Picking Up A Mooring Ball
Picking up a
mooring ball can be a simple, unremarkable affair that goes unnoticed by fellow
boaters, or a pride devastating catastrophe of biblical proportions regaled in
the yacht club Tiki bar for years to come. In efforts to ensure you fall under
the first category, here’s some advice to make sure your name, the words mooring
ball, and the phrase “I’ve never seen anything like it before or since” are
never used in the same sentence.
Get to know a mooring ball before picking it up
Mooring balls are easy to identify, the standard being a white ball or can shaped buoy with a horizontal blue band visible above the waterline – vertical spars (utilizing the same color scheme) are also used in some locations. Most mooring buoys will typically be labeled for identification purposes. Public moorings may have a VHF contact channel or name, while privately owned ones are typically marked with the owner or vessel’s name, mooring permit number, and possibly its intended use (as in the case of yacht club moorings labeled “Guest” for visiting boats).
You can expect to pay a fee to the harbor master when using a public mooring, although most every case it’ll be cheaper than dock fees for the night. Once you’ve contacted the harbor master, they’ll let you know if the mooring ground tackle is sufficient for your sized vessel – if not, they’ll direct you to one that is.
Public moorings are normally professionally maintained, although that’s not always the case with those owned by clubs or private individuals. Mooring balls are often considered to be more secure and less hassle than anchoring, however they can and do fail if routine maintenance is lacking. For this reason (and to avoid interaction with an angry owner who returns to find his ball occupied) you should avoid picking up private mooring balls or those that appear poorly maintained.
A typical mooring system consists of a pennant (which you attach to your boat or bridle), buoy, riding chain, ground chain, various shackles and swivels, and finally some means of anchoring the whole system to the bottom (see the “Setting your own mooring buoy” article for additional information). You’ll find pennants constructed various types of rope, however braided polyester best meets the requirements of strength and resistance to both chafe and deterioration due to sunlight. Elasticity (as in the case of selecting an anchor rode) isn’t an issue due to the pennant’s short length.
Finally, as you are ultimately responsible for your vessel, it’s always a good idea to inspect the mooring buoy you’re using to the extent possible (pennants, hardware, etc). Every mooring buoy should have dual pennants, one primary and one back-up or safety pennant. If the one you’re directed to doesn’t, install a temporary one after mooring. Mooring balls typically have a galvanized rod that transits the ball with eyes at each end – the bottom eyelet attaches to the ground tackle rode, while the top one is normally used as an attachment point for the pennants. As this rod can suffer from corrosion (often out of sight inside the ball) and eventually break, some boaters attach a back-up pennant to the lower eye just to be on the safe side.
Picking up a mooring ball can be divided into two basic scenarios, approaches under power or sail. Picking them up under power is generally easier for most boaters, however sailors should at least know the basics of picking up a ball under sail, a particularly useful skill in the event of an engine casualty.
As with any successful evolution, planning, preparation, and practice are the big three. We’ll break down tips for pick-ups under both power and sail in a moment, but the following basic guidelines apply to both.
Practicing your mooring ball pick-up skills is time well spent. One
stress-free way to accomplish this is to attach an empty laundry detergent
jug to a brick and drop it into the water at a location where you have
plenty of room to maneuver. If this area is near where you normally dock,
leave it for a few weeks or so if possible, which allows you to stop by and
practice picking up your “mooring” each time on the way in (just verify it’s
OK with whoever has jurisdiction over the location). This is an excellent
way to see how your vessel handles under various conditions, such as how far
your boat will coast once placed in neutral at different wind speeds.
Picking up a mooring under power
Under power you’ll typically want to approach a mooring slowly from dead downwind/current, which provides better control and maneuverability. Once the mooring ball is at the bow, slow or gently reverse engines to halt forward motion. The goal here is to gauge boat speed and wind effect so that once the boat is placed into neutral it coasts to a stop with the bow above the mooring, at which time you (if single handing) or your crew grabs the pennant and ties off before the wind pushes you away.
The most common mistake while picking up a mooring is approaching too fast – you can’t go too slow (as you then simply increase throttle as needed to overcome the affects of wind or current) but you can over shoot the mooring, which can lead to fouling of the pennant or mooring rode on the keel, rudder, or prop.
Another option is picking up the mooring ball at the stern or even backing up to it, which may be easier (particularly while single-handing) as the helmsman is closer to the action and the stern is typically closer to the water, providing an easier pickup. That being said, there are those with the opinion that everything you want to avoid getting tangled (props, rudder, etc) is at the stern, and suggest using the bow.
The procedure for picking up a mooring at the stern (whether using a bow approach or backing up to it) are essentially the same:
The best way to accomplish this will ultimately be determined by your boat’s
characteristics under sail, meaning you’ll want to become familiar with how
she carries way, how long she takes to drift to a stop under various
One method would be to approach the mooring ball on a tack perpendicular to the wind, aiming 3-5 boat lengths down wind of the ball. Then, when dead downwind of the mooring, release all sail and head upwind towards the mooring (here’s where knowing how much “way” your boat will continue to make in various wind speeds is a plus).
With a little practice, you’ll soon be able to gauge it so that you simply coast to a halt above the ball, allowing you to leisurely stroll up to the bow and pick up the mooring ball pennant. If you come up short, simple raise sail and try again.
After the mooring
Once secure to a mooring ball, let the boat drift back and verify that you’re clear of other vessels moored or anchored around you. You don’t have to back down to set a mooring ball (as you would when anchoring) however you should look to see how your boat is riding. Is the mooring buoy vertical or being pulled under? If so, you’ll want to increase the length of your bridle to create more of a horizontal pull, which both improves the ride of your vessel in rougher weather and reduces wear on the mooring system. Keep an eye out for chafing of the bridle or mooring pennant as well.
Finally, when you get ready to leave your mooring, slowly motor forward or use the pennant to pull your boat up to the ball, release the line, then drift back or maneuver forward to clear the mooring ball pennant and ground tackle. If using a bridle, simply release one end and pull onboard prior to getting underway.