While picking up boat moorings is a regular activity for some boat owners, it’s something that others rarely have experience of, which can make it a challenge both in terms of both boat handing and attaching the boat to the buoy. However, following a few basic tips makes the process straightforward and frequently easier than berthing alongside a pontoon.

moored boats in the sea

Boat moorings provide a handy alternative to anchoring, but there are a few considerations you need to bear in mind. For example, don’t assume you will stay afloat at low tide – a quick tidal height calculation is always a sensible precaution. Photo: Alvin Balemesa

A common misconception is that you should approach boat moorings facing the direction that the other boats are lying. While this is certainly true in non-tidal areas, in a tidal area the approach will almost certainly be easier if you point the boat directly into the tidal stream. This will allow you to retain steerage and control of the boat at lower speeds.

A second mistake is to point the bow directly at the buoy, as you will inevitably lose sight of it an inconvenient distance before you get close enough for your crew to reach it. Instead, aim the bow around two metres to one side of the buoy and stop with it a few feet back from the bow, where your foredeck crew can most easily reach it.

With an approach like this, on many boats the buoy will remain in sight throughout the manoeuvre, which all but eliminates the need for high-decibel communication between the back and front of the boat. With many sailing yachts having the throttle control on the starboard side, it makes sense to approach it on this side.

Another helpful tip is to look sideways, at least some of the time. This may sound counter-intuitive, but while looking ahead is vital to assess your line of approach and distance off, it’s a lousy indication of your speed of approach. A succession of quick glances sideways, however, will give an instant and much more accurate sense of your speed and will enable you to confidently stop the boat when the buoy is alongside the bow.

boat and buoy

It is common to attach a mooring buoy in two stages; a quick initial attachment, followed by a more careful longer-term securing. Photo: Danielle Macinnes

Attaching to the mooring buoy

It’s often helpful to look at this in two stages – an easy and quick initial attachment, followed by a more permanent mooring that will allow you to sleep soundly without worries about drifting away. The latter may be achieved by a number of different methods used to attach a heavy-duty strop to the buoy. With some moorings, this is attached to a separate small pick-up buoy, or is simply a long strop attached to the top of the mooring.

It can be a fiddly task to lead the strop through the bow roller and onto a foredeck cleat. Therefore, before approaching the mooring it’s worth preparing a mooring line that can be threaded through the eye in the strop, or though the loop in the top of the buoy if there’s no strop, and then brought back on board so that both ends are cleated off. You won’t want to stay for long tied up like this, but it’s an easy way to make an initial attachment to the mooring with a minimum of hassle. You can then secure properly in a relaxed fashion, without worrying about the risk of accidentally letting go if the load of the strop becomes too great to hold.

Where to find boat moorings

How do you know whether a mooring is one that you’re permitted to pick up? In many harbours there are visitors’ moorings provided for boats that need to stop for as little as a few hours or a few days. The location of these are often identified on detailed navigation charts, pilot guides and almanacs, plus the harbour’s own website.

Boats moored in a harbour

Many ports and harbours have dedicated visitors’ moorings. Make sure any boat moorings you select are of a suitable size and strength for your boat – don’t use it if you’re not sure. Photo: Pankaj Patel

In days gone by there was also a reasonably widely held convention that, in the absence of visitors’ boat moorings a yacht could use any spare mooring providing it was of a suitable style and size and the crew remained on board so that they could leave immediately should the permanent berth holder return. There are ways in which this system worked well, with others also able to use your mooring when you were away, however, there are many places in which that no longer holds true.

Are boat moorings safer than anchoring?

A common misconception is that it is safer to pick up unused boat moorings than to anchor. However, the reverse is more likely to be true as there is often no way of ascertaining answers to important questions such as whether the mooring is of a sufficient size and specification for your boat, or when the ground tackle was last checked.

In this situation a boat can be much safer lying to her own ground tackle, of a suitable size, that has been well dug in by running the engine in reverse. This is especially true if you have a relatively large or heavy vessel.

In a tidal area it’s also important to ensure that the mooring you pick up will have sufficient depth of water at low tide. A detailed chart will give an indication of whether or not that’s likely, but the only way to be certain is to check the depth when you arrive and then calculate how much the level will fall at low water. A Smartphone app such as the Marine Tides Planner will enable you to do this almost instantly and with confidence that you’ve not made a mistake.

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.