The Truth About Docking

Recently, we’ve been thinking a lot about docking! We’ve come to realize that most of our sailing stress, and we think that of many others, is when it comes time to dock. We’ve already become collectors of docking stories in our first couple of months of sailing. From us getting bumped into, to watching a dramatic bumper car docking accident and then us having a pretty hard landing on a gusty day. No one seems to be immune to the occasional embarrassing docking experience.

All of this made us wonder…how did sailing vessels during the Age of Sail navigate tricky passages and narrow dockyards, when the only power they had at their disposal was the wind and their own strength?

How’d they do this in the Age of Sail??

Essentially, ship’s captains had a smorgasbord of options to get in and out of harbours and dockyards. This included warping their vessel into a tricky harbour, which could be accomplished either by using pre-set pilings or the onboard kedge anchor.

Warping was a very innovative way of moving around a port. Basically, large posts along a harbour, or in the mud along dredged channels, would be used as fixed points that the ship would use to come and go. Using ship’s boats, lines would be slung around these pilings and then hauled on by the crew using the ship’s capstan (the main winch), bringing the ship towards that post. This action being repeated until the ship was safely at its destination.

Kedge anchors could also accomplish a similar maneuver. A ship’s boat would be launched with this small anchor and at various deliberate intervals, the anchor would be dropped, allowing the ship’s crew to use the capstan to haul on the line, affectively moving the ship forward. Once over the dropped anchor, it would be raised and the process repeated until the ship reached its desired destination.

These techniques were like an intricate game of leapfrog and could also be used if a sailing vessel was against the wind or current, had run aground or if they were trying to get out from a dead calm. But both of these techniques required a practiced crew, relying on strategically placed winches and lines (which, after all of the sailing experience we’ve had this summer, we have learned is critical and takes experience and practice, just on our little 33ft sailboat!).

Alternatively, ships could also be towed by ship’s boats or other sailing vessels, and even horses if the channel was narrow enough! But these are all very mechanical, cumbersome examples of how these large ships could come and go.

Amazingly, there were even more inventive ways of getting ships in and out of these tricky spaces. During this period, ship camels were invented, which were essentially specially made floats that sat just along the waterline of sailing vessels. These being, perhaps, very early iterations of our modern cargo ship’s use of water ballast.

Just as today, when they weren’t in use, the floats were full of water, but when a ship needed to get into shallow harbours, the floats could be pumped dry, raising the ship until it drew a fathom or so of water (or around 6 feet). Which is quite impressive considering our 33-foot sailboat draws 4.6ft. Just consider an enormous Age of Sail ship, drawing only a little more than us, that is pretty remarkable.

With these various techniques, as well as simply sailing in, sailing vessels could maneuver into the harbour. But now they had to make sure the ship stayed put while the crew went about their business. And for this there were also options…depending on the purpose of the visit…

Just like today, protected mooring areas were available, where these ships could anchor and then use ship’s boats to come and go from the hubbub of the town and port. Alternatively, depending on the size of the dock and the ship, they could also tie up alongside the dock and use the breeze and tide to take them to and from.

When does docking get easier?

This required a huge amount of experience reading the wind and current, which continues to be incredibly important, even today. And this became so apparent to us after we had our difficult docking experience. The wind was not in our favour and even though we weren’t using sails to take us in, the wind direction really controlled the whole situation, making it difficult for us to keep the boat in the direction we needed it to go!

But now we really better understand the incredible skill it took and takes to dock using sails. Between handling the ship, the teamwork of the crew, the leadership of the captain and the knowledge of the wind and current, docking during the Age of Sail was no easy feat.

What is probably the most interesting thing about these various maneuvers we’ve described, is that despite and with the help of our modern technology, many of these techniques are utilized today for ships of all sizes! We just have the luxury of engines, which despite our recent troubles, really do make our lives a lot easier. And we know with a lot more practice, docking will become much less of a blood pressure raiser. But, until then…we concentrate…


Harland, John & Mark Myers. (1985) Seamanship in the Age of Sail: An Account of the Shiphandling of the Sailing Man-of-War, 1600-1860, Based on Contemporary Sources.

Luce, S.B. (1891) Textbook of Seamanship: The Equipping and Handling of Vessels Under Sail or Steam. Textbook of Seamanship | Historic Naval Ships Association (

Platt, Richard. (1993) Stephen Biesty’s Cross-Sections: Man-of-War

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