Arriving in unfamiliar harbours is part of the excitement of cruising, but it can be stressful without careful preparation, says Harry Dekkers

Discovering the unknown and finding places you have never been to before is one of the greatest appeals of sailing beyond our home waters. Entering unfamiliar harbours can, however, be difficult and stressful, with plenty of scope for getting things wrong.

It’s never going to be possible to make arriving in a new port entirely predictable and straightforward, but solid preparation can reduce these challenges and make arrival the exciting and satisfying experience it should be.

Whether the harbour you are sailing into is tricky or not, there are a few things that need to be considered when preparing, including your boat’s characteristics, the crew’s level of experience and your knowledge as skipper.

Even as a young boy sailing dinghies on inshore waters, coming back in to land was one of the hardest parts about sailing, and sometimes ended with a mis-timed dunking as I jumped into deeper-than-expected water to hold the boat.

Over the years the boats became bigger and the waters more open and further away. I took all kinds of courses, read many magazines and books and watched videos online to build up my experience and knowledge. Much of this ‘going further’ was done single-handed, or with relatively inexperienced crew. In the absence of a well-drilled crew, my own skills were put under the spotlight and made me develop. While the results weren’t always tidy, it helped me gain confidence, and hopefully some ability, fairly quickly.

So the first element is your own and your crew’s knowledge and experience. Preparing to enter an unfamiliar harbour requires you to be more ready than you would be in a port you know well, and it is therefore sound advice to say you should proceed as if you were single-handed. Not because you can’t rely on your crew, but because you need to factor in larger safety margins and better forward thinking than normal.

Arriving in and discovering new places is one of the chief joys of cruising. Photo: Harry Dekkers

Share the planning with crew

Assuming however you are sailing most of the time with crew, it is vital that this thinking and planning is a shared process, so everyone feels they have a role, but it must also culminate in a solid briefing. There’s no point keeping it all to yourself, then shouting instructions at the last minute. A good briefing will help avoid expensive mistakes; it will also motivate and involve your crew, helping them to know what is going to happen, and equipping them to take action and cover for your mistakes as and when you make them.

Secondly, the vessel you are sailing can make your entry both easier or more challenging, depending on how well equipped and set up it is. For this reason, the chances are that approaching a harbour on a charter is going to involve a boat you’re less familiar with, in an area you don’t know, with crew who may be a bit rusty! As far as possible, take plenty of time to get to know the boat and to check its equipment, including the rigging and the engine.

A simple but potential catastrophic example is the anchor gear. I have encountered too many yachts where the anchor gear was not ready to be deployed. You may think of it as your last resort to avoid stranding.

Your anchor needs to be ready to go at a moment’s notice with the windlass on standby. Photo: Theo Stocker

But, from experience I can tell you that when a near-stranding does happen, you’ll be extremely grateful that this ‘last resort’ worked as it should. On your own boat you’re aquainted with every piece of equipment and, hopefully, every hidden corner, and ideally you’ll be on top of any maintenance or problems. Even so, fouled propellers, steering issues and jammed halyards can all still happen out of the blue.

Thirdly, it is the preparation of the actual trip and the approach of the harbour itself. As part of your preparation, you will have chosen a date and time at which to arrive and therefore to depart – it’s important you work this way round in your planning.

Research & planning

Your pilotage plan will include the track you want to sail, the safe-to-navigate waters and the surrounding unsafe or shallow waters, local regulations, buoys, shore markings, and other static information. To do this you should use information from pilots, almanacs, and charts, and spend time thoroughly reading this well before arrival, noting down any key information.

Time spent reading almanacs, pilot books and charts is never wasted. Photo: Harry Dekkers

Static information

As an example, I’ll use the port of Scheveningen in the Netherlands as an example. It’s a relatively straight-forward harbour, but not without its challenges, and we’ll tackle it in stages. Looking at Reeds Almanac, you will find a specific traffic signal, that a VHF call is mandatory, that entrance with north-westerly winds of Force 6 or more is dangerous, and how narrow the entrances between the breakwaters and into the First and Second Havens actually are. While you’re there, you could actually measure these for an indication.

All this essential information can only be gathered with thorough reading, for which you will not have time once on approach. And when you are reading, do not only read the paragraph for the specific harbour you are interested in but also the beginning of the chapter and even the beginning of the pilot or almanac.

Unless you are familiar with the area, these parts provide useful general information on the area you will be sailing. Whether you do your ‘reading’ on paper or digitally is up to you. My personal preference is to use paper (both books and charts) for preparation, planning and making notes, and use a digital plotter plus the ship’s log during the pilotage.

Harbour authorities should be able to tell you in advance about planned shipping movements. Photo: Harry Dekkers

Dynamic conditions

What I’ve mentioned so far is ‘static’ information. You then need to add in the ‘dynamic’ information like tidal streams and sea state. The weather has to be taken into account, and it is a good idea to check weather sites for some days in advance to follow the weather systems. Your planning needs to allow for how these conditions will change if you arrive early or late.

Once you collected all the info you will be able to set up a primary plan on where to go and when to arrive. But what if you arrive too late due to an unfavourable wind in contrast to the predictions? Or if one of your crew members becomes seasick and you decide to enter the closest possible harbour? Or if you arrive and the harbour is closed due to construction or an event? It’s also common for harbours to be closed for one or two hours due to commercial ship movements.

In these situations, it might be necessary to have a ‘fall back’ scenario including alternative harbours, anchorages, tidal stream and height data. You might dislike this, and most of the time you won’t need the information, but looking for an alternative while sailing in strong winds close to a lee shore with a lot of commercial shipping is not my preferred way of sailing and relaxing.

Start your engine in open water and engage gear to check everything is working before entering confined waters. Sails should be dropped or furled in sheltered water, but where you still have space to turn into wind and get them properly stowed.

Arriving into unfamiliar harbours

The final part of your preparation is the actual entry into the harbour or any shallow or narrow water when approaching from sea. This can be a port with commercial activities like IJmuiden, a complete ‘inner sea’ like Milford Haven, a small tidal place such as Wells-Next-the-Sea, or numerous other varieties of estuary, port, harbour, rivermouth and bay.

In all cases, however, you must decide on many of the same aspects to be able to safely enter that specific harbour. Once you’re in, arrival is about sails, engine, and deckwork. The key thing is deciding when to handle what.

It’s better if you can wait until you are in sheltered waters to hand your sails. Photo: Harry Dekkers

Sail preparation

When it comes to your sails, you want to know where you can safely lower them. You need to be out of heavy seas, but with enough searoom to drop and stow the sail, though stopping or going head to wind often isn’t necessary. Furling away the headsail is easy but taking down your main (unless you have in mast furling) can be challenging and potentially dangerous in a heavy sea or confined waters. A stack pack will help, but some boats still require crew to go up on deck. You want to take your sails down only when you are in some kind of protected water where it is safe for you and your crew.

For Scheveningen this would be inside the outer breakwaters. Of course, it might be that there is commercial shipping, but from my experience if you contact the authorities on VHF they will almost always try to arrange for you to safely enter their harbour.

In the specific situation of Scheveningen you might even keep your sails up until you are in the coverage of the First Haven. This can only be done of course in collaboration with the harbour master because you cannot see what’s going on inside the harbour before you arrive.

Even with lazyjacks, ensure you secure the sail to stop the wind catching it while you’re mooring. Photo: Harry Dekkers

Another argument for keeping your sail or sails up for as long as possible is that, especially in strong winds or heavy seas, your engine is much less effective than your sails.

Take care that your sails are taken down properly, ensuring they’re packed away tightly to avoid any unnecessary windage and to prevent them flying loose mid-mooring. Murphy’s Law invariably dictates this will happen on your final approach to a downwind berth!


While modern engines are pretty powerful, they are far less effective than your sails in strong winds and heavy, breaking seas. That said, you still need it running to check that it will start well ahead of when you need it, and that the propeller is free and providing drive as it should. A fouled propeller or stuck folding prop may go unnoticed until you actually engage gear.

Therefore it is a must to start your engine in a position where you will still be able to either turn around and leave under sail or can decide on a favourable spot to drop anchor. In the Navy we call this the ‘break off point’. In addition, you also want to get your engine warmed up because, especially in strong winds, it might be necessary to use plenty of revs to manoeuvre. In the example of Scheveningen I would therefore start my engine and check the gears before entering the outer break waters.

In Scheveningen, the approach to the Second Haven is a good time to rig fenders. Photo: Harry Dekkers


After taking care of your sails and engine you need to switch your focus to deckwork, which basically comes down to preparing your mooring lines and fenders. Especially when you are single- or short-handed, it is important to prepare as well as possible as you may not have time during your final approach. With this in mind, take out an extra mooring line and fender from the cockpit locker in case you need it.

Your actual mooring situation will dictate the height of your fenders. Alongside a floating pontoon they usually need to be quite low on the water. But when you are mooring alongside another boat you want to have them at the height of your rubbing strake to avoid damage to the other yacht. For box moorings, you may need them on deck until you are through the posts.

As you won’t know the berth well, it’s worth rigging lines and fenders on both sides in case the plan has to change last minute, or you end up resting against the boat next to you.

Brief your crew so they can get the fenders and lines set up as you want them. Photo: Harry Dekkers

If we have another look at the situation of Scheveningen, particularly if a swell is running in, I would choose to prepare the deck in the First Haven or even in the Second Haven. If in any doubt, contact the harbour master to ask for advice.


I have one last remark with regards to lines and fenders: always consider which line and which fender or fenders have priority. Unless there is no wind, no stream and no boat speed, there are always priorities, whether it’s a spring, bow line, or stern line. In a strong offshore wind, a bow line might be needed to stop the bow blowing off.

Having said that, you can take assurance from the fact that every boat in almost every situation can be secured with a single mooring line, often a midships line, after which you have all the time to take care of the other lines. And this is especially important when sailing single- or short-handed.

Needless to say that it is important to instruct your crew when mooring considering their level of experience. It never hurts to double check if everyone fully understands his or her job.

A well-briefed crew will feel empowered to get on with the deckwork. Photo: Harry Dekkers

6 key tips for approaching unfamiliar harbours

  • Prepare yourself the day(s) before your arrival with static and dynamic information, and make simple, clear notes to refer back to.
  • Take care that you have alternative options in case your primary plan does not work.
  • Make conscious choices about the final approach (engine, sails, and deck).
  • Preparation will reduce, but never completely remove, the challenges of a new harbour, so have back-up plans at every stage.
  • Involve and instruct your crew.
  • And last but not least: try to have fun when preparing for your trip. You can guarantee that the ‘fun level’ will increase every time you gain more experience and become better prepared for a successful arrival.

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