Successful manoeuvring in a yacht or powerboat is achieved through a combination of experience and technical ability. Skippers that practise in a variety of conditions at the helm of a variety of different boats will generally fail less often, but for those without the means to practise, the ability to avoid any of the errors in the following list will make mistakes much less likely and much less serious if they do occur.

1. Approaching too fast

We’ve all seen the boat that approaches a dock at breakneck speed, with the crew struggling to stop her using the mooring warps, or the one that approaches so impossibly slowly that being blown out by a gust of wind is inevitable.

Common manoeuvring blunders – approach at slow speed

An organised approach at slow speed is likely to disappoint eager rubberneckers.

There’s a simple trick to ensure you accurately gauge your speed of approach like an expert: keep looking out to the side at the movement of transits perpendicular to the boat. This may at first sight appear to be counter-intuitive as instinctively it makes most sense to look at where you’re going. Unfortunately, while that’s great for judging your angle of approach it’s a lousy indicator of speed.

2. Not using enough fenders

In my book this one is inexcusable – given that making mistakes is all too easy, fenders are your best insurance against both embarrassment and spoiling your day. Equally, if another boat is involved it could equally spoil their day, or even a whole sailing season. Despite this, it’s all too common to see boats inexpertly manoeuvred with only three undersized fenders and with some of those positioned at the wrong height. Why?

3. Wind blowing you off

For many approaching a dock with the wind blowing you off is one of the most challenging situations. It normally demands approaching at a higher speed than you otherwise might, but that’s no excuse for ploughing into the boat in front.

The most common mistake here is to maintain a constant speed irrespective of any gusts and lulls. Instead, in the lulls you can often have the engine in neutral, which will help to moderate your speed. Engaging forward gear, with a few revs if necessary, just before a gust hits will boost the flow of water over the keel and rudder, giving a positive feel of control and preventing the boat being displaced sideways by the wind.

4. Failing to spring off

When the wind is blowing you hard against the dock don’t expect to be able to leave without using a spring to swing either the bow or stern away from the pontoon. Anything else is bound to end in frustration.

5. Failing to notice changing conditions

This is perhaps the single most common manoeuvring error. By definition harbours offer good shelter. But that means you get winds with lots of shifts, gusts and lulls. There are also often complex tidal flows, with differences across the stream and even eddies near the shore and bends in a river. If you don’t keep monitoring these influences constantly while you’re manoeuvring in a tight space it’s almost inevitable that you will get caught out at some point.

6. Failing to look out for other traffic

This may sound obvious, but I never cease to be surprised at how often people get this wrong. Like the boat that shot out of East Cowes Marina a couple of weeks ago, right between the pilot boat and the large bulk carrier it was escorting in the restricted waters of the River Medina. What was scary about that incident is that it could just as easily have been a child in a dinghy or a canoe in the way of the yacht.

Keep a look-out: 12 common manoeuvring blunders

Beware of focussing so intently on the minutiae of your manoeuvre that you forget to keep an effective lookout.

7. The shouty husband

We’ve all seen the guy who fails to get the boat within a even metre of the dock, yet still blames his wife for not magically getting the boat tied up. Sadly, this is the kind of situation that wrecks the dreams of too many boat owners. Berthing a boat can be a stressful experience at the best of times – and doubly so if you are not in a position to justifiably have confidence in your abilities. The best solution is to admit to your shortcomings and pay for a qualified and experienced instructor to give you a weekend of tuition targeted at boat handling in confined spaces. It’s by far the quickest, cheapest and most effective way of transforming your boat handling skills. Far more people should be doing it.

8. Overcomplicating the situation

Don’t make things difficult for yourself – assess each situation on its merits and make sure you’re set up optimally for that scenario. If you have 30 knots of wind blowing off the dock you will need bow and stern lines rigged to slip from on board. In that weight of wind they will slip easily as the boat blows away from the pontoon and the manoeuvre should run very smoothly as a result.

However, if you do the same thing with a lightweight boat in calm conditions, the friction in the lines will pull the boat into the dock and it will take an age to slip. If your yacht is not the size or weight of a small ship there’s no need to behave as though it is in every situation.

9. Not using a midships spring

This can be used to temporarily secure a boat to the dock with just a single line taken from the middle part of the vessel, plus a little engine power to keep the line taught. It’s therefore one of the simplest ways of making it easier to approach or leave a berth when short-handed, yet very few people do so. For me it’s the default approach and it’s rare that I will go alongside without one rigged.

Read more about midships springs here: The secret to fast and easy mooring: the midships spring.

10. Borderline wind against tide

For many skippers one of the hardest things to judge is a borderline wind against tide situation – should you point the boat into the tide or turn round and point into the wind? Unfortunately, many make the wrong choice, after failing to appreciate that the tide is much more likely to be the dominant factor than it may appear to be at first sight.

Read more here: How to berth safely: wind against tide

11. Failing to recognise the point of no return

Again, this is a simple one, but all too easy to forget in the heat of the moment. Whatever the manoeuvre, identify the last point at which you can safely bail out if something doesn’t seem right. The added benefit to this approach is that in most cases, the first approach will give you a better feel for the conditions, which makes everything much easier the second time round.

Identify the point of no return: 23 common manoeuvring blunders

Before committing yourself to a tight space make certain you have a good appreciation of what the tidal stream is doing there. It’s also important to identify the point beyond which you won’t be able to bail out if the situation is not as you envisaged it.

12. Not learning from your mistakes

This is perhaps the biggest blunder of all, but many of us are guilty of blaming bad luck for things going wrong, rather than analysing the conditions and trying to learn from the incident. Learning from mistakes, and trying never to make the same mistake twice, is one of the best (and easiest) ways of improving your boat handling.

For more tips on hassle-free marina berthing click here: Marina berthing: 10 tips for perfection.

Written by: Rupert Holmes
Rupert Holmes has more than 70,000 miles of offshore cruising and racing experience, in waters ranging from the North Sea to the Southern Ocean and Cape Horn. He writes about all aspects of boat ownership and marine travel, including destinations, seamanship and maintenance, as well as undertaking regular new boat and gear tests. He currently sails around 5,000 miles per year and in the past couple of seasons has cruised from the UK to the Azores, as well as winning his class in the 2014 two-handed Round Britain and Ireland Race. He also owns two yachts, one based in the Mediterranean and the other in the UK.