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Berthing Procedure

Parts of ships and berthing lines

To standardise terms for parts of ship and ship manoeuvres and so on, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) has produced a standard marine vocabulary. You should become familiar with this standard or official vocabulary.


However, if you find that your employer and skipper are using different words, use the words they use on that vessel.

What's most important is that you and your skipper communicate effectively so that you both clearly understand what's being discussed about your job. If you're on a different vessel, use your own judgement about which terms to use.


These figures show you some of the terms we'll use in this module. Others are explained in the glossary.

You'll notice that these three figures display ocean-going ships. The same terms are used for small vessels. You need to become very familiar with the expressions and abbreviations used in berthing and other operations.


Take some time to study the glossary at the beginning of this module. If you wish to know more, consult a dictionary of nautical terms.

Standard wheel and engine orders

When taking the wheel as your vessel approaches or leaves the wharf, use standard wheel orders. Make sure you know what the skipper's orders mean.

All wheel orders given by the skipper should be repeated by the helmsman and carried out correctly and immediately. All wheel orders should be held until countermanded. The helmsman should report immediately if the vessel does not answer the wheel.

When the skipper of the watch requires a course to be steered by compass, the direction in which he wants the wheel turned should be stated and each numeral is to be said separately, including zero.

Before berthing and unberthing

Before a vessel leaves or approaches a wharf, have a clear idea of the skipper's plan. If you're the only deckhand on board, go to your skipper and find out what's required. If you're one of several deckhands, the senior deckhand will see the skipper and then tell you about your tasks.

During berthing and unberthing operations, many things can go wrong. If you notice dangers, obstructions or anything else not seen by your skipper, pass on the information. In fact, it's a good idea, well before the operation, to know what sort of information is important to pass on.

You are under the direction of the skipper or senior deckhand at this point. Follow all instructions carefully. You cannot get in trouble for doing what you were told.

Safety precautions during berthing and unberthing

Berthing and unberthing operations are normally carried out safely and uneventfully, but there are some hazards to be aware of.

Bights of line

When a length of rope is folded or bent, the 'bend' is called the bight of line.

A fairlead is a fitting used to redirect a line slightly. It is designed to minimise damage caused by friction (see Figure 10 for examples of fairleads, listed as 'chocks').

Imagine the following scene. It's a very real situation.

A berthing line is lying in a bight on deck. One end of the line is on the bollard ashore and the inboard end is made fast (on the winch or capstan). Strain is put on the line, so the bight pulls tight. A deckhand happens to have their foot in the bight. The rope pulls tight around their foot. The line happens to run out through a fairlead and the deckhand is taken out with the line.

The message is: never stand in a bight of line no matter how harmless it may look!

Lines under strain

If too much strain is put on a berthing line, it will break. The line may also break if the vessel moves in an unexpected way when a line is made fast to the bollard ashore. The table below briefly explains how to recognise signs of strain in natural and synthetic fibre lines. The pull or tension can cause the rope to break or part. This can be very dangerous.

Signs of strain

Natural fibre lines

Natural fibre lines usually make a creaking sound when they approach breaking strain.

Synthetic fibre lines

The line gets thinner and stretches. There's no sound; it just breaks like an elastic band.

If synthetic fibre lines part, they will whip back and injure, and wrap around a person standing near. Deckhands have lost limbs in this way!

The message is:

·        Watch lines closely. If the lines come under strain, keep an eye on your skipper and be ready to ease the line.

·        If for some reason it isn't possible to ease the line, warn others nearby to move away.

Leave lines slack to allow for tidal range!

Passengers near lines

Don't let anyone near the berthing and unberthing operations, especially passengers.

Be ready

Always have lines ready ahead of time. This avoids delays in making the vessel fast. Often a combination of tide, current or wind factors make it difficult to manoeuvre the vessel into position and hold it there while it is made fast. Your actions and initiative as a deckhand will help the skipper.



Make sure you have two-way communication with the skipper at all times, even when out of sight.

Handling lines

The best way to learn to handling lines is to watch an expert, and then try yourself under the expert's guidance. Watch how lines are handled on your own vessel and also on vessels around you. Take every opportunity to practice because successful moorings will often depend on your skills in handling lines.

Heaving lines

A heaving line is a light line you 'heave' ashore to someone on the wharf. The person then uses the heaving line to pull your berthing line cross to the wharf. Whether or not you use a heaving line depends on the size of your vessel and the berthing operation.

There are two parts to heaving a line. You need to prepare the line, ready for throwing. This is sometimes called making up the line.

Make up a small tight coil in your throwing hand (either right-handed or left-handed). On the end of the coil attach a small sand bag. This small coil will be about one-third of the rope length.

In your other hand, you make up larger, looser coils. You will need enough length to reach the wharf.

After you have made up the line, you are ready. The small coil is thrown with your throwing hand straight out. The line must be allowed to run freely from the looser coil in your other, now open, hand. The most frequent cause of bad casts is not having the larger coil properly clear for running.

Do not put weights of any sort on the end of a heaving line.
This can be dangerous!

Lassoing a bollard

Use the lasso technique on small vessels with lighter lines or in calm waters where the vessel can easily approach the wharf. The wharf bollard is lassoed with the berthing line.

Steps for lasso technique

Other information

Coil line.

Coil enough line to reach the bollard in your throwing hand.

Hold the eye.

Hold the eye so that the soft side of the eye near the splice is also held in your hand.

Throw the line

Throw the line and sufficient coils of it to the top of the wharf post or bollard.

It takes practice, on-the-job experience and expert advice before you become skilled at lassoing. Practise in your spare time both aboard and ashore. Ask more experienced deckhands for tips or advice on your throw.

Steps to cast off

Other information

Slack away line on board.


Give line a vertical flick.

The eye will rise up and off the mooring post or bollard on the wharf. Practice makes perfect.


Fenders are used to avoid damage to the vessel's paintwork, the side fittings and equipment as it approaches the wharf or after tying up and the waves and swell move the boat about.

Fenders are rigged to absorb impact and/or chafing. Fenders come in many shapes and sizes, from rubber to small fibreglass and plastic ones. Note that life jackets should never be used as fenders... that's not their purpose.

Fenders are often needed when any difficulty occurs with the berthing or unberthing operation. So be ready. Lay them out ahead of time.

Take care when using fenders. Sometimes it's appropriate to hold them in place by their lanyard, and sometimes they need to be secured. Avoid getting your hands caught. Plan how to tie them off safely.

Tie off fenders with either a slipping clove hitch or a clove hitch and a half hitch.

Tie the fenders onto the bollards or bitts. Do not to tie fenders to guardrails or handrails if there is any possibility that the fenders will get caught and pull the rail. Bent rails are expensive to repair.

Sharing wharf bollards

Sometimes more than one vessel uses the same post (bollard) on the wharf. What occurs, then, if the first vessel wants to leave before the second vessel with its lines on top! Does this mean that the vessel with its lines at the top must always leave first?

Fortunately there is a simple way around this problem, referred to as dipping the eye...

Dipping the eye

If you arrive at a wharf and you find another vessel’s lines already occupying the bollard you want to use, you need to:
• pass the eye of your berthing line through the eye of the other vessel’s line at the bollard
• then pass your line over the bollard.
This allows either vessel to let go without interfering with, or needing the cooperation of, the other vessel.


Capstans and warping drums

A capstan and warping drum are both parts of winching gear and are used to control or tighten lines. The most obvious difference is that a capstan is on a vertical shaft, whereas a warping drum is on a horizontal shaft. The procedure is explained below.

Controlling or tightening line


Other information

Send berthing line ashore.


Transfer inboard end to drum.


Take several turns around drum.

Four turns usually maximum. How many depends on what berthing line is made of and stress on line.

Avoid riding turns (where one turn on the drum rides over next turn). A riding turn can prevent you slacking back.

Tension line.

Lean back on line, and then bring in hand over hand.

Transfer line to bitt.


Be careful to stand out of the line of recoil, to avoid
being hit if the line parts (see bollard hitch below).

Rope stoppers

Rope stoppers are used to temporally hold the strain in a line while it is transferred from the drum to the bitts.

Fixing or passing a stopper for natural fibre lines

Figure 7: Stopper fixed (natural fibre)

Fixing or passing a stopper for synthetic fibre lines

Figure 8: Stopper passed (synthetic fibre)

While the stopper is temporarily holding the berthing line under stress, the inboard end of the berthing line is transferred to the bitts.

Securing lines to bitts, cleats and staghorns

There is definitely a right way to turn up a line.

Done properly

Done badly

turning up a line is quick and easy

the job will hold

the line can be slacked off or released under control

may jam

may be difficult to release

may take charge at the last turn and run out uncontrollably, if under strain

Never fasten a mooring, berthing or anchor warp or line to a single post with any form of hitch or knot such as a clove hitch. If the hitch is wet, or under strain you will not get it off (see bollard hitch in Figure 11).


Using synthetic fibre lines

Using natural fibre lines

Take two turns around front bitt and ease or surge line if under strain.

Take the first turn once around both bitts.

Commence figure-of-eight turns.

Commence figure-of-eight turns.

Figure 9: Turning upon a bitt


Using natural fibre lines

Using synthetic lines

Take a half turn around the cleat.

Take a full turn around the cleat.

Commence the figure-of-eight turns.

Commence the figure of eight turns.

Ask your instructor to demonstrate.

Figure 10: Deck fitting used in moorings


Staghorns are a combination of a fairlead and cleat. Lines are turned up as for cleats. Ask your skipper or senior deckhand to point these out for you.

Sampson post or bollard

Some small vessels may have a single post (a sampson post) for berthing lines and anchor warps (line). The following is the correct technique.

Bollard hitch (or lighterman's hitch)

·        Take several turns around the single post.

·        Bring a bight of line under the standing part.

·        Drop the bight over the post, as shown in the figure to the right.

On your vessel

Vessels are constructed and fitted out in different ways, and they perform very different operations. It is, therefore, practical to check with your skipper what are the requirements for particular tasks. Generally, mariners are happy to explain why they want a task done in a particular way.

If you see operations you don't understand, ask other deckhands, the senior deckhand or the skipper. It's better to ask questions than make mistakes.