Install Midship Cleats and Dock Like a Pro

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.

Before I continue, a bit of legal housekeeping. This post contains affiliate links. That means I receive a small commission if you make a purchase using those links. Those commissions help to pay the costs associated with running this site so that it stays free for everyone to enjoy. For a complete explanation of why I’m telling you this and how you can support this blog without paying more, please read my full disclosure.

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.
DSCN4292
Press a cone of butyl tape around fasteners for a water-tight seal

To install the cleats:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
DSCN4298
Use fender washers or backing plates on the underside for strength. Nylock nuts or split washers with acorn nuts won’t work loose.

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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7 Comments Add yours

  1. Ron says:

    Stingy,

    New to your site as a subscriber, new as a C22 owner (rpludwig on the SBO forum), have read plenty of your posts & threads, most helpful!
    This one is so basic, but so often forgotten by us rookies to sailing. As a former powerboater, docking was a breeze, not so much with a sailboat from my limited experience!

    Midship cleats are a must have and have been on my long to-do list on this C22, it will be a labor of love now thru the winter with a splashdown in the spring.

    Keep up the great work and posts!

    Regards,
    Ron

    1. Thanks for your comment, Ron. And welcome to the light side!

  2. Gary Hoff says:

    Excellent suggestion. Docking a boat in the Columbia River Gorge, where I sail, is no simple task. I learned the hard way with too many nerve-racking docking experiences. As you wisely point out, bow and stern line docking methods don’t always work out.

    This is a great site! You’ve made sailing and owning a C-22 more enjoyable. Keep up the good work.

    1. I used to live near Portland, Gary, so I know what you mean about Columbia. My son still lives there, so I need to take Summer Dance down there sometime. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it happen for the C-22 National Regatta last year.

      Thanks for your comment!

  3. m4n4ger says:

    Another great idea from the Stingy Stable – I’d been using a sorta halfway house to this solution (running the bow and stern lines outside the stanchions to meet at the centre of the boat so one crewmember can hold both then step off onto the pontoon and make off both lines round a cleat or bollard) but this is much safer and easier, especially if the boat is moving faster than it should be! Thanks again!

  4. AaronD says:

    Stingy – now that you’ve used your midship cleats a bit, do you find that they interfere with your sheets, downhaul, or other lines?

    I’ve been planning a similar project for awhile – I found a nice set of sliding cleats on eBay, with the plan to mount them on my jib tracks and remove when not needed. But I found that my jib tracks aren’t a standard width (inboard and outboard tracks are each a bit different, and neither fits), so I’d have to buy and mount a bit of 32mm track to use the sliding cleats. Fixed cleats like yours would sure be easier if they don’t get in the way of all the other lines.

    One other thought for others following your process – these cleats would also be useful for spring lines in a slip. But if you plan to use them in that way (where they might see higher loads from wave action), you might consider adding a solid backing plate. Maybe it’s just my paranoia, but I’m never sure how much to trust the interior fiberglass skin, and Drew Frye’s testing on fender washers was disturbing. When I redid my bow, I used 1/4″ G10 fiberglass board, epoxied to the interior of the hull. Same for the various padeyes and other high-load hardware I’ve added or updated. It’s pretty easy, and they should outlast the boat.

    1. Hi, Aaron

      They haven’t been a nuisance so far. Mounting them below the toerail helps with that. The only issue I’ve experienced with them so far is, I stepped on one and it cracked, being and old, nylon cleat. I’ll probably replace them with aluminum cleats at some point.

      I first thought of mounting them on the genoa tracks like you but I didn’t find any that fit the 15/16″ tracks of our older C-22s and I didn’t want them to be in the way of adjusting my headsail leads.

      Backing them up with plates is the conventional wisdom and it certainly wouldn’t hurt. But after my experience with Summer Dance Badly Damaged in Freak Storm, I’m not worried about cleats pulling out anymore.

      I didn’t describe it in that post, but with all that abuse, the cleats held but the bolts bent and one cleat was twisted. Those cleats don’t have any extra backing plates besides the 1/4″ plywood underneath. With metal plates underneath, you could probably lift the boat by one.

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