If you own a boat, then you’re probably rather familiar with what constitutes a dock.
Indeed, unless you lower your vessel into the water with a trailer each and every time you use it, you can’t exactly board your boat without one.
Unless you keep your boat in a spot where the water level never rises or falls, chances are good that the dock you use floats.
This is also what’s known as a floating dock.
If you’re considering replacing a floating dock, or you need to buy a floating dock for the first time due to the recent purchase of a boat or a new piece of property (or both—maybe you hit the jackpot, right?), then it’s worth spending some time figuring out which is the best floating dock option for your needs.
First, let’s answer some common questions about floating docks.
How to Choose and Use a Floating Dock with Your Boat
An Introduction to the Floating Dock
What is the difference between a dock, a pier and a wharf?
The short answer is size.
Wharves tend to be very large, sized for commercial shipping, in fact, and are often solid in design, acting as a breakwater.
Piers can range in size from a structure large enough to accommodate a cruise ship to a platform sized for a family’s motorboat. They can be fixed fast to pylons or can be designed to rise and fall with the tide (which is to say, float) but almost always allow water to flow freely.
In its singular form, the word “dock” is usually used to refer to a smaller platform designed to serve a moderately sized boat, which is to say anything from a small pontoon boat to a yacht, but not an ocean liner.
If someone says “the docks,” plural, note that they may well mean a huge network of slips, anchorages and so forth.
How are floating docks different from fixed docks?
Well, floating docks float, fixed docks don’t.
In some cases, such as in lakes, rivers or reservoirs which are not subject to notable changes in water level, a fixed dock mounted on posts makes a stable, reliable platform.
In many bodies of water, however, the tide level rises and falls, and a floating dock is the only logical choice.
The benefits of a floating dock
While floating docks aren’t quite as stable as fixed docks in terms of balance, they offer several benefits beyond their obvious ability to ride the tide.
For one, a floating dock can easily be repositioned or fully removed as needed, whereas a fixed dock must essentially be dismantled to be altered or moved.
A floating dock is also usually much more affordable than a fixed, permanent dock, requiring much less rigorous design and installation.
Add to that this fact: A floating dock of a size appropriate for use by a single boat can usually be installed and ready to use in a single day. All things considered, you can probably appreciate why the floating dock is often the best dock option.
How much does a floating dock cost?
Okay, so we mentioned that floating docks are usually less pricey than permanent docks.
But what can you actually expect to pay? As with most things in life, that all depends. You might spend $600 or you might spend $6,000.
As a basic rule of thumb, you can assume that a floating dock will cost you between $20 and $35 per square foot.
The price—even outside that range—of course depends on materials, location and other factors, but that’s a safe average to give you a basis to work from.
If you take the 100% DIY approach to building your floating dock, using something like the modular Dock Blocks Floating Dock kit (check price on Amazon here), you can save yourself some money.
Pick a pre-build dock using more traditional materials and you’ll spend a bit more. If you want a floating dock that will last a decade or more and look great year after year, even if you go DIY, you’re going to spend extra.
The Best Types of Floating Docks
Any floating dock that is large enough for your boat and stable enough for the people and gear on top of it is serving its purpose.
There isn’t one type of material that’s inherently better or worse for constructing a floating dock. The different materials simply offer different qualities.
The three most common floating dock materials are plastic, aluminum and wood, so we’ll go through these types of docks here.
Plastic floating docks
A floating dock made primarily from plastic (which covers a host of durable, chemically-derived materials).
One example is this one offered by EZ Dock. It might not have the good looks of a wooden dock, but it’s usually the most affordable option, and plastic can’t rust or rot.
Even UV-treated plastics can eventually endure some sun damage, including discoloration and cracking, though, and these docks will likely need replacement after a number of years.
Aluminum floating docks
Aluminum floating docks are common and popular due to their durability. A dock made out of this lightweight but rugged metal can endure an impact from a boat or the thrashing of a storm with much more resilience than a plastic or wooden dock might offer.
Aluminum is resistant to corrosion but not impervious to it, so an aluminum floating dock will be worn down with time and exposure to the elements.
An aluminum dock, such as one made by Rolling Barge (check price on Amazon) is a great choice for use during part of the year and for removal and storage during the winter. The lightweight nature of aluminum makes this easy to hitch to an ATV or SUV and tow it away.
This limited exposure will greatly prolong its lifespan.
When you order a Rolling Barge floating dock, all you need to add are the barrels (to make it float) and the decking material, whatever you may choose.
The aluminum floating docks by Rolling Barge are perhaps the most exciting type of floating dock, in that you could slap an outboard engine on the back and let it take you—along with the whole family, your pets and a barbecue—out on the water. Crazy, right? It’s basically a makeshift pontoon.
The premium floating dock frames by Playinc come with a resin top, and these babies are well reinforced and extra durable (check price on Amazon). You won’t be able to use this one as a pontoon, but you’ll be able to count on it wholeheartedly given the strength of its materials.
And, since more options are always better than fewer options, you can check out the Patriot straight roll-in dock with cedar deck (check price on Amazon). This comes with a lovely cedar deck on top, for anyone who’s craving that more classic dock look.
It also comes with wheels to roll it to and from the water, making it ridiculously easy to move around as needed.
Wood floating docks
A wooden dock has the look everyone loves. Great Northern Docks makes some great examples of why. Wood is the classic building material when it comes to a floating dock, and it remains popular not merely for the nostalgia factor, but because wood is a great material for building a floating dock.
It naturally floats (though pontoons and/or foam floats should always be used also—wood can waterloo beyond buoyancy), it’s readily cut into shape and it’s durable.
Wooden floating docks can be expensive depending on the type of wood used, however, and they do require maintenance—often including extensive sanding, staining and sealing—if they’re to last a good number of years.
Bonus: Inflatable floating docks?
An inflatable dock is usually designed for recreation—as in, you use it as the object of recreation, not as a boarding platform for a recreational boating excursion.
These large platforms, often called floating islands, are rarely stable enough for safe use as boat boarding or disembarking structure.
There are only a few exceptions to this rule, like the E Style Inflatable Air Floating Dock (check price on Amazon). This can be used as a relatively durable seasonal dock for small vessels like jet skis and the like.
It can also be affixed to a larger boat to keep any smaller crafts you may own attached at the dock.
Whereas a traditional floating dock is connected to land with a fixed gangplank, inflatable floating docks usually use just a simple anchor, if anything. That means they don’t really provide a place for a boat to be secured, which is the primary point of the dock.
And of course, being inflatable, they’re not durable or permanent.
That said, an inflatable dock can be used in conjunction with a boat, either floated away from the vessel as a swimmer’s or fishermen’s platform, or to help people get out of the water and onto the boat.
The key is that it shouldn’t be thought of as the primary spot for the boat to tie up. Anything that can potentially deflate and sink is just not a safe or permanent docking solution.
Ready to float on?
Make the big decision about which dock to set up for your boat today, and enjoy the convenience of your floating dock next time you’re easily getting everyone in the family to hop aboard for a day trip.