Whether you're mooring your boat for the night, riding out a storm, docking or just relaxing in the bay for a swim or barbecue, it's useful to know the proper mooring techniques. The goal should always be to avoid damaging your boat or someone else's whilst manoeuvring and to tie up your vessel so that it is safe even if conditions deteriorate. This means checking the weather forecast, the wind direction and taking a careful look at the location before tying up: the seabed, the buoy, the ropes...
10 steps for mooring at a buoy
According to some skippers, mooring your boat at a buoy is easily the best way to spend the night in a bay. With the buoys being further apart, there is a certain degree of romance and privacy you can afford at a pier or wharf. On the other hand, there is the risk the ropes beneath the buoy are in poor condition and large waves may cause the boat to sway the whole night. Certainly, you want to avoid mooring there in stormy conditions. So, how do you moor a boat to a buoy?
1. Choose the bay
Before mooring or unmooring, you should always check where the wind is blowing from and its expected direction and strength in the next few hours. Personally, we like using www.windy.com or for the Adriatic, meteo.hr. We then select a bay where, if the buoy loosens or breaks off, there is no risk of the boat being pulled onto the rocks. The best choice is a bay with the wind blowing out of the bay, not in. When you find a suitable bay, explore it well first. Its shape, as well as the terrain, the height of the hills etc., will all give you an idea of how the wind will flow in the bay. We also recommend sailing around the bay first to look for any possible hazards, for example, rocks protruding from the water.
2. Choose the buoy
Remember that not every buoy at sea is designed for mooring. When sailing, we often encounter fishing buoys that are not anchored to the bed, holding only crab traps or nets. Never tie on to this type of buoy! The same applies to small motorboat buoys, which are usually found in bays or harbours close to shore. Apart from the fact that they are often located in shallow waters, they do not have the holding capacity for a multi-ton sailboat.
Keep in mind that if you have a really large boat, you are heavy. Catamarans weigh well over 20 tons, so a buoy with a lighter concrete block on the bed could shift under the motion of such a heavy boat. Also, expect the buoy line to slacken slightly, so choose a mooring buoy in the middle rather than at the edge of the bay close to shore.
3. Visually inspect the buoy
Even a seemingly brand-new orange buoy with a straight eyelet on top can have a rotten rope underneath. The most reliable way to check a buoy is to dive underwater and take a look for yourself. A visual inspection is the only guarantee. Of course, finding a volunteer to inspect a buoy in the North Sea would not be easy.
If you arrive in a bay you're not familiar with and someone is already there, don't be ashamed to ask questions such as, about the condition of the buoy, the owner (whether it is a municipal or private buoy), the price or other services. Sometimes the buoy comes with a free water taxi (a ride to land), garbage collection, or use of showers and toilets on the shore.
4. Assign roles
Before manoeuvring, the captain should assign roles to the crew and brief each member on what is going to happen. This will avoid any awkward situations. When mooring to a buoy you will need to assign the following roles (of course one person can have more than one role, but ideally delegate responsibilities so that each person can focus on their own role):
- Helmsman, who pilots the boat during the manoeuvre
- Buoy catcher, who uses a hook or rope to pick up the buoy
- Line handler, who threads the line through the buoy eye and ties it up
- Communicator, who acts as the helmsman's second set of eyes, keeping an eye on the buoy and informing the helmsman of any potential dangers. This is vital because at a certain point the buoy is not visible over the bow
5. Approach the buoy
If possible, you should approach the buoy upwind. Point the bow towards the buoy and approach it slowly. Do not rush this, rather reduce speed as you get closer to the buoy. Do not underestimate the momentum of the boat, which may last several minutes. Also, allow for wind or currents which may aid the manoeuvre or make it more difficult.
YACHTING.COM TIP: You should be able to perform this manoeuvre without having to use reverse, i.e. without braking. There is no shame in slowing the engine down a bit, but frantically revving the engine is a sign of a captain's inexperience.
6. Pick up the buoy
There are two types of sailors — those who pick up the buoy at the stern and those at the bow. There is no best way, so we'll just summarize the possible advantages and disadvantages of each.
Picking up a buoy over the stern can be done by one person. So if you are sailing solo or have an inexperienced crew and want to do both the manoeuvring and the pick-up together, going over the stern is easier. This is because you don't have to leave the cockpit and usually the stern is closer to the water's surface than the bow. The downside, however, is that if there isn't much space behind the helm, you'll be crammed in there with the helmsman. There is also a greater risk of getting the buoy line tangled in the propeller.
Picking up a buoy over the bow is more common, but depends on the type of boat and the size of the crew. In fact, you need at least two people on board for this method. If your boat has a very high bow and the buoy line is very taut, you won't be able to lift the buoy out of the water enough to thread the line through. The main downside is that at a certain point, the helmsman can no longer see the buoy and is dependent on information coming from the person at the bow who will be pointing or telling them where to go and where the buoy is. However, if this manoeuvre is successful, it is quick and there's no risk the line will get tangled in the propeller.
There are also several ways to pick up the buoy itself. Some captains use a mooring hook whilst others lasso the buoy.
YACHTING.COM TIP: If you are tired of fishing for a buoy with a mooring hook or line, try a gadget called the Jolly Hooker.
7. Tie to the mooring buoy
Tie one end of the rope to the cleat. Thread the other end through the eye of the buoy, either the top eye or the eye under the buoy. We recommend the eye under the buoy, as the top eye (if plastic) may break off. Then, thread the line through the eye and tie that end back to the same cleat where the other end is. We don't recommend tying one end of the rope to the starboard cleat and the other end to the port cleat as this can cause the line to saw against the bow. Leave the line a little slack. Do not pull the buoy too close to the boat as it will bang up against your bow all night and could damage the top coat of the hull.
The choice of knots is a topic of debate. Each skipper has their own method regarding knots and tying to the cleat. You can choose from a bowline knot, a bowline combined with a cow hitch, or a cleat hitch. Some sailors even tie the stern lines to the windlass and not to the cleats. There are several combinations and it's really up to you which style you choose. The important thing is that you trust the knot. Brush up on knots with our article 9 basic nautical knots to use at sea.
YACHTING.COM TIP: If someone else is tying up your boat, double-check the knot and don't be afraid to untie and retie it to your liking. You'd be surprised how many sailors tangle up some kind of knot that doesn't have enough friction to hold and comes untied over the course of the night, with the boat ending up on the shore.
8. Safety line
For the night, it's a good idea to tie another loose line to the buoy on the other side of the bow, just for peace of mind. Tie the second rope to either another eye on the buoy rope, the buoy eye (if it is metal and solid) or anything just below the buoy that looks solid.
9. Check later
Mark your location (for example, on GPS or an anchor alarm) and after a few hours check that you are not moving too much. Every buoy has some give, i.e. the boat will never stay in exactly the same position. However, a divergence of 20 metres can be indicative of the mooring buoy slipping or concrete sinker block moving. A buoy like this won't inspire much confidence for a safe night.
10. Depart the buoy
Even beginners can manage to leave the buoy without an issue. Before you start the manoeuvre, take a look around and assess the situation to make sure you won't get blown into one of the neighbouring boats as you pull off. Then start the engine, leaving it in neutral for the time being, pull up a little closer to the buoy, untie the line from the buoy, pull it on board, put the engine in gear and move off. Be careful not to get your mooring line or the buoy line tangled in the propeller. Of course, this all depends on the current weather conditions. On calm waters in no wind, driving away from the buoy is stress-free and you can just take your time. Don't rush it and you can't go too wrong.
YACHTING.COM TIP: If you want to try something more challenging, sail to and from the buoy rather than using the motor. It requires steering precision, but it is fairly safe compared to sailing to or away from a pier or wharf. If you don't enjoy mooring at a buoy or pier and prefer anchoring, read our Complete guide to anchoring.
So where to sail to?
Tying your boat to the dock
You can tie your boat to the pier at the stern, bow or side. It depends on the type of boat (whether it has an open cockpit at the stern or steps at the bow), the type of pier, what mooring system there is or local customs (in the Baltic Sea it is more common to moor bow-to but stern-to in the Adriatic). It's also a question of privacy — mooring sideways at a bustling city wharf with thousands of tourists passing the entire length of the boat in an evening is not exactly romantic. If you plan to moor for a long time, or expect waves, it is very practical to use mooring snubbers (shock absorbers) on the lines. These extend the life of the line by giving them flexibility.
If manoeuvring into a berth doesn't work the first time, don't try to fix it at all costs. Sometimes it's better to drive away from the scene altogether and perform the manoeuvre afresh and correctly.
What to watch out for when tying a boat to the dock?
Sailors want at least a foot of water under the keel before setting sailing but we recommend having at least 1 metre under the keel when moored. Whilst in calm waters you might have 30 cm under the keel (1 foot), a wave caused by a ferry or a larger yacht can cause your boat to bob up and down, scraping the keel or rudder blade on the bed.
When you check in with the charter company, ask what units of measurement the boat's depth gauge reads. Some depth gauges read in metres, some in feet. They also differ in where they measure depth from. There are depth gauges that measure from the waterline, but there are also those that measure from the keel...
HOW THE SEABED LOOKS
There may be all kinds of objects, stones or rocks sticking up from the seabed and a sandy seabed can slope in different directions. The Adriatic is quite predictable in this respect, but Greece, for example, often has rocks that you can hit the keel on, especially at town wharfs.
MOTOR AND PROPELLER
Keep the motor running throughout the manoeuvre. If you don't need it, put it in neutral, but never switch it off completely. This leaves you room to intervene if you need to move off quickly, react, change direction or leave.
It is surprisingly common for sailors to get the line tangled up in the propeller. Whether it's a mooring line or sheet that has accidentally fallen overboard. The problem is that once anything gets wrapped around the propeller, the engine usually stops running, making berthing even more difficult.
Keep your fenders at the places most at risk. The stern is critical when approaching the pier stern first. If you are approaching in between two boats, put your fenders on the sides where there is potential contact with the other boats. This is usually at the part of the hull that sticks out the most.
Choose the height of the fenders based on the height of the pier or deck of the neighbouring boats. If you don't know how high the pier will be and you want to have everything ready before manoeuvring without having to retie the fenders later, put the fenders alternating at different heights — one higher, the next lower.
To dock sideways you will need two lines, one at the bow and one at the stern (so-called spring lines). Have them ready on the cleats before the manoeuvre, so you can just tie up straight away. Put all the fenders on the side that will be against the pier.
During the manoeuvre, you will need someone on the jetty to tie the line to the dock cleat or mooring post. If no one is ashore, a crew member needs to jump ashore, preferably at the centre of the boat. Feel free to do one pass to drop the person off first before docking. Similar rules apply for mooring at finger piers, which are narrow piers leading off the main pier.
A sailboat moored side-on
In some areas, it is customary to moor bow to the pier. This is common practice in the Baltic Sea but rarely encountered in the Mediterranean. Most charter boats you find in Croatia, Greece or Italy are built to provide convenient access to the pier from the stern, and are equipped with a gangway. If you want to moor bow-to, you'll probably be walking ashore down steps. Make sure that your boat can be accessed from the bow.
As for the process of mooring the boat, bow-to and stern-to are essentially very similar. The only difference is that everything is the other way round — stern-to you are reversing, line to the stern and dropping anchor at the bow, but bow-to you're moving forward, lines at the bow and dropping anchor at the stern
In Nordic ports where mooring bow-to is common, you'll find mooring buoys to tie the stern to.
Boats moored bow-to
This is the most common way of mooring on the Adriatic and the Mediterranean. The stern is tied to the pier with a line on each side. The ropes should at an angled in a "V" shape, i.e. they should not run horizontally with the boat. We recommend a distance of at least half a metre from the pier, but this all depends on the length of your gangway. When moored at the pier, place the fenders mainly at the stern as it is the most vulnerable both during the manoeuvre itself and in a storm or waves.
The bow can be held by a mooring buoy, anchor or mooring line. If you want to know more about mooring stern-to with the anchor at the bow, take a look at our article How to moor stern-to: a step-by-step guide. This method is especially common in Greece.
These consist of a rope leading from a concrete mooring block (sinker) or anchor to a pier or buoy. There are several types of moorings, but these are probably the most common:
- Pier moorings — the rope runs from a concrete sinker to the pier. These are two ropes tied together, with a thick rope at the sinker and a thinner one at the pier.
- Mooring buoy — the rope runs from an anchor on the seabed to the buoy. The principle of both types of mooring is similar, it's just a matter of what secures the rope on the seabed and where it leads.
Marinas with moorings like this are common in the Adriatic, but less common in Greece or the Baltic. They make it relatively easy to berth, which is great for novices and holds up well even in a storm. If you find multiple mooring lines in the marina, moor to two, one on each side. But make sure not to prevent a boat next to you from being able to moor.
Boat with two moorings
The most useful pieces of equipment are a mooring hook to pick up the mooring line, gloves to prevent rope burns and a cleat. Note! The mooring hook is telescopic. We are surprised how many sailors don't actually know this and complain about the rod being too short.
The boat is usually moored with three lines at the berth: two stern lines and one mooring line. If possible, assign the following roles to the crew members, although the whole process can be mastered by just two people:
- Helmsman – manoeuvres the boat
- Jumper – jumps ashore and handles the mooring (can be done by someone already on the pier)
- Mooring tyer – uses the mooring hook to hoist the mooring line aboard and mans the bow
- Stern rope tyer
- Fender deployer – grabs a fender and places it between the boat and the pier, or the boat and the adjacent boat
- The rest of the crew are advised to sit so as not to obstruct the view and push away from the surrounding boats should a collision occur.
The role of the person on the pier or wharf is particularly important when mooring. It can be a dock worker, the crew of the next boat or a passer-by. If there is no one there, you'll have to drop someone off. This person then tensions the mooring line so that the person on board with the hook can reach it. The person on board hooks the mooring line and pulls it to the bow where he ties it with a cleat hitch. The mooring line needs to be reeled in as far as possible. As a result of this, the rope from the concrete block should be taut as a string and from the pier slack, lying on the seabed. Undocking is essentially the same process but in reverse. Make sure you let the mooring line sink to the bottom.
YACHTING.COM TIP: Occasionally marina staff lack experience and hand out the wrong advice to sailors. Persevere and show them how you want to moor, on which side and insist on it. Even if they try to convince you that it is better to have the mooring on the right, remember you are the skipper and you are responsible for the boat.