Picking Up A Mooring Ball

by Frank Lanier
Northeast Boating Magazine (2007)
Chesapeake Bay Magazine (2007)


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.


  1. Plan out your strategy and walk the crew through it beforehand, ensuring everyone knows their role and that “the plan” addresses any special circumstances to the extent possible (opposing winds and current, proximity of other vessels, etc). Two crew members on the foredeck is a good number, one to pick up the mooring pennant with the boat hook, another to take the boat hook (once the pennant is onboard) place it safely out of the way, then assist as needed – additional crewmembers will likely just be in the way.
  2. Establish hand signals or review existing ones used between helmsman and crew to convey information such as distance and direction of the mooring ball, speed of approach, etc. Use of FRS hand held radios or wireless headsets are also good options to consider.
  3. If you carry an anchor at the bow, it may interfere with the mooring line – plan ahead and know what you’ll do if it does (temporary relocation, etc).
  4. After assignment by the harbor master or while selecting a mooring ball, cruise by to check it out – a “dry run” prior to an actual attempt to pick it up is also a good idea. Scoping out the situation lets you see the type and condition of the mooring ball and pennants, while a practice run provides insight on how existing winds and current will affect your approach. For example, if the pennant isn’t floating in the lee of the mooring ball, you’ll likely have some current to deal with.


  1. Have crewmembers don PFDs.
  2. Have a boat hook handy – gloves too, as floating mooring pennants can be encrusted with barnacles or other marine growth.
  3. Some moorings require you to pass a line from your boat through the eye of the painter and back to your vessel. Prepare this line in advance, making sure it’s rigged properly and of sufficient length. You may want to use your own line to attach directly to the ball if the mooring pennants are worn or encrusted with growth.
  4. Stage a small anchor or “lunch hook” out of the way, but ready for quick deployment should the need arise (engine failure, fouled props, etc). Having an anchor ready to deploy provides additional time to address the situation without damaging other vessels or running aground.
  5. If towing a dingy, shorten up the painter prior to mooring (to prevent it from fouling the prop) or better yet secure it alongside using a bow and stern line.
  6. Keep an eye out for smaller vessels or swimmers and snorkerlers in warmer waters.

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:

  1. Cleat off one end of a long line at the bow (to act as a bridle) and route it outside the stanchions aft to the helm.
  2. Slowly motor up alongside the mooring (or back up to it, depending on you plan) until the mooring ball is at the corner of the stern.
  3. Shift the engine into neutral.
  4. Grab the pendant with a boat hook, then slip the end of your bridle through it and walk the line back up to the bow and cleat it off.
  5. Turn the engine off, afterwards adjusting the bridle length as necessary.

Sailing on to a mooring

       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 conditions, etc.

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.