Isaac Newton was one smart cookie. He figured out hundreds of years ago what boaters have to perfect when coming in for the day—a body in motion (your boat) tends to stay in motion until interrupted with an equal and opposite reaction (the dock).
Docking a boat is like trying to parallel park a Buick that is affected by wind—check that, a slight breeze. In a car at a low speed, you can stop pretty quickly once you hit the brakes; in a boat, you coast. There’s little friction to stop you in place. And unless you put the throttle in reverse, you keep moving…and moving…until you strike the dock. We don’t like it when our boats get dings either, so we’ve got some suggestions for you to make the most out of docking your boat.
Because pontoon boats are generally more affected by wind than mono-hull boats, it’ll take a little more work to dock a pontoon boat than a deck boat. If you’re a first-timer, call on one of your experienced PDB Forum friends who lives near you to come over one day and show you in person. You’ll be able to capitalize on that person’s mistakes and actually see how it needs to be done, because after all, docking a boat is like riding a bike—merely reading all about it won’t make you an expert.
You gotta practice it in order to truly learn.
Before heading out from the dock, make sure your passengers understand you’ll need to enlist their help when coming back in. Be specific in the directions you give to your crewmen, as they may not understand the words “starboard” or “port.”
When the day is over and it’s time to come back in, you can minimize damage to your boat by putting out a good set of two or three large bumper/fenders. While your crew is picking up after themselves as you’re casually making your way through the no-wake zone, have someone put out the fenders. Of course, make sure the fenders are on the side you’re going to drift as you pull up to the dock.
To make life simpler, whenever possible, come in at an angle. Once the boat is at an angle, aim for a certain spot on the dock straight ahead until you bring the boat in close to the dock. You’ll want to make sure you don’t come in any faster than you want to hit the dock. Use the slowest speed available—once you’re in neutral, give the throttle the slightest bump forward into gear. Coast if you need to, but remember that your ability to steer will be at a minimum—there’s either no discharge current from the propeller to amplify the effect of the rudder, or most of the steering simply vanishes when the transmission is in neutral. If you coast, bump it back into gear every so often to steer the boat back onto course, then coast a little more. The problem is, the best way to turn is with power, but the best way to execute a sharp turn is with the lowest amount of power possible to minimize skidding. If the boat is getting away from you while in gear, open the throttle for a couple minutes until you regain control. The more you practice, the more you’ll get a feel for when you need to coast and when you need a little more control.
As you approach the dock begin your turn. Just like in Newton’s First Law, because you’re in motion, you’ll keep your momentum. At the helm, you’ll need to figure out at just what point to turn, how long and how sharp. You’ll get a feeling for when that is the more you practice. Then decelerate by putting the gear into reverse, giving it a brief, firm pulse of power, with the wheel turned so as to not strike the dock with all your momentum. For extra help, ask one of your passengers—preferably one who can secure the boat to a dock cleat—to assist at the bow by softening the “landing” at the point of impact by grabbing the dock, a cleat or the hand of a person who’s there on the dock ready to help.
Lastly, don’t get discouraged. If you had given up on riding a bike the first time you fell, you never would’ve known the freedom from riding all over the neighborhood as a kid. The best way to become a pro at docking is not just practice. You can practice all you want, but failing to improve on your missteps is what’ll keep you falling down. Perfect practice makes perfect—until that repetition will teach you what words on a page would fail to.