What’s the sailing maneuver you’re worst at? If it’s not tacking and gybing, it’s probably docking, especially if you sail single-handed or short-handed. Sailboats aren’t very maneuverable in tight spaces. If you don’t do it frequently enough to get good at it, it’s sort of a semi-controlled crash landing. You can make the process a lot easier, safer, and more predictable with this easy, cheap upgrade.
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Few trailerable sailboats come from the factory with midship mooring cleats installed. Your sailboat undoubtedly has cleats installed at the bow and at the stern. They work great for tying off to a dock, mooring ball, or anchor, but they aren’t as much help when it’s time to bring your sailboat to a stop dockside before you tie up. That’s where midship cleats come in.
Midship cleats are just that, cleats located amidships—halfway along the hull between the bow cleats and the stern cleats. They can make docking easier because together with a spring line, they let you bring the boat to a gentle, controlled stop without getting out of the cockpit.
No more crash landings
If you tie one end of a spring line to a midship cleat, tie a loop in the other end, and slip that loop over a cleat at the end of a dock finger as you pass by it while returning to your slip, the line can “catch” your boat like a jet fighter landing on an aircraft carrier only much, much slower.
A spring line tied to a bow cleat won’t work; it will pull the bow sharply toward the dock. A spring line tied to a stern cleat won’t work unless its a very long dock. With a midship cleat, there’s no more need for crew to jump to the dock and frantically try to stop the boat before it hits the end of the slip. No more crash landings.
Adding midship cleats is an easy job that you can do in about an hour. You’ll need:
- Two cleats similar to those already on your sailboat. I purchased a used pair on eBay for under $10.
- Stainless steel fasteners. Use machine screws that are long enough to fasten with nuts on the underside of the deck. Don’t use wood screws.
- Butyl tape to seal the holes in the deck.
To install the cleats:
- Mark the location of the center of the cleats on each side deck. Position them inboard of the toe rails at the midpoint of the sailboat’s length at water line (LWL). Don’t use the boat’s length overall (LOA) because that’s not the length that is affected by the hull passing through the water and the midship cleat won’t be as balanced. An easy way to do this is to measure at the top edge of the bottom paint. Mark the point half the distance from either end and then use a plumb bob or a large framing square to project that point up to the deck.
- Place a cleat over the center mark and mark the locations of the mounting holes. Try not to place it where it will be a tripping hazard but leave enough space between the cleat and the toe rail to tie a spring line to the cleat.
3. Drill holes through the deck that are just large enough for the screws. Use a DIY Drill Guide for Accurate Holes. Be sure you don’t drill into any wiring in the deck/hull joint and that there will be space on the underside for the washers and nuts. To find out how to install LED strip lighting like in the picture above, see Brighten up Your Cabin with LED Strip Lighting.
4. For maximum strength and water resistance, pot the holes with epoxy (optional but recommended).
5. Insert the machine screws through the new cleats, press a cone of butyl tape around the screws where they come out the bottom of the cleats, and press the cleats firmly into the deck.
6. Have a helper hold the screw heads with a screwdriver topside while you complete the job from underneath. Use fender washers or backing plates to spread the stress and nylock nuts or lock washers with acorn nuts.
7. Dedicate one spring line (or one for each side, port and starboard) for exclusive use with your deck cleats. Tie a large loop in one end with a bowline knot so that when you tie the other end to a midship cleat and pull the line straight aft, the end of the loop can reach the stern mooring cleat on the same side of the sailboat. A large loop gives you a big lasso to work with and reduces the chance of you missing the dock cleat.
8. When the butyl tape has finished squeezing out after 24 hours, retighten the nuts.
Not a one-trick pony
Using your new midship cleats is like playing cowboy. There are two tricks.
The first trick is to successfully lasso the first dock cleat that you come to every time. If you miss, you could crash land like before. Approach the slip as slowly as possibly while maintaining steerage and use your boat hook to help you reach out and slip the loop over the cleat. You don’t need to tighten the loop around the cleat.
The second trick is to turn your outboard motor’s tiller quickly and fully toward the dock just before the spring line comes tight. Keep your motor in gear and idling. This will minimize the spring line from turning the bow of the boat toward the dock. It also pushes the stern toward the dock for a soft, two-point landing on the fenders that you should have already deployed as usual.
The whole process is easier to demonstrate than it is to describe, so here’s a quick video to show you how. I purposely made this video show a less than perfect landing because that’s how you’ll do it the first few times you try it and it demonstrates how forgiving this docking technique is. As long as you follow the two steps above, you’ll wind up stopped and parallel to the dock.
After you land safely, straighten the outboard tiller and leave the motor running. The thrust of the motor will hold the boat stationary in the slip as long as you need for your crew or guests to step out of the boat or until you can tie it off with your bow and stern lines, then stop the motor. Depending on where your motor is mounted, centered or off to one side, you may need to angle the outboard tiller slightly to hold the boat parallel to the dock.
Like all maneuvers, practice makes perfect. After you’ve done this maneuver a few times, you should be able to make perfect, two-point landings nearly every time. Then go practice your tacking and gybing.
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