The Daunting Dinghy Dock

November 6th, 2020 by team

by B.J. Porter (Contributing Editor) 

While getting there is half the fun of sailing, once you’re there the other half is getting off the boat and seeing the cool place you’ve sailed to. The more popular boating destinations have dinghy docks to encourage boaters to come on shore and see the sights and visit shops and restaurants.

But some places are so crowded the dinghy docks can be a nightmare, with boats stacked two and three deep and no room to get your own dink close enough to get you and your passengers off. And what passes for a dinghy dock in some places is downright dodgy, and if you don’t take some steps to protect your boat, you might end up with a damaged or unusable dinghy.

Whether you’re trying to get off the boat at Block Island to go in for the Fourth of July parade, or tie your dinghy off at a fixed pier with nasty, oyster covered pilings, there are steps you can take to make it safer and more pleasant for everyone.


At the risk of sounding like a scold, many of the problems we’ve seen at crowded docks directly result from inconsiderate boaters. One badly tied dinghy can take up the space of five or six boats who otherwise could have tied up.

Boats with enough room to float away from the dock will space themselves out and make room for more boats. With room, inflatable dinghies can bump and bounce and settle out so many more boats can tie to a dock.

A few guidelines to set your dinghy up and help you at the tie up will go a long way.

  • Have enough painter. Whether you will tie up or chain your dinghy, you want a painter about ten feet long. Too much can be awkward to handle, but will never cause a problem if you can float outside the tighter boats. Shorter than eight feet is too short.
  • Consider a small stern anchor. A tiny anchor to toss off the back of your dinghy is handy in tidal situations, or in places where you don’t want your dinghy to drift under or around hazards.
  • Don’t tie up tight to the dock. Tie the end of your painter to the dock, not the point near your boat. You want your dinghy to float a few feet off the dock to leave room for other boats, and leave space for people to push your boat around to get close to the dock when they come in.
  • Only tie by the bow. Tying the bow and stern of your boat to a dinghy dock will block a big section of dock and prevent other boats from sharing the space. It will not make you popular.
  • Avoid tying over others. Don’t over wrap or tie over other painters if you can avoid it. Others will have to untie you if they want to leave before you, and if you are locking a cable or chain, you may get others stuck at the dock waiting for you. One trick we use with cleats is to tie a bowline through the base of the cleat instead of wrapping another cleat knot over the boats already there.
  • Leave your engine down. Nobody should put their engine up at a dock full of inflatable boats. Engine up boats are usually long-stored, local boats. Transients leave their engines down to make negotiating the packed dock easier for everyone.
  • Learn to tie the best knots. Three simple knots will get you through most tie-up situations – the cleat knot, the clove hitch, and the bowline. A proper cleat knot doesn’t mummify the cleat with line, a clove hitch is quick and easy to tie around posts and bars, and a bowline can connect you to almost anything you can get a line around. With these three, any tie-off will be quick, easy, and seamanlike.
  • Cross boats kindly. In really crowded situations you may not get your boat right next to the dock, and you must cross through other boats to get off and on your own. Take care doing this, so you don’t hurt yourself or someone else’s boat. And don’t leave messes. Finding sand or mud in your dinghy when you haven’t been to the beach will not leave you with kind thoughts.

Tips and Techniques

The first boat coming in to a well maintained dinghy dock has a simple approach and lots of room to tie up. In a crowded place, this rarely happens unless you’re coming in at dawn. And sometimes the docks aren’t so safe-looking. There are ways to make it easier and keep your dinghy from harm.

Bumper boats

Sometimes the only way to get your boat close enough to reach the dock is to just…shove it in there. With inflatable boats, this isn’t likely to cause any damage. But take it slow, instead of forcing your boat in with power and speed, it’s better to drift to the outside boat and grab it. From there, you can pull your boat along the other boats, shoving other dinghies out of the way and navigating the locking puzzle of boats to reach the dock. In the worst-case scenario, take your painter and step through someone else’s boat to reach the dock.

Take extra care bumping boats if there are hard dinghies at the dock. Unlike the rubber inflatables, you can scratch and dent these, and even swamp them. And some may have hard edges you may not want to hit with an inflatable.

Stern anchors

There are a few situations where a stern anchor on your dinghy can save a ton of aggravation. It need not be big and doesn’t need a lot of rode.

If you are tying to a fixed dock in a tidal area, a stern anchor can keep your dinghy from wrapping around pilings or getting trapped under the dock in a rising tide. If possible, set it before you get out of the dinghy, otherwise you can toss it in from the dock and set some tension on it with the painter.

Security – chains, cables, and engine locks

Unfortunately, not everywhere in the world is free of crime and waterfronts have their own share of opportunists. Most cables, chains and locks can be cut…eventually. We use them to keep honest people honest, and to make criminals carry big tools and make a lot of noise if they want to take your dinghy or steal your engine.

Our dinghy has stainless steel chain, though a coated cable can work as well it’s not as tough to cut. We’ve had bad luck with galvanized chains, as they get rusty and can make a mess. We lock our engine with a 316 stainless engine lock, we had a mild steel engine lock and it also rusted out.

Locks in a marine environment don’t have the best lifespan, but bronze bodied locks last longer than steel. We prefer a combination lock on the tie-up end of the dinghy, for two reasons. First, you can drop a key in the water trying to open the lock. The other reason is that anyone from our boat can use the dinghy without worrying about remembering a key. Frequent application WD-40 or Corrosion-X will extend your lock’s life and prevent them from seizing, especially if the locks will sit unused for a while.

Take care when locking or chaining your dinghy to the dock you aren’t locking someone else with you, it’s easy to miss someone’s painter trapped under yours.

2 Responses to “The Daunting Dinghy Dock”

November 13, 2020 at 8:37 pm, Charles Williamson said:

I didn’t see a mention of tying to a piling and ‘dipping the eye’. A useful tip in crowded conditions.
Also, there is a way to drop an anchor off the dock with a line going to the boat. The line can be used to retrieve the boat when you want to leave.
Maybe you could address those in your next article.


May 12, 2022 at 5:07 pm, freelance said:

Good technique, it will definitely get a mention if we do another dinghy dock article.


Leave a Reply to freelance Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *