind will be blowing relative to the boat. If it is blowing on the stern (i.e. off the dock) you can discount it – it will actually help you. A side wind will always tend to turn the bow of the boat, so if the wind is on the port side, the stern will twist even more to port. Conversely, a wind on the starboard side will tend to counteract the effect of the prop. If you are dropping an anchor and reversing to a dock, having the wind on the bow is not necessarily a problem, but if you are backing into a slip without anchoring, it is very important to keep the boat straight. Once the bow slips to one side, a strong wind will catch it and turn the boat sharply.

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 affects your course. You should be able to get your stern close to the buoy without wiping out too many imaginary boats either side of you!

So let’s assume you have had lots of practice and want to tie up to the waterfront in Gustavia, St. Bart’s (most bareboat companies prefer you didn’t, but let's assume yours is ok with this).

The wind is virtually always on your port side as you back towards the wharf and it can whistle through the harbor. Drop your hook in the middle of the channel, slightly to windward of the space you have picked on the wharf, making sure that you are not crossing any other boats’ anchor lines. You should already know how much anchor rode you have – don’t make the mistake of running out of anchor line with your stern still 20’ from the dock!

Before you start, you should of course have fenders rigged on both sides (but particularly on the downwind side ) and two stern lines ready. 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. The rudder will have almost no effect and the stern will start to swing. Once the boat gains speed, drop the revs to just above an idle and, assuming the boat has enough way, it will start responding to the rudder.

The trick is to keep the boat moving and keep the stern pointing slightly upwind. Ideally, the boat will follow an arc, ending up slightly to windward so at the final approach, when the stern has to point towards the dock, the wind does not blow the yacht downwind of your space. It is important that the crew letting out anchor line does not slow the boat too much, but keeps at most, a loose turn around the windlass. If the stern is turned too far to windward (and the helmsmen should always be the judge of this!) the crew puts slight resistance on the anchor line, to start the correction, but not enough to slow the boat. You see many crews 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, put slightly more pressure on the anchor line and let the wind take the boat sideways. If you get below your space, cut your losses and try again.

It might 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 swinging slightly, will avoid the wild gyrations you often see. This is particularly important when backing into a slip without dropping an anchor.

Hopefully you have enough crew to take the stern lines ashore and to adjust fenders as you approach other boats. 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 Gustavia’s 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 ego can get damaged if it doesn’t!

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  Ed Hamilton & Company
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