The Seattle and Miami shows may be over, and Palm Beach is still on the horizon, but it is a good time to think about the many boat buyers who are shopping for their next boat. With what seems miles of docks of lovely yachts, lined up and showing their very best, it is the magic of the new year boat show season. These events are the only chance to see and compare boats and accessories all in one place. I often tell people to make the effort to attend at least one boat show in Ft. Lauderdale or Miami. They are quite an experience, and great fun.

I doubt many people walking the docks think much about how easy or difficult it is to step on and off the boats they want to check out. Dealer staff go to great lengths to ease the boarding process, sometimes with carpeted step stools to help show attendees step down onto a boat’s swim platform. The added presence of a dealer/manufacturer booth requires they arrange boats a certain way to channel people to get aboard a boat from the booth after checking in. It is common practice for dealer staff to station themselves on the swim platform to assist unsteady or older people with getting aboard.

Other boats in the show are either bow in to the dock, or side tied for access from the show docks. How one gets aboard really has a lot to do with the layout of the show, and how boats fit together like a jigsaw puzzle to maximize the number of yachts put into the show space. It is always important to the show organizers to make sure the docks seem as full as possible. That explains why boats are bow in, stern in, or tied alongside available dock space. There is no universally accepted best practice for putting a boat in a boat show.

crowded boat show

Apparently this seems also the case for homeowners and their driveways. I’ve noticed something odd since we moved to a townhouse. I don’t think I ever noticed it before.

When people pull into their driveways, a great many of them (maybe half) take the time to back their cars into the driveway. For whatever reason, it is pretty common around here. Drive into any parking lot, and a surprising number of cars are backed into parking places.

I wonder what that is all about, and if there a valid reason for this?

It reminds me of a rendezvous we once hosted for a group of sister ships to our Downeast cruiser, a 36-foot lobster boat outfitted as a cruising boat by Zimmerman Marine of Mathews, Virginia. The owner of one Z36 insisted he had to back into the crowded spaces of our T-shaped dock, which I had previously determined would allow nine boats to be secured for the weekend.

He told me he once drove a truck, and learned a long time ago to always back into a space, whether it is a parking lot, a boat slip, or a driveway at home. He felt he could get under way quickly if needed, although I never could understand what calamity he could imagine to make a quick getaway so important as to be always ready to launch an escape by boat.

All this has me thinking about the variety of ways we “connect” our boats to land, whether at our home dock, in a marina, or at a boat show.

Walk around any marina and you’ll see boats, sail and power, docked bow into the slip, or backed in with the stern in first. There may also be some form of finger pier that stretches out some distance along the side of the boat to provide additional access.

(Below: If you're cruising The Great Loop, you may end up needing to dock your boat in a variety of places and ways.)

side docking on the great loop 

There are any number of reasons why it might make sense to park one’s boat one way or the other. In some cases, it is simply a rule set down by the facility, mandating that all boats be bow in or stern in to each slip. For the majority of other situations, it is done for practical reasons, or habit.

Powerboats traditionally dock stern in. This brings all shorepower connections, normally located in the aft cockpit, closest to the shoreside power pedestal. For boats with outboard engines, being stern in also makes it easier to flush the engines from hoses on shore.

(Many newer motoryachts and trawlers come with the added convenience of shorepower connections at both ends of the boat, making the docking decision unrelated to proximity to shoreside power. Or, as was the case on our power catamaran, the boat’s shorepower connection was midships on the port side, making it an easy proposition either way.)

Many sailboats also dock stern in, and if there is a finger pier, it probably only extends out far enough to allow crew to step over the lifelines and move bags and gear on and off the boat. Side lifeline gates make this easier.

Having the cockpit close to the dock or bulkhead opens up the chance for social interaction with people on the docks, either crew from another boat or people strolling along looking at boats. It is very easy to strike up a conversation with people who pass by only a few feet away.

Of course, anyone sitting in the cockpit can decide whether to engage people walking by, as there is no obligation to do so. On a nice afternoon, it is sometimes just so pleasant to sit in the cockpit and read a book. And on every sailboat I have ever owned, whatever work I have to do on the boat was best done in the cockpit, where I could spread out my tools to take something apart, or solder a broken connection, or whatever. I didn’t always feel the need to talk to anyone walking by if I was deep into my work. On the other hand, it can be great fun when someone walking by says something silly, just to be friendly and hoping to talk, because they are intrigued that I am here on my own boat and they just flew in on vacation for a brief break from their winter doldrums.

To further recommend the social aspects of this, on many trawlers and other powerboats, being stern in opens up the world to spend time with other people and enjoy a quiet evening in the best seats in the house. That is certainly true on Krogen trawlers that tend to have social hour each afternoon in the cozy space of the covered aft cockpit. But again it is not universal.

(Below: Docking stern in can meet making new friends as people walk along the docks.)

docking with stern in

To offset these positive aspects, this friendly social access comes along with a lack of privacy. It is easy for others to see into the saloon through screen doors and view owners having dinner. On those designs where the layout puts all living on one level, people walking by may even see all the way forward into the master stateroom. For privacy reasons alone, I never assume a stern-in approach is the preferred way to sit in a slip.

Bow in also has advantages, especially in terms of the above privacy. But there is another reason. In some locations, cocktails in the aft cockpit offers the best view when your stern faces the sunset, which may be when the bow is toward the dock. Having drinks and snacks with friends can be the most fitting way to end the day, watching the sunset from the security of one’s cockpit. One Florida marina comes to mind in Marathon, where the transom faced the open water and sunset provided the best seats to witness the elusive Green Flash.

Powerboats and trawlers without an aft cockpit as those similar to the layout of the Grand Banks Classic, or motoryachts that move social activities up to the flybridge. Sailboats with a center cockpit also don’t have these social opportunities, as most socializing will occur elsewhere.

There are other concerns to think about. One Downeast cruiser was left in the Abacos bow in to the slip while the owners flew home. A storm came up and the waves came into the marina and splashed against the boat’s stern. As the storm intensified, the waves eventually overcame the cockpit drains and the boat settled into the water, sinking in the slip. (It was soon raised again and a very expensive refit followed.)

Another downside of boats bow in, especially when the size of the sailboat is somewhat larger than the slip space, is an anchor and bowsprit sticking out into the walkway on the dock. At night this can even be dangerous, as an anchor sticking out from the bow may be at eye level, given the state of the tide. When one finds anchors and sprits on both sides of a dock, it makes for treacherous walking along at night. In extreme cases, I’ve seen people need to walk single file as in a conga line.

sailboat with bow first  

As we noticed when following the Great Loop adventures of Sidonia and Fred on their Nimbus 405 Coupe, being alongside a bulkhead can be an ideal way to tie up one’s boat, especially as this Nimbus model has an opening door from the side deck to allow one to easily step ashore and then back aboard. Sailboats also usually have side gates in their lifelines along the side decks to make for easy access on and off the boat amidships when alongside a bulkhead or finger pier. It often depends entirely on the tide or height of the fixed dock or bulkhead whether this side access is easy to use or not.

Unfortunately, this side access is only good if the dock is near the same level as the side door. When coming back to a Fleming 55, making the step down through the side door from the dock towering above was downright unsafe. The distance between boat and dock, complicated with a big fender separating the two, and the low level of the tide, put the distance from the bulkhead to the step way too low and far away. With nothing within reach to grab for assistance to swing down to the boat, I questioned why there weren’t other options for getting aboard such an expensive yacht.

To add to the above situation, I recall coming back to our big trawler yacht when we visited Halifax, Nova Scotia. Much like Alaska, Nova Scotia is known for extreme tides. Just because one can easily step off the boat onto the bulkhead alongside (we were side tied inside the municipal marina), there is no guarantee it will be just as easy when you return to the boat after dinner. We had to climb onto the Portuguese bridge when we returned hours later.

One concern with being tied along a bulkhead is that it generally offers far less security. Depending where you are, unless the area is patrolled and well lit, you should have some provision for lighting up the exterior of the boat. Left in the dark, or the glow from a distant street light, there is nothing to stop vandals or thieves, or even a couple of drunks, from climbing aboard. Deck shoes, towels, clothing, binoculars, books, or anything of value left on the cabin top or in the cockpit may disappear during the night.

This is particularly an issue when tied up in an unsecured location, such as along the bulkhead of a municipal marina or along a touristy downtown “free” dock. I don’t mean to scare anyone by pointing this out, but it is part of cruising. More than one owner has found empty bottles, cups, and food wrappers thrown about his boat the next morning. Sleeping through it only makes it more creepy in my mind.

These security issues are an outstanding reason to cruise with a dog. I guarantee that any dog will have zero tolerance for a couple of drunks or amorous teens sneaking aboard for some private snuggle time on your boat. A dog is a fabulous cruising shipmate, well worth the extra effort.

Forget tradition, and classic yachts. The days of the towering Hatteras motoryacht, requiring owners to carry a large step ladder to get on and off the boat are hopefully over. Owners should expect boat builders to understand the boarding parameters of their boats and make provision so owners are not forced to lug around heavy and unwieldy ladders and ramps that are difficult to store.

Of course, things could get even more complicated, such as arriving in Europe after crossing the Atlantic, and needing to accommodate a Med Moor style of docking. A boat puts out a bow anchor and then backs in near a sea wall, where they are tied up, stern to. The trawlers on the Nordhavn Atlantic Rally arrived in Gibraltar and each yacht had to come up with a passerelle of some kind to allow crew to step off the stern of the boat and walk up their makeshift ramp over a rocky sea wall and onto the shore. Most American yachts are not set up for this kind of mooring, yet it is common when cruising Europe.

nordhavn yacht with passerrelle

Keep these points in mind when at the shows and shopping for your next boat, whether the new boat will live mostly at your local marina or you will deal with the available options when cruising. I hope you make it a priority during your boat shopping. Ensuring there are multiple ways to safely get on and off the boat should be high on your list of make-it-or-break-it requirements. This is even more important if one or both of you have physical difficulties or lack flexibility.

So, enjoy walking among the field of fiberglass and stainless steel at your next boat show. Unless, of course, you are one of the lucky few who only live on a mooring or at anchor, where none of this is particularly relevant.

Then, getting in and out of your dinghy will be way more important.


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