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Sailing to a Mooring Ball

Sailing up to a mooring ball is an advanced skill. It will definitely prove your finesse for handling the boat and managing the crew. Yet, it is a skill that you will someday either wish you had or are glad you learned and practiced it.


One time in the BVI, I was leading a flotilla. The boat that I ended up on that day had developed a gear shift problem and was stuck in neutral.  That made it impossible to motor to the mooring ball we wanted to pick up. Fortunately, at home, I had been sailing the boat into the marina slip often and so I was confident that this was not a problem to pick up the mooring ball under sail power. The story ends well with a pickup the first time. However, without practice, it could have ended badly. Once secured we called the charter company who came out (several hours later) and fixed the problem. It wasn’t a problem for us however as we were already relaxing and enjoying the evening – securely moored. 

There is a very simple trick to successful mastery of sailing to a mooring ball and that is to approach the mooring ball on a close reach. This means you are in a slightly downwind position heading upwind at an angle of 60 deg off the wind. In this manner, you can adjust your approach to bring the boat perfectly to the ball by making minor adjustments to bear away from the wind or come closer to the wind while maintaining sail trim. Both are made possible at about 60 degrees off the wind.

If you did this at 30 deg off the wind and your position was too far downwind, you could not come up further into the wind to reach your ball. Approach at 60 deg!

Once your boat is about 20 boat lengths from the mooring ball you should begin to sail on one sail only – furling or dropping the other. It makes no difference as to which sail you continue to use but you may find it easier to use the mainsail as this clears the foredeck of whipping jibsheets. When about 5 boat lengths away completely ease the mainsail so that it is luffing and has no driving force. The momentum of the boat will keep you moving and maintaining steerage slowly toward the ball.

If you did this maneuver at greater than 60 deg off the wind you cannot release the mainsail out enough to remove any driving force. Approach at 60 deg!

You can only achieve this maneuver with much practice on the water at first. Once you gain the finesse, it’s like riding a bike.

Here are the major points to take note:

  • Approach from about 60 degrees – already said that!
  • The foredeck crew should hold the boat hook overhead and use it to point to the ball. This since the helmsperson loses sight of the ball once it gets close to the hull.
  • Allow time to furl/douse the first sail
  • Learn when to furl/douse the remaining sail to remove the driving force and only carry the boat on the momentum
  • The foredeck crew needs to be sober clear-minded and competent with clear preplanned instructions from the skipper
  • Docklines with one end cleated to the boat need to be made ready prior. They must be pre-run so that they do not get wrapped the wrong way around the life-lines
  • It is easier with 2 foredeck crew members. One hooks the pendant while the other quickly runs the dock line through the eye of the pendant and quickly cleats the dock line. It is ok to look messy to get the boat quickly cleated. The dock lines and cleat hitches can be cleaned up afterward
  • If the boat is moving too fast at the mooring ball, the crew should NOT grab the mooring ball pendant with the boat hook. You cannot stop the boat with the boat hook. It will just rip out of the crew member’s hands and now you are without a boat hook (and possibly a swimming crew member). Instead, go around for a 2nd run – ease the sails a little sooner next time
  • If you have misjudged and the mooring ball is several feet away from the boat, turn the boat AWAY from the ball. This will bring the aft of the boat to the ball
  • Don’t be too eager to furl/douse the remaining sail. You may need to sail around a second time and thus need instant control of the boat.
  • Finally, the question becomes whether you take the mooring ball to the windward side or leeward side of the boat. There are arguments for both. So do what you feel most comfortable in the situation. Taking the ball to windward can mean that it is too easy to get blown downwind and away from the ball. Taking the ball to leeward can mean that if you get blown downwind, the ball will go underneath the boat.
  • Steerage is not usually the problem. Rather it is miscalculating the momentum

In the image below, the crew should be dousing one of the sails and getting ready to ease the other. By the looks of it, they may already be going too fast.

Sailing to a Mooring ball


Don’t practice this maneuver in a real marina or mooring ball field where there are other boats. Instead, practice this with other floating marker buoys or your fender.

You can learn more in the Bareboat Charter Online Course....

The Bareboat Charter online sailing course is your go-to resource for planning an unforgettable sailing vacation. This comprehensive online course equips you with all the necessary skills and knowledge to successfully charter a yacht. Upgrade to the Bareboat Charter Master bundle of courses to fully prepare for near-coastal sailing and sailing charters.

Source: Bareboat Charter
Topic: Bareboat Chartering
Authors: Ed Mapes, USCG Captain Master Mariner. Grant Headifen, NauticEd Global Director of Education
NauticEd is a fully recognized education and certification platform for sailing students combining online and on-the-water real instruction (and now VR). NauticEd offers +24 online courses, a free sailor's toolkit that includes 2 free courses, and six ranks of certification – all integrated into NauticEd’s proprietary platform. The USCG and NASBLA recognize NauticEd as having met the established American National Standards.