There’s no doubt that rafting-up can be one of the most enjoyable of boating activities. Getting together with friends on the water to kick back, relax, swim, lunch and enjoy a variety of water sports with your vessels serving as home base just always seems like a good idea during the heat of late summer.
Of course, things tend to go a lot more smoothly if everyone is on the same page when it comes to linking up. While fun is the name of the game, anytime you are on the water it’s best to have a few ground rules on which all can agree. That helps to prevent unintentional bumps, scratched paint jobs, misunderstandings, accidents and the like.
With just that thought in mind, here’s a quick list of tips and points to keep in mind as you set up your first or next raft-up. Some are more flexible than others, and all are open to debate, so consider these starting points for discussion. Keep in mind, however that having too many rules is nearly as bad as not having enough. Thus, the prime directive should begin with this one simple premise: Keep it safe and keep it fun. Follow that train of thought and everything else should fall into place.
Location: Out of the wind, out of the current and away from any place that may have serious boat wakes works best. Ideally, look for a place that is buffered by the shore with access to shallow water or a beach where kids can wade, swim or dinghy to shore.
Anchoring: Start with the biggest boats in the middle and smaller boats on the outside edges to balance out the raft. The largest boat should anchor first. It’s a good idea to set an anchor off both the bow and stern if possible. Yes, you’ll be tied off to another boat, possibly two, but don’t count on their anchors to hold you in place.
Permission: It seems silly to have to point this out, but protocol requires you ask for permission to tie-up alongside another boat in an existing raft. While this may not be a problem with friends, some boats these days raft up alongside strangers in areas where docking and mooring are limited. If you don’t know the skipper, you should approach slowly and ask to join the raft from a reasonably safe distance.
Fenders: You need several of these, at least two or three per side depending on boat size. Hanging a life jacket over the side simply will not cut it when your boat wants to rub up against its neighbor. Bring the biggest ones you have - a minimum of 10 inches - and secure them all over the side before you approach the raft to tie-up. Also, be sure to have a rope or two at the ready in case they are needed.
Tying-In: Approach the raft from behind, watching out for stern anchor lines and people in the water. Slowly move up past the line, drop anchor, reverse, and back into position to ensure tension on the anchor line. Be sure to tie-in next to a boat of similar size. Lines should made fast to cleats only, in case the raft-up has separate quickly. Keep your engine running until the lines are tied and, when leaving a raft, don’t untie the lines until the engine is running and the departing captain has indicated he is ready to shove off.
Be aware that size mismatches can make for a lot of banging around so tie up to a vessel similar to yours in size and, when possible, style.
Boat Alignment: Usually, the swim platforms of each boat are aligned and used to move from boat to boat. That’s safer than climbing over gunwales. Tie off at the bow and stern, and use spring lines amidships to fine-tune positioning.
Common Courtesy: Do not climb or walk over another boat’s seating, coolers, etc. unless invited to do so. Do not cross at the bow. If you smoke, take a position as far downwind as possible and be sure to contain your ashes. If you want to smoke on another vessel, ask permission first as many ships run smoke free. Shoes that can scuff the deck should be removed before moving from you vessel to another. Ask if it’s okay to bring food aboard another vessel of if you should leave it behind in your own craft if you move from boat to boat. Be considerate when cranking up the tunes. Just because you have the ultimate sound system doesn’t mean you have the right to drown out your neighbors.
Lastly, brief your crew about your own set of guidelines before tying into any raft. That should always be the final point before telling them to “Go have fun!”