How to Tie Off a Boat. Cleats, no Cleats, We’ve Got You Covered!

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Without a doubt, the most stressful situations when driving a boat are the docking process and the launch ramp. Maneuvering a boat in a tight docking situation, with $10 million+ other boats around you that can easily be smashed into, when the wind is howling and the waves are rocking. Add in passengers with little docking experience, and ugh.

Stress. City.

The captain needs to be on point with his or her steering skills during the docking process. But the crew needs to quickly and efficiently tie off the boat to ensure that it doesn’t go anywhere it shouldn’t go!

For new boaters and even experienced boaters in new environments, it can be a daunting task to get right.

The tie-off process is a small task, but it’s just one of those things you have to do properly each and every time. The consequences for failure can be dire. It’s not the same as parking a car, that’s for sure!

in this article, we’ll look at how to tie off a boat. We’ll look to cover the two primary ways to tie off your boat, including if you are using cleats or not. We’ll answer some of the most popular questions that people have along the way.

how to tie off a boat


What Happens If You Don’t Dock Properly?

Several years ago, I can remember one particularly windy day in fall, we were walking down the dock toward our boat. A few slips down from us was a Sea Ray, probably 50′, maybe a half-million-dollar boat. They were moving into position to dock, and it was a particularly nasty day. The captain was reasonably experienced (he had been at the Yacht Club for a few years, anyway), but the rest of the crew wasn’t. There was some clear confusion over docking, and we began racing down to grab their lines. The crew didn’t know how to get the boat under control.

They managed to get the boat under control… after the bow pulpit was smashed against a piling.

At least it wasn’t another boat.

From that time on, I’ve been very aware of the importance of basic docking skills. It’s easy to get out of practice with this stuff if you don’t boat very often, and it’s a good idea to have a refresher before you get onto the boat!

Docking a Boat

The process of docking your boat begins when the dock is in sight. The first rule of thumb to follow is this: don’t approach the dock faster than you’re okay with hitting it. The ideal situation is to never hit the dock at all. But sometimes factors influence the positioning of the boat, which is why it’s important to be prepared.

These factors can range from weather conditions, angle, judgment, and visibility, among other things. It won’t always be calm and clear when you approach the dock — even if you start the day out with clear skies. This is why it’s best to give yourself room for error in order to avoid damaging both the boat and the dock.

Fig. 1: What Not To Smash Into.

Being well prepared as well as maneuvering the boat in slowly and steadily, while being aware of all surroundings, can help you get the first step done safely. It is much better than heading in too fast and relying on a last-second-reverse to steady things. Being attentive each time, combined with practice, will make this part come naturally.

What is easier to overlook, however, especially with people new to boating, is how much damage can be done by not properly securing a boat upon the approach to the dock, and by not fullying tying off the boat at the slip.

Lack of care here means in the worst-case scenario, it could sneak away completely, resulting in possible collisions with other boats or even more damage. And you don’t want t obe that person who has to go retrieve the stranded, damaged boat!

What is more likely, though, is that the boat will become scratched from the dock, even in the face of bumpers and other precautionary measures.

With that in mind, let’s talk about the different ways you can properly dock your boat to avoid these common issues. When you’re tying up, there’s primarily two ways to do so, which depend on whether or not there are cleats available on the dock (and your boat). Let’s talk about both.

But before we get into the details of how to secure your boat, you should ensure that your boat and crew are equipped with the basics of boat docking safety.

Ensure Your Crew and Boat are Properly Equipped

Have a couple of boat hooks on hand, at least. The telescoping ones collapse into a small package and are crucial to safe boat handling while docking in rough seas. They’re incredibly versatile, and you absolutely need at least two on any boat of any significant size. Don’t mess around here!

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And don’t forget the fenders. We assume you already have them, but if you don’t, be sure to have plenty of fenders available to prevent catastrophe.

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How to Tie Off A Boat with Cleats

Boat Cleats and Girl
Gorgeous Cleats.

Tying off your boat using cleats is the most common way to do it. Cleats are t-shaped, usually made of metal, and typically are found on the sides of your boat and on the dock itself.

1. Position Your Boat Next to the Dock

The first step to tying off your boat is to get it in position. Move in slowly until you are lined up parallel to the dock. Move at a slow pace and you may even turn off the engine at this point. Make sure you aren’t moving in so fast that you need to rely on a quick reverse to get yourself out of a bad situation.

2. Ensure Both Your Boat and the Dock You Are Using Have Cleats

To tie off your boat with cleats will require that your boat – and the dock – have cleats. Double-check on the dock since you probably know if your boat has them or not. If not, and you are looking to fit either, pick some up. They’re easy to install.

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3. Next, Ready Your Dock Line

Ensure it is in good shape and not too worn. You typically want at least double-braided nylon dock line for boat tie-off. Ensure you have enough of it, and ensure that your lines are in good shape before you leave.

Keep in mind that nylon gets about 10% weaker when it gets wet.

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4. Begin to Tie a Cleat Hitch Knot for Both the Stern and the Bow

Boat Cleat

Using the dock line, begin to tie a cleat hitch knot to attach the cleats from your boat to the dock. What we’re doing here is creating four points of attachment for the boat: two at the bow and two at the stern.

These four points are: the bow line, bow spring line, stern line, and stern spring line.

The bow and stern lines are attached from the side opposite of the dock. These typically attach to dock cleats that are longer than the boat itself or at least parallel.

On the contrary, the spring lines will attach the cleats that are closest to the dock and will lead inward.

What this looks like is that the bow spring line will attach the side of the bow closest to the dock to a cleat on the dock that is next to the boat’s breast. While it starts at the bow of the boat, the dock cleat it ends up at will be near the middle of the boat. The same goes for the stern spring line, where it will also lead to the middle of the dock.

Using this method, your boat will be tied to the dock with four separate ropes, two at the front and two at the back. You do not need to tie the middle of the side of your boat to the dock, although it is optional and won’t hurt. However, you cannot rely on that alone as it will create rocking when people get in and out of the boat and won’t create a secure hold.

How to Tie Off A Boat Without Cleats

Every so often, you might be faced with a dock that doesn’t have cleats – such as a gas station on a lake, or an unfamiliar dock.

While not the norm, it can be handy to know how to tie off your boat at one of these without running into any problems. You might also come across a boat that doesn’t have cleats, like many jon boats. This will also come in handy in these situations as well.

1. Position Your Boat Next to the Dock

Just like if you have cleats, this is still the first step. Be sure to follow all of the same precautions and move in slowly and steadily.

2. Look for the Pilings

Instead of tying to the cleats, we’ll instead be tying to the dock pilings. With that said, we’re taking a similar approach – tying from the bow and the stern, rather than the side of the boat.

3. Prepare a Clove Hitch Knot

Rather than using a cleat hitch knot, you’ll want to use a clove hitch knot instead. In addition to the clove hitch knot, you may want to double up with a safety knot, which is definitely recommended.

Ensure that both the stern and bow are tied to the dock and then you are good to go!

So remember: look for cleats first and use the cleat hitch knot if so. If not, then pilings are your best friend and can be used to tie off your boat using clove hitch knots.

Frequently Asked Boat Docking Questions

How do I tie a cleat hitch knot?

The linked diagrams above are helpful, but you can get them down very quickly by watching a quick video. The following two provide excellent examples:

How do I tie a clove hitch knot for a piling when there are no cleats available?

If there is no marina available, a clove hitch knot is the best way to tie your boat to a piling. Again, a video is the best way to see for yourself exactly how to do it. Consider the following example:


Properly tying off your boat should be a simple and matter-of-fact process that you undergo each time you take out your boat. It is of paramount importance to use the right knot whether you have cleats or pilings available.

Remember: if there are cleats, use a cleat hitch knot. If there are pilings, use a clove hitch knot. Don’t tie the sides of the boat to the dock, but rather the bow and the stern, with two lines going from each.

As long as you follow these simple steps, you’ll ensure that your boat is secure and safe to board and disembark, allowing for a fun and enjoyable time whether you’re out for a leisurely day on the lake with your family or fishing with an old friend.

And if you’re the captain, ensure all the people on board who will be participating in the docking process know how to tie these knots, and know how to use boat hooks and fenders.

Happy boating!

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