Started Sailing

Docking the tall ships

by Don
(Tiffin, Ohio)

This is a question about the old sailing ships like the square riggers. With such a large sailing ship such as a clipper like Flying Cloud, how did they manage to dock them? There were no tugs like there are today and it would seem that sailing them into the dock would be rather tricky. Thank you for any answer.

Hi Don,

Since this is Han's speciality, I am going to let him answer this. Thank you for your question!

Best Regards,

Comments for Docking the tall ships

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Sep 16, 2009
Docking a square-rigger.
by: Han

Hi Don,
First I'd like to thank you for this intelligent question; you've clearly seen how hard it sometimes is to dock a ship, even if it's power-driven. The art of sailing, you've concluded (I think), is not only to cover big distances but culminates in leaving shore and arriving unscathed at your destination. Manoeuvring, in short.
To start with, the clippers weren't that big: Flying Cloud was slightly above average with her length (all included) of 235 ft. For details, see
To bring your ship safely to the quay you need a moderate or weak breeze, blowing straight or at an angle to the landing stage.
The hart of manoeuvring a square-rigger is the heave-to manoeuvre: you manipulate the propelling power of your sails in such a way that part of them give forward power, another part reversing power, so that the hull as a result moves, like a falling leaf, slightly forward, then slightly backward, going slowly athwart downwind; in fact you use the length of the hull as a brake.
Of course, depending on windspeed, you strike or set sail to move as slowly as possible when nearing the landing stage. Mostly you use only the topmost sails, because they catch the wind where it's steady and unimpeded by buildings or trees.
In the last stage you reduce the remaining speed by using anchors, with a marker at the surface, fore and aft; you position the ship parallel to the quayside, strike the remaining sails, bring out your breast ropes and slacken your anchor-chains.
You leave the anchors where they are; you can use them again when leaving.
You can heave-to with your dinghy too, when you need some time for repairs or such. Assure that you have enough lee, tack and leave the staysail-sheet as it is; that will give you reverse power. Give your main enough sheet to give some forward power, and fix your tiller in a position (mostly at lee-side) where the rudder steers a bit upwind and you achieve the same falling-leaf movement.
I hope I've written this answer in a clear way; if you want more detail, you've got to wait till I have the time to write an article on this subject in my History of Sailing Blog on this site.

Sep 16, 2009
Docking the Tall Ships
by: Don

Thanks Han! You satisfied my curiosity. I often wondered about it and if I hadn't found this web site I would never have known. It sounds like it was a careful and time-consuming manuver.


Sep 16, 2009
Docking the tall ships
by: Don

This isn't about docking tall ships, it's to thank you for all your wisdom about sailing and for writing it down for us to read.

I notice that you're 66 years old, I'm 79. Age takes a toll on us physically but most of the time our minds don't falter and that is certainly the case with you. You've had a wonderful life experience with sailing and I think it's a shame when all the knowledge like you have goes and is lost forever.

And I know I'm not alone in thanking you for sharing it with us!


Sep 16, 2009
Oh Don...
by: Anonymous

Thank you for your kind words, I'm moved by them.
Happily the noble art doesn't die with me: in Holland they teach the young to sail "the ancient way", so they can sail the new "old" ships and replica's as they are meant to. Yet, every port nowadays forbids you to enter without power-aid, as it is deemed dangerous. I can tell you stories about berthing power-driven that make your hair stand on end.
Hope to hear from you again,
Best regards,

Sep 17, 2009
by: Don


I have a question to ask after reading your very intesting biography. It doesn't concern sailing as much as it does you but I don't know how else to correspond with you other than here. I can't ask you to post your e-mail address here in front of the world so this will have to do.

The question is to satisfy my curiosity. You say that you were born in the Netherlands. How far back do you know your ansestry? It may sound foolish but since the Vikings sailed out of there I simply have to ask you that question to see if you could possibly be a descendent.

I have been in the Southern part of France but never in Brittany. I recall sailing a Snipe in the port of Valencia, Spain.

Han, thanks for humoring me with my question.


Sep 17, 2009
by: Alex

I would ask that you kept offtopic discussion to the forums that are located here:

I am glad that you have struck up a rapport with Han though.

Dec 29, 2009
Additional Questions
by: Ray Udris - West Islip, NY

With reference to your Sept '09 reply to How Sailing Ships Were Docked, I would like to add a few more questions. (1) Were any other aids used besides tide, wind and kedging such as longboats or beasts or burden to pull vessels to dock? (2) Were ships completely on their own or were services available in the busy ports? Some of the old drawings of the 18th and 19th century ports look like our modern day expressways which made maneuvering without power incredible. Can you recommend any texts on the subject?

Dec 30, 2009
So many questions... but I'll do my utmost.
by: Han

Hi Ray,

You've clearly been thinking about this for some length of time, and the gist of your questions puzzles me too, because there is so little on record about these things. So I have to formulate the answers to your questions from analysis of drawings and paintings, as well as educated guesses based on my experience.

Let's start with the pictures themselves. What they show is, I'm sure of that, definitely not a historical traffic-situation. They show, in the first place, the skills of the artist, and secondly the wealth of the ship-owners who commissioned them. A third reason can be found in the fact that they're also a way to promote the port: you, as a person, wouldn't like to eat in an empty restaurant, would you?
The number of ship-types on them were there, but not at the same time, so a wealth of necessary space was available.

Nevertheless, you should realise that most crews were so able and well-trained that they could turn a ship through 360° within the ship's length, using wind and current in an efficient way.

There were indeed few other means to man-handle a ship than the ones you described in your questions. Of them, the assistance of rowers in longboats (as a port-service, to bring the hawsers ashore) has remained, at least in the Rotterdam and Amsterdam ports, but by now they're power-driven.

Your question however has raised another point of interest which I thought about for some time without finding an introduction for it: the question of how they managed to get a deep-going vessel or it's valuable cargo in port across shallow waters. The Dutch developed a unique system to solve that problem in the 17th century, and shortly I'll write an article on that in my History of Sailing Blog.

Thanks for your question, I hope I gave you a satisfying answer.


Jan 05, 2010
by: Han

Alex just placed my article on docking in Amsterdam on my History of Sailing Blog.

May 24, 2012
Docking Ships
by: Sabrina

I find this very interesting! I know nothing about the old ships and I am writing a novel about a square rigged ship.

I have another question about docking: when you get to the quayside (which I am guessing is another word for dock?) is there some sort of ramp or mechanism that allows you to walk off the ship to land, and what would it be called? Or how exactly did the sailors get off and on the vessel?

And how was the dinghy attached to the ship, and how did they get in it and lower it down?

Feb 01, 2014
Liverpool docks 1850
by: ROB

How did the packet ships leave the Waterloo Dock in Liverpool, were they ledger to the basin and towed from there or were they tugged within the dock itself? I've also seen a description of passengers boarding from the basin and not from the dock, any history on this? My time frame is 1850. Thank you.

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