It's a challenge most boats face regularly, and one that many, especially newer owners, struggle with. You might be a brilliant sailor, but when it comes to marina berthing things can all too easily go horribly wrong. Here are our best tips to help you perfect your marina berthing.

Know where you’re going

When visiting an unknown marina for the first time the layout of the pontoons – and the berth numbering system used – is often not clear. It's well worth looking in advance to see whether this information is available in detailed charts of the area (whether paper or electronic) or in an almanac or pilot book. With this information to hand, if you’re directed into somewhere like, “berth A52, upstream side, starboard side to,” you can figure out exactly where you’re going, which means you’re less likely to encounter an unexpected challenging situation.

Marina berthing in Cowes Yacht Haven - how to berth your boat in a marina

Cowes Yacht Haven: Marina berthing at the end of a passage can be the most stressful time of all, but many of the potential pitfalls are easy to avoid.

Don’t be afraid to ask for a different berth

If you’re concerned about your ability to manoeuvre the boat into the allocated berth it’s worth asking for an alternative. When space is available most marina operators are understanding about this – after all, it’s not in their best interests to have a boat careering around other vessels while attempting a difficult manoeuvre.

Give yourself a bail-out option

It’s worth identifying in advance the point at which you are fully committed to a manoeuvre. This is important knowledge that tells you the last point at which you can safely bail out if it doesn’t appear to be going to plan. It also allows you to take a look at a potentially difficult berth, while keeping an a safe escape route open. Marina berthing in challenging conditions can present problems even for the most experienced.

Don’t be embarrassed by lots of big fenders

When things don’t go to plan, fenders are the first line of defence between your boat and the dock, or another vessel. Admittedly, fenders won’t directly improve your boat handling, but there are times at which they can certainly reduce stress. Knowing you have fenders to protect you if you need them helps you to focus on manoeuvring the boat, rather than worrying about the worst case scenario.

Marina berthing under sail is more difficult than under engine

Marina berthing under sail: These professional sailors have sailed their engineless boat into a marina and are about to berth without power. They are well attuned to spotting gusts – their livelihood depends on it, but the ability to notice a gust before it hits also makes boat handling under engine much easier.

Think about the tide

In a marina in a river or estuary the tidal stream is likely to be the biggest single influence on manoeuvring. Before entering confined space it’s vital to know the direction in which it is flowing. You also need to have an appreciation of its strength, both in the outer part of the marina, near the fastest stream, and the inner pontoons, where it is likely to be much weaker and back eddies may be found.

If you have to turn around in such a marina, turn in the direction that will keep the bow pointing into the stream. This means you will be tending to stem the tide mid turn, which effectively increases the room you have available. By contrast, if you try turning the bow downstream you’re likely to run out of space – and options – embarrassingly quickly.

Entering a marina berth with a following stream is only for those who are already expert at boat handling and requires a parallel approach at a speed that’s fast enough to maintain steerage way. As a result it’s a manoeuvre with few, if any, bail-out options if your approach is not perfect. Often the easier solution is to time your arrival for a time at which the stream is not unhelpful, or ask for a temporary berth until it slackens or changes direction.

Be especially careful with cross tides

Most marinas are planned so that tidal streams are parallel to the pontoons or fingers you moor alongside. However, this is not always possible when a marina is located near the bend of a river – the stream may set at a significant angle to the berths here. A further complication is that cross tides can vary in their angle at different stages of the tidal cycle – so if you’ve experienced one set of conditions at a particular marina don't automatically assume they will also prevail at the time of your next visit. Read How to berth safely: wind against tide.

Figure out what the wind’s doing

Second to the tide, this is the most important factor that affects boat handling, and will be the dominant one in marinas in non-tidal areas, in locked basins and some dock basins converted to marina use. When moving at slow speeds, as when manoeuvring in a confined space, it’s worth remembering that gusts have a disproportionately large effect.

In addition, gusts are almost always associated with a shift in the wind direction, which may or may not be helpful. In gusty conditions, it helps to put the engine in gear, maybe with a few revs on, just before a gust hits, then return to neutral once it has passed. This means the propeller is pushing a good flow of water over the rudder when the gust hits, minimising the risk that you will lose steerage way, or be blown too far sideways. Taking the engine out of gear immediately the gust passes will then help to control your speed, so that you’re not travelling too fast to repeat the process at the next gust.

Beware of engaging reverse to control your boat speed just before a gust hits – this will cause the propeller to push a body of water the wrong way over the keel, causing the flow to stall and steerage way to be lost prematurely.

Use a mid-ships spring

This may not be necessary if you have a large crew full of people who know exactly what they are doing and can re-rig mooring lines in next to no time. However, if you’re sailing short-handed, a short spring led from a mid-ships cleat will temporarily secure the boat alongside, possibly with the help of a little engine power to keep it in tension. Similarly, when leaving a berth, this spring will enable all other lines to be cast off first, leaving just the spring that can be easily slipped, if necessary in a carefully-chosen moment between gusts.

A midships spring is also useful when berthing on a short finger pontoon, acting as a spring to prevent the boat moving forward and hitting the dock in front, while also helping to prevent the stern swinging away from the finger and into the neighbouring boat. See the secret to fast and easy mooring: the midships spring.

Communicate clearly with your crew

This sounds so obvious that it would be easy to omit from this list, yet at the end of a long day, when everyone is tired, hungry and stressed, effective communication can be difficult to achieve.

The secret to successful marina berthing is to plan ahead

This is probably the most important tip of all, although a successful plan is likely to incorporate all of the previous points. There’s also no harm in having a look at a difficult berth, maybe even a trial run, allowing you to get a better advance feel for the dynamics of the wind, tide and other factors that need to be harnessed – or overcome. This approach is also likely to highlight any misconceptions you may have formed about the manoeuvres necessary, giving you an opportunity to reformulate the plan without having made any embarrassing mistakes.

How NOT to approach marina berthing!

Talking of embarrassing mistakes... if you want to see an example of getting it very wrong, take a look at the video container ship destroys a marina.

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.