How did big sailing boats dock?

I’ve just come back from a holiday where I visited Helsinki from Estonia, which required a ferry trip across the Baltic. Helsinki has a large port, which is also very busy and complicated to navigate (there’s several islands in the entrance to the port and lots of channels).

How would a large sail powered sailing ship have docked at a port like this? The ferry I was on had an engine, which meant it could move anywhere the captain wanted, but a sail powered ship would be depending on the winds blowing in the right direction. Did the boat get towed in by a oar powered boat? Did they just wait for the winds to change? Combine this with lots of other ships wanting to dock or move out, no RADAR, radio etc. and I can see chaos.

How exactly was it done?

My WAG is that they used the capstan to pull the ship to the dock.

Practice, harbor pilots, tug boats with teams of rowers, waiting around until wind and tide were right, overloaded vessels, chaos, threats against other vessels.

Oh, and also standing off and loading cargo onto smaller vessels that can more easily enter into a tricksy harbor mouth.

But, for a sailboat with triangular sails, the “right direction” for the wind takes in a lot of ground; maybe about 270 degrees of the compass.

The captain would also have to account for the tides (that’s why you hear of ships sailing on the tide), but would have access to tide tables. As long as the wind is not blowing directly from the harbor, there’s a lot a skilled captain can do.

Other ships would be doing the same thing as your ship, and there were rules of the right of way which would say who had to give way.

“If you foul my hawse I’ll cut your cable, you hulking Dutch built bugger!”

-Patrick O’Brian

The famous clipper ships of the mid-nineteenth century were built very long and slender (5:1, 6:1 even 7:1). Which accounted for their impressive speed on transoceanic runs but made them so unwieldy in harbor that they almost always had to be towed in and out by tugs. Although they represented the pinnicle of wood & sail technology, they would never have been practical if it hadn’t been for the first generation of steam powered vessels serving as harbor tugs

In the days prior to tugboats it was more common for sailing ships to moor to a buoy or set an anchor. They’d then load and unload by ferrying cargo to & from shore in small boats (usually rowed).

Replace “were” with “are”.

I’ve never sailed a big sailing vessel and this is a total WAG. However I can imagine a three step process something like this. Of course fenders would have to be used to keep the ship from grinding agains the dock.

The book Two Years Before the Mast is a narrative of Harvard-educated author Richard Henry Dana’s experience as a seaman in the early 19th century. His voyage departed from Boston to the California coast, where he spent the better part of two years trading for hides before returning. He describes the operation of the ship in great detail. From his descriptions, sailing into and out of Boston’s harbor was accomplished by taking on a harbor pilot and just sailing when the winds and tides were favorable. On the California coast, which was largely undeveloped at the time, ships would drop anchor and moor in natural harbors near a beach and cargo would be ferried back and forth in rowboats. Pilots and captains took great pride in their ship-handling prowess and being able to dock quickly and elegantly or retrieve your cable without dropping a second anchor was a sign of skill.

I assume that sailing ship handlers got to be as good as those of today. For an eye-opening display go down to Firsherman’s Landing in San Diego and watch the fishing boad captains handle their 80-100 footers in tight quarters. The enter the dock area, turn on a dime with their prow or stern just inches from the docks and boats around them and put the craft alongside the pier in a space that some us would have trouble parking a car. All that without water jet steering or fancy stuff like that. Just twin screws, two engines and a rudder.