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The Evolution of Marina Fenders

Over the years, marina fenders have developed and improved. Learn about the evolution of marina fenders and what makes a great marina fender today.

The Evolution of Marina Fenders

We all experience it at some time in our boating life - that grinding scraping sound which is not normal in our marina!  Either whilst entering or exiting our berths, or in the worst-case scenario a major weather event or mechanical failure, some damage to our pristine topsides through contact with our marina piers, piles or even a neighbouring vessel may occur.  In many cases significantly less damage, or indeed none at all, can occur with high quality (not necessarily meaning high price), well installed marina fenders.

The History of Marina Fenders

Over the years, since marinas first arrived on our shores, marina fenders have developed and improved.  In the early days they were narrow rubber strips attached to the floating pier, generally during construction, augmented with us all throwing some white oblong fenders over the sides of our boats before entering or exiting the berth, coupled with having as many willing bodies as possible available to grab lines or fend off.  Oh, they were the days, or were they?!

The southern hemispheres high UV index also caused havoc with unprotected fenders or those covered in some of the older or cheaper materials available a few years ago. The earlier foam used was of varying densities with resultant variable protection.

Today’s Marina Fenders

Current fenders, designed specifically for marina attachment, generally fit within three groups:

- At the lower end of the range, both in terms of longevity and price, are the one-piece molded type fender, also called a pneumatic fender as they are generally inflated to a low PSI level.  Whilst potentially a good solution for a small vessel like a small power boat, they are generally not suitable for permanent use with larger vessels housed in a marina. Due to being a single pneumatic cavity, as the fenders age the UV degradation discolors and hardens the fender’s exterior.  This causes them to become susceptible to losing air pressure through cracking and over time and can lead to significant damage and marking vessel topsides.  They also don’t generally meet many “Marina Policies” on fenders due to the through bolt attachment system, but more on this later.

- In the middle are the bulk of the newer products now being installed. They use new high UV resistant covers with significantly improved frictionless surfaces and rip stop technology to enable hulls to slide along without catching, grabbing, or damaging topside gelcoat or paint systems.  New closed cell foam products, the work horse inside almost all permanently attached fenders, have also undergone a major upgrade in recent years.  In some cases, more than one foam product is used within the fender to create the best possible cushion affect for vessels but with the added strength to prevent damage.

- At the top of the range are the more bespoke fenders, sometimes designed specifically for a particular vessel, some including personal branding and colour and invariably having a final covering of fabrics up to marine carpet type coverings.  These can become a real masterpiece, in particular for boat owners who wish their marina berth to look every bit as upmarket as their vessel!

Corners and Dock Wheels

The sharp corner of the pier at the entrance to every marina berth is a known danger zone.  It is this corner that does the most damage to boats.  There are several good options that can mitigate this risk.

  1. Install a marina corner fender. Not all marinas are the same so very few options are available here. 
  2. Install a normal marina fender by bending it around the corner and use some extra fasteners to hold it in place. While not pretty, this can be quite effective in the right situations.  Attaching fenders around a corner requires some consideration and care as when your boat presses against the corner, there is very little fender foam that comes into contact with the vessel and it will be compressed very easily.  It’s not like a boat lying up against a full-length fender, all the load goes over a very small area.  There are some fenders available that are made of a higher density foam and designed to bend around corners just for these reasons.  Ironically, the denser foam makes it harder to bend the fender around the corner and these are more suited to gradual corners rather than sharp corners.    
  3. The most popular and best option is to install one or two dock wheels on the corner. Dock wheels are designed specifically for corners and usually consist of a bracket with a dense foam wheel mounted on it.  As a boat press on the dock wheel while going past it, the wheel rotates with the hull.  While very effective, they are not designed to take the loads of a vessel leaning on them and using it as a pivot wheel.  Doing so will overload the wheel and could result in damage to a vessels hull or the dock wheel.  Attaching them also requires a thorough inspection of the dock and an appropriate dock wheel and mounting method selected.

Marina Pole Fenders

Marina poles never used to be a concern as most boats were fitted with toe rails or rub strips around them that would keep the hull surface from contacting with a marina pole if the boat happened to press up against it.  Nowadays, with the large increase in production vessels such as Beneteau, Jeanneau, Hanse,Dehler, Moody, Dufour, Absoluteetc, some of which do not have toes rails or rub strips fitted, marina poles have become a large point of concern as contact with a marina pole can now result in instant damage to a vessel’s topside.  Pole fenders have become a popular solution to this problem, effectively creating a fender around the pole which protects the topsides and moves up and down the marina pole with the tide.       


Marina Policies for Fenders

Today most marinas have strict policies on the standards and installation requirements for marina fenders.  Some of these requirements are governed by the construction method of the marina piers and fingers.  For example, many marinas have a requirement to be able to tighten large lateral bolts through the piers themselves, thus demanding that any fenders that hang down over the whalers (the wooden or composite beams that surround the concrete pontoons) can be removed or lifted / flipped out of the way easily to enable this regular maintenance to occur.

Installation and Fender Accessories

While the DIY owner still exist today, more commonly installation has moved on to more specialist installers with boat owners seemingly becoming more time poor and wanting their vessel to be ready to go so it can be enjoyed.  Full marina berth set ups including various fender solutions coupled with mooring lines all customized and specifically installed to suit each vessel has become the norm. 

To the owner still keen to do their own installation, there is a large range of products and lots of advice (not all of it good unfortunately) out there to allow you to fit out your berth.  But make sure the product you are selecting is fit for purpose for your vessel, your marina and meets the marina’s policies.