Master the Art of Backing and Filling

Captain John of shares his docking a boat secrets on backing and filling.

Learn to dock a boat smooth and easy once you how to twist–or pivot–your small sailboat inside a tight space. Know this and you will be able to turn around, back into a slip, or change direction within the length of your boat. Use these easy steps to master this boat handling technique.

Pivot Your Boat with Rudder and Engine

Use backing and filling to turn your small sailboat in a distance almost equal to her length. Practice this in an open space before you try it in a narrow, confined area like a canal, marina, or tight channel.

Seven Steps to Back and Fill Success

1. Attach a 10 foot length of light line to a fender, life jacket, life ring, or plastic milk-jug. Weight the end of the line with a heavy shackle; enough to keep the object in place, but not enough to cause it to sink.

2. Find an open area clear of boat traffic and outside of a channel. This will prevent another boat from running over your float. Pick a calm day to practice with light wind and slack (or no) current. Drop your float into the water.

3. Steer your boat to a position about three boat lengths away from your float. Align your boat so that the object lies off your beam. Your objective will be to pivot your boat while you keep the float in the same relative position.

4. Pivot to the right. Turn your wheel hard (to the stops) to the right or hold your tiller hard to the left. Give a short burst of ahead propulsion of about one second (count one-hippopotamus or one-thousand-and-one).

5. Put the engine into neutral for 1/2 second. Then shift right away into reverse propulsion for one second. Continue this sequence. Keep an eye on your float once in a while. Increase of decrease astern propulsion time by no more than one second as needed to maintain station. Continue backing and filling until you have completed a 360° circle.

6. Pivot to the left. Turn you wheel hard to the left or hold your tiller hard to the right. Follow the engine sequences outlined above. Continue backing and filling until you have completed a 360° circle.

7. Practice backing and filling in breezier conditions. Start from a position with the bow or stern pointed into the wind. That way, you will have the most control when you begin and end your pivot.

Stay One-Step Ahead in Narrow Quarters

Follow these easy safety tips when you enter any marina. That way, if you need to turn around, you will be ready in a pinch.

Set up to Pivot the the Right.
Most small sailboats come with right handed propellers. This means your propeller rotates (walks the stern) to the left in reverse. Take advantage of this and back and fill to the right if possible. That way, each time you reverse in the maneuver, your stern will “walk” to the left. This will help you get around faster.

Favor the Windward Side.
Slow down or stop a boat, and you will blow downwind. And that applies when you pivot your boat. Stay on the upwind side of a channel or canal if possible to allow for this and give you more room for tight maneuvers.

Ready a Stern Anchor.
You will have your hands full in the cockpit. Rig a small, throwable anchor with a strong, light line. Attach the bitter end to a stern cleat. In case of emergency (i.e. loss of engine), toss the anchor over the stern to slow to a crawl or stop your boat. Attach the bitter end, pass the anchor and line over the stern pulpit or rail and coil it near the helm.

Avoid the temptation to ease the rudder–or shift your rudder–when backing and filling.
Hold the wheel or tiller hard over to one side throughout the maneuver for best results.

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