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Tying up to a mooring is one of the easiest and most common ways to secure your boat to the seabed. It takes some coordination and practice though, so here’s how we do it.
What is a Swing Mooring Ball?
A swing mooring ball is a very simple way to secure your boat to the seabed without dropping your anchor. Usually, the mooring, from the top to bottom, consists of:
- a pendant line that floats or has a float on it with an eye on the bitter end (sometimes there is no pendant)
- a float or buoy (the actual ball)
- heavy duty line
- some way to secure the chain to the ground
How are mooring secured to the ground? It can depend. Sometimes a steel rod is drilled or cemented into the ground. Other times, a cement block sits on the seabed. In more remote places, we’ve even seen huge engine blocks with chains wrapped around them sitting on the bottom.
The quality of your mooring ball can be incredibly hit or miss.
It is always a good idea to inspect the mooring carefully. If you are a diver and have dive gear onboard, hop in the water to do a quick check of the bottom of the mooring to see how it is attached and check for any issues.
You can also carefully back down on the mooring to see if it will take the force.
In many of the more developed countries we have been to, especially ones with a charter fleet, public mooring balls are run by the government. There’s a good chance (depending on which government, I suppose) that the mooring is regularly maintained and should be secure enough to tie up to.
Private moorings are a different story. Often, local marine service shops or persons will have moorings available for rent. It is best to ask these shops how they maintain their moorings, the maximum length, and what tonnage they are rated for. For example, in Vava’u, Tonga, the shop Beluga Dive has about 30 moorings in the harbor. It is very deep in the harbor with low visibility. Beluga Dive has a professional diver inspect their moorings every few weeks in the busy season if my memory serves me correctly.
I do have a tale of caution for you. We first met the boat Archer, a beautiful Outremer catamaran, in the US Virgin Islands while it was owned by Rick & Julie. They sold the boat to the Hynes family (of The Sailing Family, one of the original cruising vlogs).
Early in 2019, Archer was on a mooring ball in Bora Bora while the family was ashore for dinner. The winds picked up, and although Archer is a very sleek and light boat, the mooring line broke and Archer blew onto the dock.
Obviously, this was a tough experience and a hard lesson. There’s a lot at play here, and I won’t get into fault, etc.
However, this does not stop us from tying up to a mooring ball.
To locate a mooring ball that you can use, consult your local cruising guide, forums, or, in the case of government public moorings, the local maritime department website. For example, in Australia, we often consulted the website of the different states and were able to download charts with mooring balls marked on them.
Mooring balls are almost always much cheaper than marina berths. Prices can vary depending on your location. We’ve paid anywhere from $25 a night to absolutely free.
In some cases, you need to make arrangements with the company that maintains the mooring ball onshore, usually when the boats on the moorings are primarily permanent residents. Other times, a boat will come around to collect mooring fees, especially when the field is predominately transients. We’ve even paid using a floating honesty box in the mooring field!
Free mooring balls are often the government-run ones. There are a variety of reasons why the government would encourage mooring balls use and we’ve seen a lot of successful programs with free mooring balls in Australia, New Caledonia, and the U.S. Virgins Islands.
It can depend on the local policies, but some areas might designate one color for public moorings, one for private, and one for special use. Or an area with private moorings owned by multiple people/companies may come to an agreement to color their mooring balls differently.
Sometimes mooring balls have writing on them to identify who owns the mooring ball. Additionally, they might have an identifying number on them, so you can locate a particular mooring ball.
There are a lot of very good reasons to pick up a mooring ball.
Mooring balls have several benefits over anchoring:
- They protect the coral or sea bed from damage. Even dropping an anchor in sand can disturb the aquatic life and kill sea creatures.
- Some sea beds are not good for anchoring. When the mud is really soft, the seagrass very thick, or the sea bed is hard rock covered by a small layer of sand, your anchor is not going to hold no matter how good it is.
- The entire mooring field has the same swing radius. This allows boats to be more tightly packed together and there is less likely to be a chance of bumper boats. We’ve been in anchorages with cruisers who’ve thrown out 9:1 scope when we only used 5:1. We’ve also been in situations where the depth of the seabed varies so much and messes with anchor swing radiuses. But that’s a whole other discussion.
- Sometimes there is no room to anchor or it’s too deep. Neaifu in Vava’u is a great example, as the depth is around 100 feet!
- Paying for a mooring should always come with shore access for your dinghy. If there’s no public dock, a boat who has anchored out might find their dinghy unwanted everywhere else.
- Usually paying for a mooring will get you access to other shore facilities if available. Sometimes marinas have docks and moorings, so you can pay less for a mooring in exchange for the minor inconvenience of having to take your dinghy to shore, but still have access to shores, laundry facilities, etc.
The two biggest downsides are:
- The potential poor quality of a mooring
- The cost
- Two dock lines, each attached to cleats on either side of your boat. This will serve as your mooring bridle.
- A boat hook
- Marriage Saver headsets (or hand signals)
- Snubbers (optional, eliminate jerking movements with gusty winds or waves)
Our boat did not come with cleats that we thought were acceptable for a mooring bridle. The bow cleats were too far back, and a bridle would rub on the deck or the leading edge of the hull. We installed cleats up at the very front, where nothing else is in the way.
We keep our bridle to our mooring ball as short as we can. An extra-long mooring bridle in a tight mooring field might mean that you bump your neighbor.
Another issue we’ve had is that when the wind and current are opposed, or the winds are very light, the mooring ball might bang into our hulls. Having the bridle tight can prevent this from happening. Sometimes, if the pendant is too long, we have to readjust our bridle to attach to the buoy directly without the pendant.
One of the most important skills for a boat captain to have is to be able to hold their boat in the water. In all my life around the water, I can not tell you how many captains I have seen over-maneuver the boat – yes, even the professional ones!
What this means is that the captain overcorrects with the throttle(s). The captain will be attempting to keep the boat in one place. The boat is moving too far forward, so they put the engine(s) in reverse until the boat starts to move backward. Then they’re going too far backward, so the engine(s) go back to forward and the whole thing repeats.
While I’m not as familiar with monohull steerage, due to prop walk, this can really screw things up quickly. Catamarans are more straight-forward in this regard.
To prevent this from happening, don’t throttle the engine up; always work with the throttles just in gear. Work to identify the moment just before your boat’s momentum changes. If you pop your engines back into neutral at just the right moment, your boat will rest in the water.
This is a handy skill to have in all docking environments, and also important for emergency situations. It doesn’t just help is calm conditions; being able to properly still your boat means you’ll better understand the way your boat moves in strong winds and currents.
- Sails down, engines on, autopilot off.
- For catamarans, the captain and deckhand should agree on which hull to approach. This hull will be the ‘near’ hull, the other one the ‘far’ hull.
- Get your equipment out first and have it on deck. Take your two lines for the bridle and attach them to the bow cleats. We use a bowline knot tied like a luggage tag to the cleat. Walk the loose end of the far mooring bridle line forward and around any obstructions like the headsails and put it on the deck where you can reach it. David puts the two ends together and leaves them on the trampoline within reach.
- Assess the wind and current. What you really want to do here is determine which way the boats on the moorings are facing. If the winds are light, this may be a problem. Try to scope out a boat with similar windage to yours.
- Approach the mooring ball from the direction you will swing. In most cases, this means approaching the mooring ball from the leeward side.
- Communicate with the captain about how far away the mooring is. On our boat, I often can’t see the mooring ball once it’s close to our bow, so David helps guide me close enough.
- Using the boat hook, grab for the pendant floating in the water and pull it up to the deck. If there is no pendant, there’s usually an eye on the top of the mooring ball. That can be grabbed instead to pull the mooring ball up to the deck.
- Pass the end of the near mooring bridle line through the eye. Still holding the boat hook, return the line to its original cleat and cleat it off.
- Take the second (far) mooring bridle line and pass it through the eye. Keep your grip on the loose end and drop the mooring buoy or pendant from the boat hook. Put the boat hook to the side to free up both hands.
- Your boat is secured to the mooring ball, so relax! The next step is to get the far line back onto the same cleat it came from. For us, that means taking the line forward and around the headsails, so it’s not as quick as getting the first line on.
- Continue to communicate with the captain until you have the bridles adjusted how you want them. If it’s super windy, the captain may need to throttle forward to give you some slack to tighten the bridle.
- Monitor your mooring set up to make sure there’s no chafing or stress on the lines or your boat.
Super easy. Release one of your bridle lines from the cleat and pull the loose end through the pendant and drop it on deck. Repeat with the other side. This is an easy move for a single-handed sailor.
If it’s very windy, the captain might have to bump the throttles to give some slack in the bridle.
This is an option for if the pendant is too short and the mooring ball is too heavy to pick up. It may not be any easier from the stern, depending on your boat.
One major risk factor is getting the mooring entangled with your propellor. Be very careful with getting too close, especially if the mooring has a long line to the base or a long pendant.
In this scenario, you still align the boat into the wind but come up alongside the mooring ball instead of directly behind it. In a catamaran, it’s best to do this on the side with the helm station so the captain can see better. The boat might need to be pivoted towards the mooring ball.
Once the mooring is at the stern quarter, feed an end of each of the bridle lines through the eye. You may need to use your boat hook to accomplish this.
Holding both ends of the bridle lines, keeping very little slack in the line, walk up the deck of the boat to the bow cleat. The captain should let the boat fall back, perhaps pivoting gently to keep the boat in line with the wind.
Secure the near bridle and then pass the far one over and secure it to the other bow cleat.
Mediterranean mooring is a whole different technique and one we aren’t going to cover here. Mediterranean moorings are when you pick up a mooring ball and back your boat up to the dock, typing stern lines to the shore or dock.
Throughout our five years and 30,000 miles, we’ve only med moored once.
This is really advanced boat handling!
Start by practicing this move on a single mooring with plenty of space around. Plan your approach to the mooring to be sailing tight into the wind. Furl your headsail and rely only on the mainsail.
The trick to this maneuver is to learn to time it correctly, which is really dependant on the wind. At the right moment, adjust course to sail directly towards the mooring, which, if you planned correctly, will be directly into the wind. The mainsail will luff, and the boat’s momentum should slow to a stop close enough to grab the mooring or pendant with the boat hook.
This move is easier in a catamaran, as you have more room for error with a wider beam.
This one is much easier. While sitting on the mooring, your boat is (probably) facing right into the wind. Hoist your mainsail before dropping the mooring ball.
As the wind blows your boat away from the mooring ball, pivot the direction you want to go and the wind will fill in your sails and your boat will start sailing forward!
Hopefully, this guide will help you feel more comfortable picking up and using mooring balls. It should be easier than anchoring or docking, so if it’s not, keep practicing until you are comfortable!