Understanding traditional mooring skills like how to tie up alongside a wall or between piles, raft up or even dry out can give you the option of escaping the marina ‘car parks’, says Norman Kean
With most leisure craft now accommodated alongside marina pontoons, sailors may be wary of attempting traditional mooring techniques to secure a boat, despite many of them being easy if you know how.
Some mooring tricks are not to be recommended, however. We used to own a 17-tonne steel ketch whose deep-fin keel had a wide flat base. The previous owners anchored over a sandy bottom then fell asleep in the sun on a falling tide. They woke to find the boat upright on her keel in 2ft of water.
She did it again once for us, but we knew the tide had only 3 inches to drop when she ran aground. But let’s describe mooring techniques that are safe and commonly practised around the British Isles.
Mooring alongside a solid pier
On a quay wall, the issues are rise and fall, swell, tidal or river current, and the shape of the pier surface in contact with the boat.
Bow and stern lines need to be taken well forward and aft respectively along the pier; the more the rise and fall, the further in each direction.
The idea is to keep the angle of the lines shallow so that they don’t get too tight and don’t need to be adjusted. Spring lines would need to be equally long, and if you look at how any local fishing boats are tied up you may find they don’t have any.
You may also find that they tend to lie away from the quayside in any tide; this can be achieved by judicious lashing of the helm, so that the tidal or river stream works to your advantage. It’s trial and error, so try it on both flood and ebb if possible.
Piers and quaysides come with a variety of surfaces. The best, as at Scalasaig in Colonsay, is close-planking in wood with recessed ladders. Wicklow has an interesting arrangement with wide horizontal planks at intervals with three-inch gaps, so the quay wall has, in effect, a continuous ladder.
The usual surface is stone or concrete, with steel ladders set in recesses. All of the above require good conventional fendering.
Ladders also provide a very handy aid to mooring alongside. One crew member, standing amidships, grabs the ladder and ties a midships line round it, then clambers up to catch the bow and stern lines.
Once the midships line is tied, the boat is secured and can easily be controlled from the helm while the bow and stern lines are made fast. However, beware of that midships line. It’s temporary. If you forget about it and the tide’s falling, you could easily get ‘hung up’, dangling from it; not a good place to be.
If the tide’s rising, you could just as easily find the boat listing mysteriously towards the wall. Because the rope isn’t obvious, that’s much more difficult to diagnose – been there, done that. I was once in the Confessional column, entitled ‘Hung Down’. I still treasure the Mike Peyton cartoon.
Of course, short bow and stern lines can also leave you hung up.
But given that you have long lines fore and aft, how do you deal with getting ashore and back aboard, when otherwise your aim is to have the boat lie away from the pier?
Double a line through the ladder at some convenient point and leave it slack or completely loose at one end, but brought back aboard with sufficient length.
Obviously this is more challenging with a north Brittany range and it may need to be moved up and down a few times, but with a more modest rise and fall it’s not difficult.
More challenging surfaces include rough stone, which just demands better fendering, and projecting ladders that are not set into recesses.
The answer to those is to put the bow or stern beside them, rather than the midships. The getting-ashore line is a little trickier but it can be worked out.
The important thing is to be sure that when you leave the boat or settle down for the night, the boat can’t come into contact with the ladder. One way or the other, if it happens to be the only ladder, it’s also not good form to block it.
Adjust lines to pull the boat out of the way, once you’re done with the ladder. Piled structures, or steel cofferdam facings, are much trickier.
A fender board is essential here but depending on the spacing of piles and the rise and fall, that may not be enough – a piled structure is best avoided. Given that with long slack bow and stern lines the boat can move a bit fore and aft, it is important to avoid a pier experiencing swell.
Surge can snap mooring lines like thread, and the merciless jolting, snatching and creaking makes life very uncomfortable.
Fenders may pop out upwards or sideways with rise and fall or surge, and if the boat can’t be persuaded to lie away from the wall, there’s no easy answer short of running a line from the bottom eye of a fender right under the boat and securing it tight on the opposite side.
Unless, that is, you’re carrying one or two old tyres (wrapped in some kind of fender socks), which don’t tend to pop out.
Mooring between piles or alongside a boom
With piles, it’s unwise to secure the bow line first. Approach from the leeward side and against any current or tidal stream, with a line attached to the aft mooring cleat and brought amidships.
Bring the boat close enough to secure the end of the stern line to the first pile.
Then motor slowly up to the second pile (taking care to keep the slack of the stern line away from the prop) and secure the bow line, and finally adjust the lines to hold the boat midway between the piles.
Much the same technique is advised with mooring alongside a boom, but the windward side is easier because the securing points at each end are harder to reach.
Rafting up is a handy way of avoiding having to deal with rise and fall, and is often the only option for an alongside berth when piers and pontoons are crowded.
It can be a sociable experience; we have made many friends in raft-ups. There are some basic rules.
- Always try to raft up to a boat that is bigger than yours. A heavy boat rafted outside a smaller, lighter one can place undue pressure on the smaller boat’s hull and mooring lines.
- Ask permission whenever possible. If rafting to a fishing vessel, find out when she’s leaving – it could be 0400. If there’s nobody aboard, ask around the harbour.
- Even if the inside boat is well fendered on its outboard, set up your own fenders too.
- Put out shore lines of your own fore and aft, and bow and stern lines and springs to the boat inside you.
- When crossing another yacht to get ashore, always walk round the foredeck, forward of the mast.
- Always be prepared to allow a boat on the inside to leave.
- It is ungenerous and unseamanlike to refuse to have another boat raft up to you, provided that the above conditions are met, and the raft isn’t big enough already.
- If you’re leaving early, let the new arrival know.
- Fenders hung on your seaward side say ‘You may raft up to me’.
Getting ashore can sometimes be a problem, particularly if rafted to a large fishing vessel, or several of them.
If they are lying away from the wall it may not be possible to heave the whole raft close enough to reach the ladder safely.
It can also be a matter of clambering up tyre fenders hung from the pier.
To allow a boat inside you to leave, the usual procedure is to take your bow and stern lines to the pier or pontoon (or the boat nearer it), with either your stern line being led ahead of the leaving boat or your bow line led astern of her.
The leaving boat then lets go all your lines aboard it and slips out: you take in the slack on your lines and reset spring lines.
If conditions are difficult or all else fails, simply cast off and come alongside again once the leaving boat has gone.
Some very big rafts can be organised – I’ve seen 15 boats rafted up in one trot at a big race event – but normally, three or four is a comfortable limit.
Sometimes a ‘sunflower raft’ is organised at a big rally, with boats rafted in a circle bows-out and anchors set by every third or fourth boat.
A sunflower of 191 is believed to be the record, set by the Clyde Cruising Club in 1985 in Loch Drumbuie in Argyll.
Mooring skills: Drying out
A bilge keel boat clearly has the advantage of being able to dry out upright. The dos and don’ts are fairly obvious:
- A flat, or nearly flat, regular surface is called for – hard sand is ideal. Rock and boulders are to be avoided. Mud is fine so long as you have no plans to get ashore.
- There is a risk of bumping on the bottom as the boat is drying out and refloating, if there is any swell, or passing traffic creating wash. Not a problem in soft mud.
- Consider how you’re going to get off and on the boat. Will you need a ladder?
- If the surface is a bit muddy, leave a bucket of water handy to clean your boots when you come aboard.
- If leaving the boat, lay out an anchor, just in case you don’t get back in time.
- Remember that when the boat’s dried out, you won’t be able to use the heads!
Like bilge keels, a lifting keel allows the boat to dry out upright. All the same considerations apply as for bilge keels, but also make sure the rudder will be OK.
On a muddy bottom, the mud can start oozing up into the heads and the engine cooling intake, and it’s wise to close seacocks – but don’t forget to open them again!
Remember that when motoring in very shallow water with the keel up, sand and mud can get sucked into the engine cooling water strainer.
Keep the revs down and check the strainer afterwards.
If your boat is equipped with legs, most of the same principles as for bilge keels apply. A soft muddy bottom is unsuitable.
The boat should rest on one leg and the keel, so if the legs are adjustable, make sure they aren’t too long.
If the bottom is a bit soft, a leg can be inserted into a metal bucket on a lanyard to spread the load.
If there’s a preferred side of lean, put heavy weights like water or fuel cans on that side of the boat.
Drying out against a quay wall
This technique is handy for quick underwater maintenance jobs – clearing a fouled prop, scrubbing and even antifouling.
It can have its drawbacks if you’re planning to stay aboard overnight, though.
A suitable bottom is always required; hard sand or concrete are ideal (a slipway is usually OK if you’re not going to block it), or shingle.
Mud can be difficult in terms of getting the work done. The bottom shouldn’t slope away too steeply from the wall, and there clearly shouldn’t be any obstructions like large stones or concrete blocks.
In an unfamiliar place, local knowledge is essential in this regard (I once asked a fisherman if a spot on the wall would be a good place to dry out and he said, ‘Ah no, you’d want the hospital for that’).
You need some means of getting down there when the tide’s out, but that’s not usually a problem.
For some jobs, the boat doesn’t have to dry out completely.
The underwater profile of the boat needs to be considered. A long keel boat will always dry out safely but may lie bows-down.
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With a fin keel, the boat will almost always sit happily on it, but with a very narrow fin (fore and aft) it may be wise to keep heavy weights and people away from bow and stern.
Lines can be rigged to the pier to protect against the risk of the boat tipping forward or back.
With a wing keel, or even a wide fin (side to side) with a flat bottom, the boat may tend to resist leaning in to the wall, and the mast may have to be hauled in quite hard (see below) to get her past her tipping point or at least secure her.
On a level bottom, it can be best to let a boat like that sit upright, but the mast must be really well secured.
If a keel surface is GRP rather than metal, it is important to avoid drying out on a hard obstruction.
The actual process will vary depending on the location, the boat, and the tidal range, but a few general principles always apply:
- Don’t ground the boat too soon after high water – you want to be sure she floats off on the next tide.
- Rig long bow and stern lines to cope with the falling tide, and set plenty of fenders.
- Before the boat takes the ground, take a halyard (a spinnaker halyard is ideal) as far as possible out across the pier (extend it if necessary) and make it fast to something secure – make sure nobody is likely to drive through it. The wider the angle between the taut line and the mast, the better. Winch in the halyard to give the boat a bit of a list towards the wall, but mind the stanchions and the capshrouds. As the tide falls, keep the tension on the halyard. I have seen a five-gallon drum of water tied to a halyard and hung over the far side of the pier, but I’ve also seen a boat secured like that tip away from the wall, dragging the drum with her, and land (fortunately with only a splash, and on a rising tide), still aground and with a 30-degree list. The dog got the fright of his life and the front-opening fridge painted the cabin sole with yogurt.
- Once most boats are aground and leaning a few degrees, they will be quite stable – but keep that halyard tied. If you are concerned that a wing keel boat may want to spring upright again and perhaps fall outwards, set a second halyard. n Once the boat is within a few inches of floating again, releasing the halyard(s) won’t be risky, because if she does roll away from the wall, she won’t roll far. But if you refloat and forget about the halyard(s) you’ll obviously have a problem.
- Heavy weights can be placed on the side deck to induce a heel, but it’s not secure.
Two more cautionary tales. An eminent yachtsman of our acquaintance, sadly no longer with us, once dried his boat out and draped a heavy anchor on a halyard over the parapet wall on the far side of the quay. Self-adjusting, of course.
Hours later, he and his crew returned to the boat, threw off the lines and headed out, forgetting about the halyard. The anchor hopped over the wall and landed on the bonnet of a new BMW.
We once found ourselves, in a borrowed boat, hard aground on a falling tide, 12 feet away from a stone pier, after allowing a boat inside us to slip out.
I rowed an anchor out on a halyard and pulled her down, away from the wall, and she developed a 30 degree list at low water.
Obviously being from the only yacht around, we got some funny looks in the pub, to which our response was ‘unorthodox, but very secure’.
We hadn’t heeled on the overnight low tide, so we must have been leaning on the inside boat (a Galway hooker, she was well able to take the weight).
I still don’t understand why the echo sounder showed enough water.
When drying out against piles, the main issues are fendering and access to the bottom.
In this case the halyard can be attached to an anchor. Fender boards and a ladder may be necessary. Tyre fenders are good for this and any drying-out situation, and they don’t tend to pop out.
Mooring skills: Careening
Careening is the ancient art of drying a vessel out on a beach for maintenance or repair.
Large old sailing ships would normally lie with a modest list, and most modern ships would dry out bolt upright, but single-keeled yachts lie on their bilges, nearer horizontal than vertical.
The main concerns are:
- Choose the surface very carefully – smooth sand is almost the only option.
- Even more than for bilge keels, avoid places where there may be swell. You don’t want the bilges to be banging off the sand.
- Make sure she’ll float before she fills. Most modern, beamy boats will be safe, but older, narrower boats might not, especially if they don’t have self-draining cockpits. If in doubt, don’t do it.
- Make sure that nothing can crash about inside when she reaches a severe angle, and don’t forget the anchor.
Many boats are careened unintentionally when they break their moorings or run aground and end up on a sandbank.
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