Don’t be afraid of harbour manoeuvres

The perfect harbour manoeuvre is not magic, but the right combination of practice, preparation, technique and communication. In this blog post we show how the manoeuvre feared by many sailors and motorboaters works.

Segelboot beim Hafenmanöver

For many skippers and crews, docking and casting off the harbour are extremely stressful. Your own boat or the other yachts in the harbour could be damaged by a silly mistake. And under the watchful eyes of many other sailors and motorboat pilots watching your harbour manoeuvres from the comfort of their own cockpits, you certainly don’t want to become the next blockbuster in the harbour cinema. But don’t worry, with a bit of practice, focussed use of the technical aids on board and clear commands, you can quickly become a superstar when it comes to docking and casting off.

Harbour manoeuvres – When blood pressure on board is rising

There is medical proof for what many skippers know without measuring their blood pressure. Harbour manoeuvres, particularly docking and casting off, set the pulse racing. More so than setting sail, raising the anchor, a weather forecast of high winds and waves or even a storm. And really, that’s completely normal. When driving a car, the most tense moments are also those when you’re pressed for time and need to find a parking space in an unfamiliar city centre.

If a harbour is unfamiliar to you, you should check out the relevant port map in the pilot book. Where are the visitors’ berths? Where might there be shallows? What is the wind direction with regards to the berths? Where might be protected from the wind and where won’t be? With good preparation for the harbour manoeuvre, the skipper on board is already halfway to a successful docking or casting off manoeuvre.

Segelyacht wird am Kai festgemacht

Clear commands when docking and casting off

It’s also essential to inform your crew in plenty of time about your plans for arriving at the harbour. Even if the crew consists only of your own spouse, clear information and clear commands help them stay calm. In the stressful situation of harbour manoeuvres, a poorly informed crew will only ask even more stressful questions. These may even escalate to a heated dispute during the manoeuvre. Not for nothing do some divorce lawyers search for clients right in the harbour area.

Prepare fenders and lines on the boat

Everything should be prepared at the latest when the boat arrives into the harbour. At least two mooring lines on the foreship and at least two at the aft cleats. An additional mooring line, for example for a spring line if you want to lie at right angles to the jetty, should be close at hand. Fenders on the sides and two at the stern should also already be hanging over the ship’s side. It doesn’t hurt to have another spare fender at the ready. If you should come dangerously close to another yacht or the jetty, a member of your crew can hang the fender outboard to protect the vessel.

Kapitän spricht mit Crew über Hafenmanöver

Assistants against wind and currents

Just as distance sensors and rear-view cameras have revolutionised and simplified parking in cars, bow and stern thrusters and joysticks have had a similar effect in boats. But things which are automatic in a car should be checked over in a yacht before every harbour manoeuvre. For example, is the fuse in the control panel pressed, and is the on light of the bow thruster lit up on the control unit? A quick check of the bow thruster by way of a short press of the buttons to port and starboard gives reassurance. The same procedure applies to the stern thrusters.

Many motor yachts have a joystick, which takes over responsibility for coordinating the engines and the bow thruster from the skipper, depending on the system. This allows even a large motor yacht to be docked like child’s play, even perpendicular to the boat’s axis. Simply push the joystick in the desired direction. In this way, motor yachts can even turn on the spot and truly move in any direction.

However, even when using a joystick or bow thruster, the skipper should always keep an eye on the wind and currents. Today’s yachts have flat undersides to their hulls and relatively high sides. That means that sometimes the wind might push you onto the dolphin faster than you actually wanted.

Sail backwards from time to time

Every helmsman knows that a yacht is easier to steer when going forwards than backwards. However, in the Mediterranean it’s good manners to dock backwards at the pier. So, it’s best to practice steering backwards outside of the harbour, since every yacht has its own characteristic quirks. Here too, there is a rule which applies to almost every harbour manoeuvre: less is often more. Full speed ahead and then full astern, steering rapidly hard to port or starboard might look cooler, but mostly these moves simply churn up the harbour and only do they rarely get you where you want to go. Better to manoeuvre with caution and use the bow thruster more often.

Docking with only the wind

The most prestigious discipline for a helmsman is to dock under sail and without the aid of motors. It requires a large amount of practice, a truly experienced crew, excellent knowledge of the territory and the harbour and a large dose of courage. Those skippers who have mastered it are sure to win the Oscar for best leading actor in the harbour cinema.

It’s better to focus on safety and run into port on motor power. A cleanly carried out docking manoeuvre using engine, bow and stern thrusters or joystick and above all without bellowing on board is always worth applause and keeps your pulse nice and low.


Segelyacht beim Hafenmanöver mit Crew an Deck
Kapitän einer Segelyacht gibt Kommandos vor dem Hafenmanöver
Crew macht Segelyacht am Kai fest
Seil an der Winch einer Segelyacht