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Med Mooring:  Comments on Technique & Hardware


Most North American sailors are inexperienced, curious – and a bit anxious – about the bow-to/stern-to berthing that is most often used in Europe.  What should I do on arriving at a pontoon?  (‘Pontoon’ is Euro-speak for what we call a ‘dock’ back home).  Is there any special mooring hardware I should be using?  And how do I get off the damn boat!?


Boats Med-moored in one of Lisbon’s marinas


Med Mooring – Where to Start:  Will you go bow-to or stern-to?  We prefer bow-to but what’s good for you will depend on your boat.  (Interestingly, most boats in Northern Europe favored bow-to mooring while most boats in the Med choose stern-to.  Since many of the same brands of boats are used in both regions, I’m not sure why the preference is so regionally distinct).  You should decide your preference using criteria such as:

·         which end is least encumbered, enabling ease of movement on/off the boat

·         whether a wind vane is mounted on the stern

·         how deep and how far aft is your rudder

·         how well your boat will steer in reverse, especially in a cross wind, and

·         hardly least important, what method you plan to use when stepping on & off the boat

For example, our reasons for going bow-to are that our bimini obstructs easy departing from the cockpit, berthing bow-to keeps the wind vane away from the dock, the rudder away from possible underwater rubble at the bulkhead, and makes our the arrival easy (tho’ our departure occasionally less so in a stiff cross-wind).  There is also another variable we strongly recommend you consider before deciding how to position your boat:  privacy.  WHOOSH has an aft cockpit, a traditional companionway and we sleep in the aft cabin, the first cabin forward of the cockpit.  Being bow-to, we avoid some of the noise on the dock and gain all of the privacy available.

 So far (from Sweden to Malta) every time we’ve seen Med mooring employed, there has been a laid mooring or “lazy line” available at the dock.  This is a line anchored on the seabed some distance out from the pontoon and which is then, via a thin messenger line, tailed to a cleat or ring on the dock.  A laid mooring now seems to be the standard method of Med mooring in harbors and marinas in much of Europe and it eliminates the need for you using your anchor, thereby simplifying Med mooring substantially.  (Things apparently change as one moves east.  We are told to expect to use our own anchor in lieu of a laid mooring once we begin sailing in Greece as most harbor basins are unimproved).

An Example:  To illustrate how one berths using a laid mooring, let’s assume you are berthing bow-to and it’s just the two of you.  You will motor into the space indicated by the dock attendant (if there is one) with fenders already deployed along both sides, the boat hook handy at the bow, and with two bow lines already cleated off on deck.  On the approach, it is helpful for the foredeck crew to shout an occasional measurement of distance off the pontoon (“4 Meters…!”) as this helps the helmsman who otherwise lacks a good view.  On arrival at the dock (“Hold here…!”) either pass the bow lines to the attendant or lasso the cleats with lazy bights of each bow line, “slipping” the lines around the cleat horns and passing them back aboard the boat for final cleating off.  (Slipping permits you to later take in your own bow lines without needing an attendant or to be on the pontoon, almost a necessity given the difficulty of boarding a boat that may be departing the pontoon).  Once both bow lines are cleated back on deck, you may put the engine in slow reverse to hold the boat in position off the dock.  A boathook dipped into the water at the bow then snags the lazy line that is attached to one of the dock cleats, which typically the helmsman now goes forward to claim.  A cautionary note:  Everyone calls this a “slime line” for reasons instantly apparent when you pull it out of the water.  You walk that line aft to the stern, trying to hold it outboard of the deck to keep deck soiling to a minimum.  This line is then cleated off at the stern under sufficient tension to hold the boat off the pontoon.   The engine can now be secured, if it isn’t already, and you adjust tension in bow and stern lines to finalize your position relative to the pontoon.  Also, keep in mind that some berths have two laid mooring lines vs. one.  In a cross-wind, you will first use the windward line.

 Complications:  There are a few complications which can arise.  Backing into a berth with a cross-wind can be fun and, if stern-to berthing is your plan, you may want to practice this a bit unless you back without the bow being blown off much or you are equipped with a thruster.  Another snag is that the bulkhead offers mooring rings rather than cleats…and there’s no attendant.  Getting your lines through the rings from the boat will not be possible.  If you have a ‘step-off’ stern and are backing in, you won’t have a problem putting a crew member ashore…but what if you don’t?  The simplest solution is to ask for help from a crewman on another boat.  Europeans do not typically present themselves on the pontoon to assist another boat when berthing, if you’ll pardon the generalization, but I think this is more out of respect for the other crews’ skill than unhelpfulness.  If you ask, they will usually pitch in.  Lacking a helping hand, you will have to first make arrangements to get the crew off the boat (e.g. by dropping your passerelle, rigging your bow ladder, or doing a slow ‘fly-by’ at the end of the pontoon where a crew member can step off).  A final issue worth mentioning is that it may prove difficult to get enough ‘grunt’ on the mooring line to adequately hold the boat off the pontoon.  This can be due to surge in the harbor, the constant wash of passing boat traffic, or a stiff wind blowing you onto the pontoon.  I’ve found it helpful on occasion to use one of my anchor chain nylon snubber lines, attaching it to the slime line with a rolling hitch as far outboard as possible, and then tail the snubber to a sheet winch (or if stern-to, the windlass).

 Handling that Slime Line:  There are two tools we’ve found helpful if not essential when performing this task:  The first is a pair of heavy duty rubber gloves to avoid hand cuts from mollusks imbedded in the slime line and resulting infection.  I learned this lesson the hard way at our first berth in Portugal.  The second, after much ‘hand over handing’ down the side deck, turned out to be a simple slime line ‘carrier’.  I hold both loops in one hand with the slime line sliding along, over the tubing, while I hold it outboard of the boat as I walk aft.  This keeps amazing amounts of goop from dropping onto our sidedecks.


Our ‘Slime Line’ tools…

 How do I get on/off my boat!?  The method you likely choose will depend on your position at the pontoon (bow- or stern-to), your freeboard at that end and what will suitably fit your boat, what storage arrangements you can make available for the hardware once underway, and perhaps your pocketbook.  Passerelles are the most common choice one sees when boats are berthed stern-to, tho’ planks are also popular.  Some form of bow ladder is most often used when going bow-to.  However, we’ve seen all three of these methods used with both bow- and stern-to berthing so think a bit about what will work well for you.

 Passerelles:  If choosing a passerelle, think about how compatible it will be with the rest of your boat’s rigging, pulpits and cockpit design.  Typically, rigging one will involve a topping lift bridle with the tail in turn led to a cleat, athwartships control lines to keep the passerelle centered relative to the stern, and a gudgeon mounted somewhere into which the passerelle’s pintle is placed.  Often, bungee cords are whipped onto the bridle legs just above the end of the passerelle, allowing it to remain suspended above the pontoon (eliminating wear & tear plus noise) but allowing it to drop onto the pontoon when someone first steps onto the passerelle.  If you want to use a passerelle off your bow but you have big bow rollers like many cruising boats, consider having a short custom mount made that can be bolted onto the outboard side of one roller cheek.  A bolt-on fitting can later be removed and this mount can incorporate the gudgeon in which the passerelle’s pintle will fit.  For a passerelle, also consider what your ‘stowage’ capabilities are as designs vary a great deal, in one sense as a function of how collapsible or foldable they are for storage.  Another key variable is how expensive they can be; you might be surprised.


One of many passerelle choices, this a folding one

 (Can you count the lines?)

 I originally got quite exercised about modifying one-half of a Home Depot fiberglass & aluminum ladder into a passerelle; non-rusting, light and inexpensive.  Replacing rivets with fasteners, I could even disassemble it when doing offshore passages, then reassemble the pieces once we arrived.  I still think that would work nicely but we concluded a passerelle was not the optimum choice for WHOOSH.   Over here, we’ve seen many ladders modified to serve as passerelles, especially with local boats who can leave it on the pontoon when they day sail.  When a boat has an outboard rudder and/or wind vane, I’ve even seen may a two-piece, sliding extension ladder used as a passerelle.


Simple one-piece ladder with wood plank attached

Bow Ladders:  Again, these can be homemade, one can adapt an existing ladder (e.g. otherwise used for boarding the mother ship or dinghy), or you can purchase a purpose-built one.  We purchased one in Germany when first presented with bow-to mooring, and it is designed to mount on our CQR anchor.  (Different models existed for every imaginable type of anchor).  The anchor in turn must be fixed firmly in place so it provides a rigid mount for the ladder.  This was less expensive than any passerelle we could have used, it is easy to stow and is simple to rig once berthed.  Their disadvantages are that, without a step-thru bow pulpit, one must climb ‘over’ the pulpit when using the ladder, positioning of the bow relative to the dock becomes more critical, and a ladder short enough not to foul on some docks may be too far above the dock at other times.  This latter issue is addressed by a short stool that might already be aboard or by using a plastic ‘step’ found in hardware stores.  

WHOOSH’s bow ladder

(Note cable & lock to maintain “ownership”)


Another bow ladder option – a Retractable Bow Ladder – can make (dis)embarking on a boat with a bowsprit possible.  The ladder rungs are secured together when sailing the boatClick on picture to view at full resolution

Click on picture to view at full resolutionThen deployed when berthed. 

Planks:  The third alternative and easily used by boats with open transoms and swim platforms is a simple plank.  Stowage must still be arranged (do you really want a big wave hitting that large plank while it is supported by 2 deck stanchions?) but rigging a plank for use is dead simple.  Some planks have non-skid surfaces applied on top and chafe pads underneath, since the dock end will rub back & forth on the dock due to boat movement.  I have seen planks made up of narrower sections, bolted together with transverse ribs, to make break-down & easy stowing possible.  Unlike some passerelles, planks will not offer a handrail for crew to steady themselves when ‘walking the plank’…altho’ the desire to get ashore on Liberty may overcome this.


Note the popularity of planks for local boats in Gzira, Malta


Important Hardware for Med Mooring:  Other than the basic items I’ll mention first, you probably won’t need any specialty hardware when you first arrive in Europe.  However, I thought it might be helpful to illustrate some of the components you may eventually need to think about.


The Basics:   North American boats often lack a good supply of robust, large fenders when they arrive in Europe.  Possibly this is because our marinas are often well protected, separated from the commercial harbors, and sometimes located in regions with relatively benign in-season weather.  However, your fenders are the only thing that protects your hull once you begin locking, rafting, and Med mooring.  Because you’ll be rafting and Med mooring with both power and sail boats, consider a mix of both cylindrical and round fenders.  Be sure to carry a small bicycle pump to keep pressures up.


How much does this owner think his Fairline is worth?


Other basic mooring hardware are decent sized, robust, smooth-faced chocks and, to go along with them, robust chafing gear.  We don’t normally think of this until we find ourselves in a harbor subjected to surge and commercial traffic, at which point we need to tighten up our lines to control the boat and the chocks begin their work, worrying away at the mooring lines.  Especially with newer boats that sport designer-type chocks.  Because these are often small and built into the toe rail, owners must depend almost exclusively on chafing gear to save their dock lines.  Weak materials like vinyl tubing, chosen because it can fit through the diminutive chocks, may not be up to the task.  If you really need to depend on your chafing gear and especially if you don’t have large chocks, I recommend you bring along some Spa Flex tubing, usually found at Lowe’s, Home Depot and similar DIY stores.  It is all but indestructible and also inexpensive.


This Hanse 34 owner gave up using his chocks at forward end of toe rail

after they sawed through his vinyl tubing & then his bow lines

Chains:  Imagine picking up a berth with mooring rings (usually quite rusty) on top of a concrete quay or bulkhead; this is quite common in Europe.  If you slip the mooring lines through the rings or tie them off, the lines will then lie against the rough concrete surface and – if there’s any surge – soon chafe away to nothing.  This is why we now carry small lengths of proof coil chain and spare shackles in our ‘mooring bag’.  After the initial berthing process and at your leisure, you can add chains to your mooring lines, at which point the concrete is working against the chains rather than your lines.


Example of Chains to Mooring Lines

(Useful on concrete quays & bulkheads)

Mooring Springs:  It’s not uncommon to berth in a harbor immediately adjacent to the open sea.  In such cases, and especially when it blows from the wrong direction, surge that sweeps into the harbor can produce active, even violent boat motion at the dock.  It’s at times like this when increasing the shock absorbing ability of the mooring lines becomes increasingly important.  Mooring springs can be quite useful for this purpose.  You will find these in two forms, one incorporating rubber inserts which keep the internal rods away from the outer coiled spring, thereby eliminating inevitable squeaking as the springs work.  If you sleep near your boat’s mooring lines, you might find these worth the additional expense.


‘No Squeak’ version of Mooring Springs

(Note safety chain should Springs fail)


However, springs are just lengths of wire, mechanically assembled, and offer only finite amounts of strength.  They can be defeated by the sea if not sized appropriately to the boat so be sure you size your springs properly.  When we were shopping for springs in Malta’s chandleries, we found they usually quoted springs ratings by boat length.  Obviously, the boat’s displacement is more relevant to selecting your springs; make the chandler do some product research on your behalf.





Size your springs thoughtfully



Not all springs are created equal…

Snubbers:  When springs are not available or too costly, some owners will instead rely on snubbers to increase elongation and shock absorption of their dock lines.  Be thoughtful about which types you use, especially if you are cruising a larger, heavier boat.

These seem clever at the boat show, but…



…these are beefier and allow more elongation


 Pontoon Cleats:  If you follow the daisy chain of mooring components from your boat onto the pontoon, you might be forgiven for assuming that – eventually – you’ll come to something that is relatively immune to storm conditions.  Regrettably, that isn’t the case.  Often, floating pontoon cleats are anchored into channels along the pontoon edge via bolts and backing plates.  This allows you to move the cleats for optimum position relative to your boat, which is helpful.  (Remember:  With no finger piers, the exact location of a boat on a pontoon will vary over time, depending on the boats being berthed).  Unfortunately, even the aluminum channels which anchor the cleats can fail.  This is why you may want to consider using more than one cleat for each side of the bow to spread the load, and it emphasizes the importance of adding adequate shock absorption to your lines.


Cleats tore away this pontoon’s aluminum channel due to surge

We will be away from WHOOSH for a while during Malta’s winter gale season back.  With Malta’s infamous reputation for Gregales (Nor’Easter blows which bring substantial surge into Valletta’s harbors), we have tried to use a blend of components that will hopefully accommodate storm surging incrementally and also offer redundancy.  A bit like taking a final exam, we’ll be interested to see how we did when returning to our boat.


Our attempt at redundancy, chafe protection & shock absorption

(Note that we did not have enough Spa Flex for all 4 bow lines)

 Why Med Mooring?!  It’s fair to ask why this method is so commonly used in Europe, given its infrequent use in North America.  There are many reasons.  First, initial construction costs are less because no outer berth pilings nor finger docks are needed.  In fact, no pilings at all may be needed.  Pontoons are usually the floating type and, along with al their laid moorings, are anchored to the seabed using large chains.  That makes these berths both quick and relatively inexpensive to purchase & install with less environmental impact.  This method also permits easy pontoon removal up in the northern latitudes at the end of each season; the entire marina just disappears ashore!  In addition, in the land of Med Mooring, no boat gets turned away because the available slip is the wrong length for the boat.  Even berth width is a ‘variable’ rather than a ‘fixed’ notion; if it’s not wide enough, a little power on entry will usually make room for your boat.  Marina space is in high demand almost everywhere, it seems.  Bow- and stern-to berths make the most of the available space, as every inch can be – and usually is - utilized.  What do you think:  Is this the future of marina berthing in North America?


Not a millimeter of unused space, here in Henan, Sweden


© Jack Tyler – October, 2006