Once underway, coping without crew isn't too hard but manoeuvres can be tricky. Professional skipper Simon Phillips shares his shorthanded experience

Continuing his series of sailing shorthanded, Simon Phillips looks at berthing, anchoring and picking up a buoy.


Coming alongside is the source of most damaged dignity in the marina and has potential for some very expensive repairs. Planning and preparation will ensure that it will go as smoothly as possible.

1. Call ahead

A man using VHF onboard a yacht

Call the marina to find out which berth you are being given.

Ask where it is as some berths are not numbered logically, which side to you will be, and whether you will need to come in bow or stern first.

2. Fenders out

Tying fenders

Put your boat fenders out on both sides while outside the marina if you can, just in case.

Ideally, have at least four lines ready: bow and stern lines on both sides, and midships lines.

3. Manoeuvre into your berth

A sailor on a pontoon preparing lines

When you know where you’re going, the helm’s job is to get the boat in and to stop it so she can be moored.

If the space is between a pontoon and another boat, this can be advantageous, even though the space is smaller, as you can gently lay alongside the other boat, then step across this one and walk around to your pontoon.

From here, lines can be thrown across and made fast on the cleats, simply warping yourself across the few feet to your berth.

If you are alone, this is just as easy: throw the lines across and step over the other boat and warp your boat across.

Once the breast lines are on, make fast the spring lines.

4. Secure alongside

Securing lines alongside

Have a simple way to secure alongside with one line initially

There are many ways of coming alongside alone, regardless of wind or tide.

You can get a midships breast line on first, or you can approach stern first and drop a stern line over a cleat on the pontoon.

Once this is on, your boat cannot go very far, so throw a midships line on to the pontoon, step ashore and warp yourself in.

You could also put a long stern spring on first, running through a midships fairlead or a bow fairlead.

Tie a bowline in the working end and bring it to the stern outside everything and have the other end on a winch near you.

Once you are parallel to the pontoon, drop this bowline over a cleat and make fast the onboard end.

Motoring gently ahead with the helm hard over, hold the boat alongside the pontoon, giving you ample time to sort the lines.


An electric windlass makes life so much easier, particularly with heavier ground tackle. It’s simple to do shorthanded, providing a few principles are kept in mind.

Having the correct size of anchor and tackle for the vessel is important, although a heavier anchor and chain is better than something too light, which may not hold the vessel well.

Your considerations when deciding to anchor are the weather, wind speed and direction, now and for the duration of your intended stay, type of sea bed and the depth and range of tide.

Check for hazards in the vicinity: if you do happen to drag, then how far away are these dangers? These points will determine the selection of your anchorage.

If appropriate, agree communications before you go forward as it can be very difficult to hear even 30ft away when the anchor or chain are moving. Hand signals are best

1. Find a spot, plan your drop

A skipper looking over charts

Check the chart first, calculate the tide and make a plan

Decide approximately how much chain to put out in relation to the depth and prepare the anchor at the bow. Decide on your anchorage.

In clear waters, the person at the bow can direct the helm so the anchor drops just where it should, on sand instead of weed.

2. Drop the hook

Getting the anchor our of the locker

Drop or lower the anchor in your chosen spot, considering what is around you, and then release the agreed amount of chain.

A minimum of four times the depth is what I would recommend.

If you don’t have a windlass, flake out the required amount on deck beforehand and make it secure on a cleat.

3. Check you’re set

A skipper checking the anchor is set

If it is strong enough, let the wind pull the cable taught and dig in the anchor, or run gently astern with the engine to straighten the cable and then a short burst  of astern power for a few seconds will get the anchor properly set.

It will be obvious if the anchor hasn’t dug in at this point.

4. Fix your position and relax

A skipper fixing a position from the deck of a yacht

Take some bearings or plot on the chart where you are. Set your anchor, depth or wind speed alarms – and relax!

It is worth checking you position and your holding if the tide or wind directions changes.

Picking up a buoy

This can be an amusing or frustrating task, depending how you view it.

It’s vital that you are aware of how the buoy and the pick-up line are lying so you don’t foul the rudder or propeller.

1. Plan your pick-up

Picking up a buoy

For a conventional bow pick-up, good communication between helm and foredeck is key, especially in the last few feet where the helm cannot see the buoy.

Approach against whichever element is strongest – tide or wind. It can be tricky if either are strongly abeam.

The ideal is to be stationary with the buoy just off the port or starboard bow.

It is easier to pick up from one side or the other rather than dead ahead, so the person on the foredeck isn’t wrestling with the forestay.

Also, if the helm overshoots, they can turn away and not go over the top of the buoy, risking fouling the pickup line or, worse, the prop or rudder.

2. Make contact

picking up a buoy while shorthanded

There are some very ingenious boat hooks that allow you to get a line around the loop on a buoy and bring it back to the boat.

Some of these are expensive, but can be very effective in connecting to the hoop or ring of a buoy if there is no pick-up line attached.

If neither pick-up line nor fancy boat hook are available, lasso the buoy with a line attached from one bow cleat, run outside everything and attached to the other bow cleat.

Throw this line over the buoy. Use a line that sinks and puts itself around the buoy; a polypropylene one will float.

3. Secure to the buoy

A sailor securing a buoy

Lassoing is only a temporary measure before your mooring line is secured. If you can reach the buoy by pulling it closer underfoot, then a single loop through the buoy’s hoop should be sufficient for a short stay.

Make sure each end of this line is secured to the bow cleats before removing the lasso line – ideally keeping each end on board so it can be adjusted or let go from either side, just in case.

If you are staying for longer, a separate line from each side with a full turn will be preferable to stop chafe.

4. An alternative option

tying off to a buoy

An alongside pick up can eliminate the need for a boat hook on yachts with a low freeboard

One alternative method is to carefully approach the buoy astern, bringing it alongside.

This can make attaching the line easier, but take care not to foul the prop