Though they are often viewed with suspicion in the UK, box moorings are actually very user-friendly, argues Gordon Davies
In many marinas in northern Europe, boats are moored by securing their bows to the pontoon and their sterns to two posts.
These ‘box moorings’ are disliked by many British sailors, which is a pity as they are much safer than the usual British system of mooring to finger pontoons.
They are also especially easy to use by solo sailors once you’ve got the knack. For those not familiar with boxes, let’s begin by looking briefly at how they are used.
Choosing your box
In most marinas in the Baltic, there are very few designated visitors’ berths, but berth holders are often away.
You don’t need to ask the harbour master which moorings are free as empty berths will have either a red or green symbol displayed at the end of the box – red for ‘do not use’ (the owner is coming back) and green for ‘you may use’ (but check if the owners have left a date for their return).
Boxes with neither red nor green are available for use.
Given a choice of boxes, it is easiest to take one that is upwind of a moored boat. Then, when you enter your box and stop, you can only be blown sideways alongside your neighbour.
If fenders are deployed then no harm comes to either boat.
The key to stress-free mooring is to prepare the boat before entering the box.
We always fix a mooring line at each corner of the boat. The bow lines need only be 5m long, but we like to use much longer stern lines of 15m for reasons I’ll explain in a moment.
We tie fenders to the guard rails on both sides of the boat, ready to be dropped but left on the deck. If they hang over the side they will inevitably get caught on a post, stopping the boat.
As we enter the box we drop the stern line on the upwind side of the boat over the post on that side, one of us steps off the bows on to the pontoon to tie the upwind bow line, and the fenders are kicked overboard.
The boat is now secure, the engine is turned off, and the remaining bow and stern lines are secured.
Although the boat is not now touching its neighbours, fenders are needed on both sides of the boat for cushioning when a neighbour departs or arrives.
People will often help you to moor. The convention is that you pass the upwind bow line to the helper on the pontoon, who will drop it round a cleat and hand it back to you to secure on your boat.
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It’s a nice welcoming gesture and usually leads to a chat.
The reason we use long lines at the stern is that we always loop the stern lines around the posts, rather than using a noose with a slip knot, which can be difficult to untangle when leaving the box.
Putting a line around the post allows us to slip it as we leave, and is a lot simpler.
It does require long stern lines, and since our boat is 31 ft long we use 15m lines so that there is plenty to spare if we moor in a box long enough to take a 40ft boat.
To stop the boat swinging from side to side if there are strong beam winds, or just to hold the boat more securely, the stern lines can be crossed.
This is also worth doing if the box is more than a metre longer than the boat.
With long lines at the stern, it is easy to untie the lines on board and re-tie them on the opposite quarter, so it is a relatively simple process to moor in the box and then cross the stern lines once secure.
Again, other boat owners usually come along the pontoon and offer to help you leave.
It can be helpful if they take the upwind bow line to steady the boat against the wind as you back out. Or you may ask your upwind neighbour if you can put a line round their midship cleat to stop you bumping your downwind neighbour.
And, of course, you remove all the fenders before you set off so that they cannot get caught on a post.
The security of a box
The protection given by the posts to moored boats is invaluable, not just when a mistake is made on mooring.
Once you are in your box you are safely behind a line of strong posts. Any boat getting out of control in the fairway is most likely to bounce off the posts, doing no harm except to the helmsman’s credibility.
When things go wrong
In a crosswind you may be blown sideways and miss the entrance to your box.
This is embarrassing but the worst that is likely to happen is that you will hit a post, your sideways motion stops, and you can use a bit of engine and some hauling on your neighbour’s boat to pull yourself in.
The important point is that you are stopped by a post, not by someone’s prized boat.
The next development makes it particularly easy to moor the boat singlehanded.
A slip line is run across the box between the side ropes, with a clip at its centre that can be fastened to the bows.
The clip can be easily released as the boat leaves. On returning, the line is picked up and clipped to the bows so that they cannot be pushed sideways by the wind.
Assuming the stern lines have been set at the correct length for the box, the boat can then be kept in place with the engine ticking over, giving time to secure the bows to the pontoon.
Developing a box
The ‘owners’ of a box can, and quite often will, make it very easy to use.
There are many ways that a box may be personalised but there are a couple of fairly universal changes.
First, they fix two ropes from the pontoon to the posts so that the boat cannot go sideways out of the box and a neighbour cannot swing into it.
This means that when they come to leave the box in side winds, someone on their bows can slip a line or a boat hook along the upwind rope so that the boat exits straight between the posts.
It is always worth choosing a vacant box rigged like this if you have the option.
Almost all boats made today have split pulpits which give easy access to the pontoon.
Older British boats usually have a solid pulpit and climbing over the bows may require gymnastics.
Most people figure out a way of stepping off their boat, but failing that a solution is simply to moor stern first.
Apart from this difficulty for some boats, boxes provide safe moorings that can be personalised to make their use very easy, even for solo sailors.
It is a pity that they are not more widely used in Britain.