At first glance, boating may seem easy. There aren’t any lanes or traffic lights and in some states you don’t even need a license to drive a boat. That’s true for open water but once you get near the hard stuff – docks, moorings or narrow channels, piloting a boat gets much trickier. Single screw boats drive differently from those with twin engines, and vessels with inboards don’t react the same way as those with outboard motors. Mix in wind, current and an audience at the yacht club, and the pressure is on. Docking, close quarters maneuvering and keeping station are the most difficult boating operations and by far the most stressful for new boaters.
However, over the past decade, technology has leveled the playing field between newbies and experts and it’s easier than ever to bring a boat in looking like a rock star. Regardless of the kind of boat (power or sail), the number of engines, or vessel size, there are now tools to assist in making everyone comfortable in critical situations.
Engine throttles and the wheel were all we used to have to maneuver a boat. But then the joystick concept trickled down from commercial vessels and ferries and a game-changing product was introduced in the recreational marine segment. Volvo Penta launched the IPS pod drives in 2005, which was quickly followed by Cummins Zeus and ZF Marine pods. Pod drives eliminate shafts, struts and rudders and instead use directional thrust by a pod that packages together the transmission, outdrive and propeller in one location. The interface to pod drives at the helm are traditional levers but also a joystick, which at low RPMs, makes docking a boat almost like a video game. Push to the stick to the side and walk the boat over or twist to turn the vessel in its own length. The ease-of-use of the joystick revolutionized recreational boating.
Pods produced joystick envy so it wasn’t long before other types of propulsion including sterndrives and outboards got in the game. Joysticks were no longer the domain of pod boats. Outboard manufacturers came up with proprietary versions like Yamaha’s Helm Master and Mercury’s Joystick Piloting while others adapted SeaStar’s Optimus 360 for use in their twin, triple and quad applications. Even single engine sailboats joined in the rush to the joystick by integrating autopilot, engine throttle and thruster – more on this below.
Bow And Stern Thrusters
Thrusters have been part of yacht maneuvering for a decades with bow thrusters becoming nearly standard equipment today on vessels 50 feet and over. A thruster creates lateral propulsive thrust, meaning it can move the boat sideways and that comes in handy when current pushes the hull around erratically or a gust of wind catches the bow. For more precise control, boats today are also adding stern thrusters so the movement at both ends can be fine-tuned. Needless to say, thrusters have contributed significantly to skipper confidence.
Thrusters are typically water cooled and can be either propellers or jet drives mounted in tunnels. Single engine, deep keel sailboats, which are notoriously hard to control, have benefited greatly from thrusters as have motor yachts with lots of windage. Thrusters tend to be loud due to cavitation and they can be power hungry so they often have a dedicated battery installed nearby inside the vessel. They can be AC or 12 or 24V DC, electric or hydraulic, and single or dual propeller. For smaller applications, certain bow thrusters can even be externally mounted rather than operated from an integrated tunnel. Some advanced thrusters like those from Side-Power are offered with variable speed, allowing the helmsman to apply a little or a lot of thrust, an improvement over early models that were all or nothing.
Thrusters are primarily used during docking or maneuvering in narrow channels or against significant forces like wind. It’s not a good idea to navigate with the thruster rather than using the wheel although the telltale rumble of a thruster would suggest there are those skippers who do both.
Joystick and thrusters may sound like stand-alone systems but today, they’re really individual parts of larger solutions. One of the earliest integrations was Beneteau’s Dock & Go system introduced about a decade ago. This early system married a small pod drive with a bow thruster and autopilot to create a sailboat docking assist. It made even crusty sailors want to try something new.
Some motor yacht experts will tell you that once you have twin pods, you don’t need a bow thruster but it still helps. The problem is that large engines operating twin props at the stern often overpower the bow no matter how carefully you try to twist the joystick to angle the boat as needed. Integrating a thruster into the system finetunes the control at the joystick or you can leave the thruster on an independent switch to add a little push only when needed.
Integration with GPS has also opened up new capabilities in the yacht market. Dynamic positioning systems, or DPS, allow the boat to keep station at the touch of a button and have been in use in commercial vessels for decades. Regardless of current or wind, the boat holds position and in some cases, even heading orientation. For recreational boating, this helps anglers when fishing a specific spot where you can’t anchor, setting out kites or keeping the bow into the waves. It also comes in handy when you’re waiting for a bridge to open or a space to clear at the fuel dock. DPS ties in engines, autopilot, thrusters and GPS off the MFD (multifunction display).
Joystick drive has revolutionized boating, especially since you can take it with you. Some yachts provide a second fixed station on the flybridge and a third in the aft cockpit where there’s better visibility when backing into a slip. But if you really want flexibility, opt for a system like DockMate or Yacht Controller that can be used standalone or supplementary to the main system. Integrated via WiFi or Bluetooth, these are portable systems that you can carry around the deck with you. That’s priceless if you’re single-handing and need to get the fenders down and the docklines ready by yourself. You can even pull into the slip, step ashore, and leave the boat pressing up against the dock with pods and thrusters while you tie up.
For a peek at the very near future, check out true self-docking functionality, which is now in development by Raymarine and Volvo Penta. A combination of FLIR cameras, sensors and integration software that brings together propulsion and steering, Raymarine’s DockSense doesn’t yet dock the boat completely by itself but it does provide a generous amount of feedback to the driver and offers safeguards that will avoid a collision.
Swedish manufacturer, Volvo Penta is working on a self-docking product on a 68-foot yacht. It’s slated to be introduced in late 2020 or early 2021. Both of these systems have been presented in testing environments with success and no small amount of wow factor. But the idea of pulling within a few dozen feet of a dock and letting the boat take over from there is still future speak – at least for the boating sweet spot of vessels 30-40 feet both inboard and outboard driven. Once the proper combination of technology is uncovered, expect self-docking systems to spread quickly throughout all sizes and segments of boating.
It Couldn’t Get Easier
Much of the amazing progress in vessel maneuverability has been made in just the past two decades and there’s one thing for certain, technology is speeding up, not slowing down. So, if you haven’t driven a boat lately and are intimidated by the prospect of docking, maybe it’s time to visit your dealer for an on-water demo of some of the most James Bond technology out there.
Types of Locks and BridgesA lock is used to raise or lower boats and ships between bodies of water like canals or rivers that lie at different levels. They enable boats to cross uneven terrain and avoid fast-moving or rocky rivers. Locks may be manned by a steward, operated by an electronic remote or managed by the boater manually. There are many types of bridges including fixed under which you may be able to navigate if the center (or side) span is high enough, swing bridges that pivot horizontally, or draw bridges that open by separating vertically at the center point. Moveable bridges are usually manned by a bridge tender with whom you may communicate via a designated VHF radio channel or by cellphone.
Passing Through LocksLocks have been built for centuries and function like marine elevators taking vessels up or down a river or canal. The Great Lakes, the Mississippi basin, and the Columbia River in Oregon and Washington states frequently used locks for both commercial and recreational traffic. Europe is full of locks so you may even encounter one during a river charter. Navigation charts should alert you to the location of a lock and what kind it is, which will determine how and when you approach it. Some locks have set schedules while others accommodate traffic on demand.
15 tips to manage locks safely and easily1. When approaching a lock, you will see either a red or green light. Green means it is safe to enter the lock while red means you must wait. A flashing red light may mean the lock is being operated or is about to open so keep clear. 2. Inform the lockmaster ahead of time your intention to lock through via VHF radio or a cellphone. The channel or number may be listed in a guide for the region. In some cases, you can use the Morse code horn blast to signal the lockmaster. The signal for a lock is the same as that for operating a bridge with one prolonged blast followed by one short blast: –. 3. Once at the lock, moor your vessel or keep station (perhaps with the help of a dynamic positioning system) in the designated waiting area, sufficiently away from the lock opening. Boats already locking through will need space to maneuver out of the gates. There may be current in the immediate vicinity of the gate so keep clear. 4. Wait your turn in the queue. If there are vessels ahead of you, don’t drift about in the way. Follow the lockmaster’s directions or just keep clear until allowed to approach. Commercial vessels usually take priority but the lockmaster may load up a large lock for maximum efficiency and will let you know where and when to go. 5. Hang fenders on both sides of your vessel and prepare lines the length of which will depend on the size of the lock and your boat but usually at least 50 feet. 6. Enter the lock slowly, avoiding creating a wake. Position yourself well forward in the lock or wherever the steward designates. 7. Secure the vessel with lines to bollards, hooks or cleats in or on the lock walls. Actively man each line, loosening the lines when locking down and tightening them when locking up. Never cleat a line and leave it unattended or you risk capsizing or a tearing out a ship’s cleat. Best practices include cleating the line to the vessel, draping it around a bollard or ring and manning the loose or bitter end. 8. Turn engine(s) off. 9. Do not smoke. 10. Use the designated ladders on the lock walls if you need to operate the lock yourself, converse with the steward or hook your lines over cleats at the top of the wall. These ladders spend half their time underwater and they are usually slick or covered with marine growth so mind your hands and feet when using them. Gloves may help. 11. As the lock fills or drains, a current will move the boat about. Take care not to cause damage by hitting other vessels or the walls of the lock. 12. You may want to keep a boathook handy to help push away from the wall or other boats as the water level changes or to help a line go over a hard-to-reach bollard. 13. Once the gates open and you get the signal from either a green light in the lock or the steward, you may proceed out of the lock. 14. Motor slowly. Don’t engage your prop(s) until your lines are clear of the water. 15. Anticipate waiting traffic on the other side and maneuver carefully.
Navigating Under BridgesBridges are common on both coasts and on inland waterways such as the ICW. Information regarding bridge location, type, schedules and communication preferences can usually be found on navigation charts or in piloting and cruising guidebooks. Check the USCG Local Notice to Mariners for changes, construction or temporary bridge inoperability. For moveable bridges, know that it’s illegal to cause an unnecessary bridge opening per the US Code, Title 33. Penalties can be high. Some bridges open automatically on schedule while others are manned and open on request as terrestrial traffic allows. Your chart should provide information on how to communicate with the bridge tender if there is one.
15 tips to navigate bridges safely and easily1. Know the name of the bridge you’re approaching and hail it on the proper VHF channel. In certain areas, multiple bridges may be within hailing distance on the same channel so address the bridge by name. 2. Check schedules in a guidebook or by calling the bridge ahead of time. This may impact how fast you travel. There’s no need to hurry just to wait for opening times but you shouldn’t dawdle if the bridge only opens hourly and you have the ability and speed to make the schedule. 3. If it is a fixed bridge, know your own air draft or vertical clearance including various high-mounted antennas. Check the tide. At high tide, you may not be able to pass under a fixed bridge. At low tide, you may not be able to clear your waterline draft. Tide boards near the bridge indicate bridge clearance for a given state of tide. 4. Fixed bridges may have markings as to which span you must pass under. These may be color markings on the bridge itself during the day or red/green lights at night. Smaller vessels may be able to pass under lower spans but beware of submerged obstacles or pilings anywhere outside of the designated span. 5. Inform the bridge tender ahead of time of your intention to pass a moveable bridge. Use VHF radio (usually channel 9, 13 or the hailing channel 16). In some cases you may also use a cellphone or horn blasts: –. 6. Moor your vessel or keep station (perhaps with the help of a dynamic positioning system) in the designated waiting area, sufficiently away from the bridge. Some bridges will have red and green lights signaling whether or not they are ready for through traffic. 7. Wait your turn in the queue. If there are vessels ahead of you, don’t drift about in the way. Notify the tender of your intent to pass even if other boats are waiting so the bridge doesn’t close on you unexpectedly. 8. Anticipate eddies or currents around a bridge especially in a restricted channel. Keep in mind your windage and what affect it will have when passing a bridge in gusty conditions. Also watch for small boat traffic coming from the opposing side or vessels fishing near pilings. 9. When clear, navigate with acceptable speed – slow enough to be safe but fast enough to avoid making road traffic above wait unnecessarily. 10. Rules of the Road are important. Give way to oncoming traffic that is moving down river/current. Those vessels have less control than the ones moving up current. Also give way to vessels restricted in their ability to maneuver either due to size, draft or other circumstances such as a tug and tow. 11. Sailboats should motor through under auxiliary power if so equipped. Sails can obstruct the view of the bridge and oncoming traffic and wind shifts and calms can be unpredictable under a bridge. 12. Do not proceed until a bridge is completely opened. 13. Do not overtake other boats while passing under a bridge. Pass in a single file line, especially if there is oncoming traffic or boats on the other side, which you can’t see. 14. Five short blasts signal a problem, danger or emergency. This may include a boat losing power while passing or the bridge tender needing to close the bridge for emergency or rescue traffic above. This signal may be sounded by the bridgeman or the passing boats. 15. After passing under a bridge, navigate to starboard if there is sufficient room and water depth and pass other vessels port-to-port as is customary. Bridges and locks can be a welcome diversion and good teaching moment for everyone aboard. Learn the proper etiquette for passing through or under each and then enjoy the journey./>
Bridges and locks assist in moving vessel traffic efficiently and can even be a fun distraction during...