How to manoeuvre under power

I have made a point of recommending a long-keeled underwater form, particularly because of its inherent directional stability when at sea. It took me years to get confident about overcoming that directional stability and getting the thing to behave predictably in the tight spaces of a modern marina.

There are a number of things that, if you keep them in mind, will definitely help when trying to get a boat into or out of a tight space. First, forget all about the way you drive your car around a car park. If you want a road analogy, it’s more like reversing a bus around, in a sloping car park, on ice. Even if you stop, you’ll carry on sliding down the ice until you hit something.

Lee shore

The first thing is to work out where your ‘lee shore’ is. That is the row of boats, or whatever it is, that you will drift down onto if anything goes wrong and the wind takes command. Once you know where it is, avoid it totally – motor down the other side of the passageway. If you have to approach the lee shore, make sure you do so end-on with a clear plan for motoring cleanly away again as soon as possible, or with enough way on that you know the boat will answer the helm and turn away when you ask.

Under power you can move very easily forwards and backwards. It is harder to turn sharply, and it is impossible to make the boat move sideways. Therefore, don’t worry at all about going close to something ahead or astern (briefly), we will look at using the wind, prop-walk and prop-wash off the rudder to help with turns, but on no account let the boat drift sideways into that lee shore – especially if it consists of a shroud-tangling series of dinghy davits, rudders, pulpits, bow-rollers and other people’s expensive self-steering gears.

Never throw a boat engine straight from high revs forward into reverse, or vice versa. It is possible by so doing to jam it into the new gear with such force that you cannot disengage it again, which could ruin your plan. That’s the trick: have a plan. If you know you are going to need reverse soon, disengage forward gear and let her carry her way for a few seconds, then slip into reverse. And, of course, vice versa. In fact keeping reverse gear engaged is usually enough to stop Rusalka turning one way in reverse at all, due to prop walk. Slipping her into neutral really helps.

Prop walk

For the boat you want to turn, you need to know which way the stern will kick when you put the engine astern. To find this out on a strange boat, before untying from the pontoon (or out in the open sea, but stop the boat somewhere calm first), put the engine in astern and watch the water either side, between the stern and midships. One side or the other, you will see disturbed water coming up from the prop. If the disturbance appears on the starboard side, the stern will kick to port in astern, and vice versa. Remember this, or write it down; write it in the log – it is important. Remember the phrase, ‘stern kicks to port in astern’ or ‘stern kicks to starboard in astern’. Don’t use left or right: port and starboard don’t change when you face the other way, and when you’re reversing, you probably will face the other way. Don’t try to remember which way that stern-kick will make the boat turn, that depends which way you’re actually going before you engage reverse gear, and you use reverse gear in both directions.

There are exceptions. If the disturbed water appeared equally on both sides, your boat may not kick either way. If your prop-shaft is off-centre, for example on a converted engine-less classic, anything could happen – you will have to learn your boat on your own. If you have an outboard mounted on the transom, aft of the rudder, then you have all the problems that I had with Liza, the boat I had before Rusalka – more on this configuration later.

Distinguish prop walk and stern kick, which refer to the same sideways thing, from prop wash, which just refers to the stream of water moved by the propeller. I use all these terms from here on.

Turning on a windless day

So, on a windless day, you’re coming up a narrow fairway and want to make a sharp turn, for example into a finger berth. The first thing to do in this case is take her out of gear and slow right down in good time. On a calm day I would slow down to between one and two knots for this bit. Then, before you put the rudder over to turn, put her back into forward gear and, even on lowish revs, the prop-wash against the rudder will give it much more effect than you would expect from your speed through the water. By having slowed down first, this use of forward gear won’t accelerate you too much, but none the less, you will have to stop very soon. So, engage reverse once the boat is turning nicely. One of two things will happen: either the prop kick will help the turn or it will hinder the turn. If you have done your homework as above, you will know in advance which will happen.

A turning boat has angular momentum, so will tend to continue to turn anyway and the prop walk may be advantageous or not. Luckily, even in these last few yards, you have three options open to you and so you still have the situation under control. The boat is still moving forwards (even with the propeller turning in reverse) so the rudder still works. You can tighten the turn or unwind it a bit with the rudder. If neither of these work, or if they’re not going to have the desired effect in time, just increase the revs in astern and stop, and maybe reverse a bit. Even on a calm day, the boat may turn considerably in reverse (helpfully or not) as the prop kick or prop walk really takes effect, but you may get another go to complete your manoeuvre.

Even if it all goes wrong, on a calm day you can always turn around, go back out, or go up to the end of the aisle and turn to come back, whichever is easiest, and try again. Turning around in a confined space is only really possible if you work with the prop walk, so choose your turn direction in advance. Go ahead with the rudder hard over, pushing the stern in the direction the prop walk will kick it in reverse, then swap to reverse and reduce the forward momentum, while continuing to increase the turning momentum. Reverse back as far as space allows, then put the rudder back to hard over and power ahead again.

Turning in a wind

In a wind, the bow will always try to blow off down-wind. It is hard to make the bow come up into the wind, and trying to do so can lead to considerable side-slip too. As you throw the boat around in a blow, the most important thing is to be aware of the lee shore at all times. Remember, you may approach it, but only end-on so that you can power away again. This is made harder in a cross-wind as, as you approach the lee shore, stop, and power away again, the wind will be weather-cocking the bow around, and the prop walk will kick the stern in its favourite direction too, if you engage reverse. It’s a bit like a snooker player not only potting the ball, but planning where things are going to end up for the next two or three balls too. Don’t despair; it is possible; just practice.

You need a little more speed if you intend to throw the bow up into the wind. Once the bow is through the wind, sometimes you just need to hold the boat in place with forward thrust while the wind completes the turn for you. Even if barely moving, if forward gear is sending prop wash across the rudder, it will have a useful effect on the position of the stern, just don’t expect it to have much influence over the position of the bow – the wind will do that. You have to do the planning so that the wind will put the bow where you want it in the end.

When manoeuvring in a wind, you will need to use blasts of plenty of power. You only need these high revs for short bursts, when changing direction (forward to astern) and when pushing water over the rudder in forward gear. Drop back to lower power as soon as possible to keep the boat speed from building up in a confined space.

Sometimes, as you may expect, it is just not possible to make the turn you want to make – if the space is too limited, the wind is too strong and its direction completely unhelpful. Just continue to avoid lee shore embarrassment, using enough power to stay away from it. At some point it is time to give up. Put the engine into reverse and let the bow weather-cock completely downwind until you reach a stable state: with the stern to the wind and the engine in reverse, you can balance the wind force with engine revs and just stop. By adjusting the revs carefully, you can very gently approach whatever is behind you to windward. If it is a pontoon with traditional ‘horned’ cleats, you can drop a bight of mooring line over a cleat (be very careful not to drop it into the water and into the prop! Go out of gear just before you drop it). If it is another boat, you can slip a mooring line around some strong part of it, such as a pulpit, pushpit or cleat. As soon as you have done that and made off the line aboard, you can relax, and start thinking about using warps or lines to get from here to where you want to be.

One great trick with a line around someone else’s pulpit, that I have used in a full gale in a marina, is to walk from the cockpit slowly down the sidedeck, holding both parts of the slipped line. By the time I got to the shrouds, Rusalka had swung and was beam-on to the wind, facing the direction I wanted to go. I pulled in the line until I was inches from his boat, then slipped it and marched purposefully back to the cockpit and powered away with plenty of time to spare before drifting away to leeward.

Difficult rudder/prop configurations

If the propeller is not directly ahead of the rudder, then a lot of what I have described will not work. This can happen with an offset propeller and with an outboard on the transom, behind the rudder. In either case, you can have prop walk effects in both ahead and astern, and you never get the benefit of being able to amplify the effect of the rudder by putting prop wash over it while you turn. The only way to control the boat is to have enough speed that the rudder can be relied upon in the normal way. That amount of speed can be dangerous in a confined space, and it never builds up instantaneously; until it does you are at the mercy of prop walk and the wind. I know the problems and I never found a solution. I sold the boat.

Planning for failure

As in so many things afloat, always consider the options in case of failure: Never be one more cock-up from a disaster. It is a good idea to have the sails ready to hoist before casting off. If the engine fails at a good time, you can always hoist a sail and regain some control over the boat. This is more likely to be possible if you have been regularly practising manoeuvring under sail when it didn’t matter and the engine was ticking over nicely in neutral as a reserve.

Of course, if the engine stalls as you go from forward to reverse heading for a solid pontoon, there will not be time to do anything about that. I increased the tick-over revs slightly after Rusalka did that to me once – she has never done it again.

Having the anchor ready to drop is also recommendable, especially in a river where currents add to the fun and excitement. Be aware too that it is perfectly OK to use an anchor, especially in an emergency, in a harbour or even a marina.

Always enter a marina with fenders ‘all round’, not just on the expected side – you never know when they will save your blushes. Same with ropes – one on each corner, I say. It’s easy enough to re-purpose those on the wrong side as springs on the right side later, but you never know where you might end up if things start to go wrong. Having fenders and ropes ready all round is just a seaman-like way to proceed into a tricky, confined space, I think.

Warping the boat

As hinted above, there are many ways that ropes and lines can be used to make manoeuvres easier and less risky. Trust your fenders too. It is perfectly acceptable to lean against another moored boat, with fenders, while you warp into a space.

Coming into a finger berth singlehanded, with a wind blowing off the finger, has often left me blown against the boat next door before I had a chance to step onto the finger, with then a four-foot jump to it. Don’t even try it. Put some temporary lines onto the other boat, cut the engine and throw a couple more lines across the finger (including a spring or two, depending on the exact wind direction). Climb aboard your new neighbour, walk around, make the finger lines fast onto the finger, walk back aboard and warp yourself across, loosening the lines to the neighbour and tightening those to the finger until you’re there. Everything under control and only an extra 5 – 10 minutes passed, doing pleasant and satisfying boat work in safety.

I have warped from the leeward berth between fingers to the empty windward one in a rising gale. I used a primary sheet winch to pull the stern across. It was fine. Nicky and I have walked Rusalka around empty pontoons like walking a dog, one with a bow rope and one with a stern. Pull with the stern rope and use the bow rope to steer. Put a turn around a cleat to stop her.We’ve also moved deserted rafted boats from outside of us to outside of someone else in order to leave alongside raft-ups.

If the wind is pinning you into place and you have to leave, there is usually something off to windward that you can get a slipped line to, to pull the boat off, to get moving. Be very careful when slipping the line once you are under way: pull very slowly around the time when the loose end is getting short and just about to whip free from the distant object. Just at that time, a line is quite capable of flicking a turn around itself, sometimes tying you firmly with an unreachable half-hitch or worse.  This can be a major embarrassment and really mess up your smooth departure just after you thought everything had gone so well. Once the rope is in the water, pull it in very fast to keep it away from the prop. If something goes wrong and this is not possible, shout to the helmsman to go out of gear till you get the rope out of the water.

Be careful about standing holding a rope and pulling a boat around with it. You are usually facing the open water at the time and the boat is quite capable of pulling you straight in, for example in a gust. I know I have done this, I mentioned walking down the sidedeck holding a rope that held the whole boat in a gale above. I haven’t been pulled in ever, but it’s not recommended. The safe way to hold a boat by a rope is to pass the rope under a cleat at your feet then hold a rope that is pulling you down into the pontoon or the deck, not away into the sea.

Coming and going

When I bought Rusalka I inherited a set of heavy docklines, shackled and chained to the marina cleats, with eyes spliced in the other ends for the cleats aboard. I hated them and quickly changed over to using the normal mooring warps permanently in the home berth, winter and summer. I thought they would quickly wear out and that I would replace them as necessary. Well, 18 years have passed, and I haven’t had to replace a single one yet.

Coming into your own marina berth with the lines left behind on the dock is a nightmare – you either have to stand on the deck fishing around with a boathook while precious seconds slip away and the boat begins to drift, or you must jump ashore holding nothing attached to the boat, so it can drift away without you. You end up trying to pull it back in by the guard rails – another sure way to have it pull you into the water one day. Always have one or two people step ashore with ropes in their hands to get quick turns onto the shore cleats. This applies in distant harbours and marinas where you are a visitor, so why should you not practice the procedure every time you use the boat at home too? Again it is the seaman-like thing to do.

If you are single- or short-handed you have to decide as you come in, which is the most important rope to get on first? It is the one that will hold the boat roughly in place without any others. If the wind is from ahead, it’s the bow-rope, etc. If the wind is off the dock or blowing you forwards in a short finger berth, then a short midships spring may be the best bet. This one is not a normal part of the mooring plan, but is often temporarily invaluable when singlehanded. Rusalka has no midships cleat, so I run this line from a strong point on the cabin roof under the rails to a pontoon cleat whenever it may help coming in and often when about to leave too.

Once you have temporary hitches holding the boat in place, it is time to change over to final mooring knots. As you know, you really must keep all your tangles off the public pontoon and off your neighbour’s boat when rafting up. If you’re going again in just a few hours, then double some or all of your lines back as slips. If we’re staying overnight or longer, then we put a round-turn and a bowline through the middle of each cleat ashore. That is the most secure and tidy, and kindest on the rope too in terms of chafe.

When leaving, these lines will have to be removed one by one. Just one, or two, of them need to be kept as slips. Once again, I was taught that the sight of someone standing holding the boat by the guard rails waiting for the word, then shoving off and scrambling aboard at the last second was an unseaman-like, amateurish shambles that one day will surely go completely wrong. It will go wrong either with a bigger boat, a stronger wind, slippery shoes, a more rheumatic crewmember or – heaven forbid, singlehanded skipper – landing in the drink while the boat goes off without him or her.

So, with the lines, it’s back to choosing that single rope that will just hold her. If I’m singlehanded then one slipped line it has to be, sometimes the midships line or sometimes a bow or stern line that allows the boat to drift out at a slightly strange angle for a minute. When we’re both there, we often have two slipped lines, one each. The point is that, once all the ropes are removed except for one or two slips, everyone gets aboard and the casting off is done from there, being careful that the ends don’t whip themselves into knots. Foredeck people should shout, “Clear!” in a way that is audible at the helm. Slipping the lines in the right order, with a few seconds delay, can sometimes allow the boat to blow helpfully in the right direction before applying power.

I have tried the trick where you motor against a spring to bring the bow or stern out into the wind, then slip the spring. In the kind of on-shore wind where it matters, Rusalka usually drifts back in again before I have a chance to get away. I have seen very substantial fishing boats make it look easy in Weymouth, so maybe this says more about how underpowered Rusalka is under engine than anything else.

I spent a week in a finger berth in Brixham once, taking people out for sails around Torbay each day. The wind was a steady 20 – 25 knots all week (westerly, which is why we weren’t sailing to Ireland as planned). We found that rigging a slip from the bow back to the cleat on the end of the finger allowed us to motor out gently in reverse then wait for the wind to settle her to this bow line. Foredeck crew could then slip it and in a few seconds the bow blew off to the right direction to leave smoothly. This was much more preferable than a near disaster I managed in a windy Southampton marina once. I had left my own berth and reversed as far back as I could, upwind into the space of a few empty finger berths. Forward gear, rudder hard over and I began careering downwind straight into the sterns of several expensive yachts across the way. I was amazed how quickly the space began disappearing. Once you start, you quickly pass a point where you are committed. All I could do was pile on more power, keep the rudder over, and hope. Not good. In the end I escaped with a glancing blow against somebody’s scooped stern bathing platform, just above my waterline at who knows what stupid speed. Never again. Use ropes.

Coming alongside

Always approach so that you will stop more head-to-wind than not. Come in at about 45 degrees if your prop walk in astern will help pull the stern in (which is preferable) and as shallow an angle as possible if it won’t. If the prop walk is going to help, this is great fun. Use plenty of speed and take her out of forward gear early. Use the rudder to flick the bow away from the dock at the right moment, engage reverse and apply plenty of power. The boat will turn sideways and drift gently against the dock broadside on while you blast away in reverse gear until she stops. Judging the right moment to turn means that this manoeuvre is worth a little practice when the conditions are right and you have time on your hands. I have watched ferries on Lake Windermere doing exactly this with great aplomb as they came up to their passenger piers. I use it all the time when I row a dinghy up to Rusalka‘s stern ladder – row hard, flick the boat sideways, pull powerfully backwards once or twice, then whip one oar out of the rowlock quickly and bump gently against, broadside on. If the prop walk is not going to help you, do your best with the rudder, but be prepared for failure in an offshore blow. If you have a crew, don’t expect them to make super-human leaps across open water, just to save you from your mistakes, go round again and try it slower. In the end try reversing up and lassoing something or throwing a line to a passing helpful person. The bow can be warped in later.

I watched a helpful crewmember stood on the sidedeck of a boat coming into an alonside space recently. As the helmsman passed very close to the bow of the last boat before the space, the crew put out his foot and gave that boat a hefty shove away.  This completely messed up the approach and the helmsman could not get anywhere near the pontoon in the distance left. Keep your crew informed when you need their help and when you do not.


It is rarely a good idea to drive ahead down a narrow space where you will not be able to turn, as you may not be able to reverse out when the time comes. Much better to reverse in now, so that if you get there you will certainly be able to drive out. Reversing a long-keeled boat down a long narrow alley in a crosswind can seem impossible.

There are a few things that will help. First, face aft and hold the tiller or wheel very firmly, it can pull out of your hand as the rudder is quite unbalanced in reverse. Second, be aware that she will try to weather-cock stern-to-wind and be prepared to fight that. Third, be prepared to lose the fight not just once but several times in a few dozen yards.

If she starts to veer off towards the shore, be that other boats or a harbour wall, and increasing rudder angles are no longer preventing the veer, reverse the rudder and change gear to forwards. Two things will happen, both good. She will slow down and that averts the collision. Prop wash over the rudder (even though you are moving backwards) will push the stern around as directed by you via the rudder. This should also prevent any collision. Try not to stop entirely as that will really encourage the bow to blow off downwind and you could end up stopped against your lee shore (you did rig fenders and ropes all round for this, didn’t you?)

Sometimes, when doing this, Nicky has been up on the foredeck carefully wielding a boathook. By applying a carefully aimed push onto some strong part of a passing boat, or onto the harbour wall, from the bow, she has been able to keep the boat straighter for longer. Try not to smash their windows, bend their windvanes or scratch their classic topsides doing this, it’s not really essential as diligent blasts of forward thrust can save the day anyway. If you do stop and drift alongside something, either shove off again from midships with the boathook (carefully!), or give up and set about warping her the rest of the way.

Manoeuvring in a current

There is not much water movement in our home marina, but many do have river or tidal streams under the pontoons. Lézardrieux in northern France has ferocious currents in its marina. There are two ways to look at currents. Sometimes, such as when approaching a mooring buoy in a river like the Yealm, it is sufficient to think of it being towed through the water by a submarine: just chase after it and catch it up. Don’t forget that the cliffs, the shallows and the pier are all also being towed by the same huge submarine, so stay out of their way too.

The more seaman-like way to deal with currents (and strong cross-winds) is by transits. Forget where you are pointing the bow, the important thing is which way are you going? More to the point, are you going in the direction you want to go in? The only way to find out is to line two things up and keep them lined up. If you want to approach a berth, take note of whatever is in the background behind it and keep those things behind it as it gets closer. That’s the only way to be sure.

I have discussed what a friend called ‘transients’ too. This was his idea that if you have a nearby and more distant thing appearing to move past each other, then the direction of that movement tells you which side of the nearer thing you will pass. The concept is sound but I’ve since found that the correct nautical terminology is ‘opening’ and ‘closing’. When steering the boat into a boat hoist, make sure that the steelwork on both sides of it is opening for you, regardless of which way that means you have to point the bow. The same applies to harbour mouths you hope to enter and pierheads and moored boats you intend to go around.


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