Keith, all certificated seaplane pilots are absolute experts - and since I am the youngest here, I'll write up my perspective of things.
Its Sunday and who wants to go to church, anyways, right?Real Floatplane Pilot Docking Procedures
REAL floatplane pilots never miss the dock. In fact many of them are able to shut the engine off approximately 2.23 miles away from the dock in a stiff breeze, finishing their paperwork with their left foot dangling out the door. Then they light up a Cigar, graciously step on the float, nonchalantly place their hand on the strut and then stand there like the Marlboro man while the airplane magically floats exactly to where they wanted it. The coolest ones will do a perfect 9.5 grace step right onto the dock with the tiedown rope ready to tie the airplane securely with some magic looking knot they won't be able to "explain" to us common folk. All this while the airplane ever so gently, softly bumps against the perfectly positioned bumper tires. The airplane never hits the dock hard or at an angle or in any way shape or form that would leave the bystander doing anything but stand there, with an open mouth and deep admiration for the skill at hand. Its those pilots who can tie an airplane up securely enough to withstand a hurricane - yet when they want to go again, they go wiggle wiggle, push the plane off the dock and PFFFT! gone they are.Common Folk And Student Procedures
If (and that's a big if) the aircraft structure remained intact enough during the landing impact to still be floating, our first task is to provide first aid and level one counseling to those who think they just died. During instructional flights its better to leave the engine running and the headset on (open the window to alleviate pressure) until the pissed off cooking mad old guy with the red head and veins popping out of their throat on the right seat has stopped screaming and name-calling. While it is impossible in common aircraft to remain out of that guys reach, at least don't speak to avoid being grabbed by the neck and being slammed through the panel repeatedly. Many students have died this way. Pay attention to where they point their fingers, it likely helps you to determine where land might be indicating a general direction which you should attempt to point the aircraft to on your return trip to shore. It is now handy to use these large hunting binoculars.
You can do it,
Eventually you may see land buildings, docks, boats, things that look as if someone may park an airplane next to. A good indicator that your intended spot is in fact a seaplane base dock is the presence of other planes and a lack of screaming people on shore who are waving their arms frantically trying to shoo you away. Pay attention to what they scream. If they are waving their arms and scream something about docks, you might be mistaken and they are in fact yelling about ROCKS! If there is a way to beach the aircraft, it is humane to try and sneak this procedure into the mix, you can always lie and say you need more training with beaching. With most evil instructors up to no good these days, follow orders to avoid major altercations and bodily harm. Chances are they wish to see you dock the vessel. It is fairly simple to find large rocks simply by listening to the noise coming from the right seat. Consider that person like a screaming sonar or a particularly angry fish finder. The more it wiggles and screams, the closer you are to things that may possibly sink your ship.
Now, lets assume land has in fact appeared (verify nationality by flags or language) and you were able to identify a dock. It is now time to at least get the aircraft pointed in the general direction. Always aim for a space that has at least the capacity to take on a class IV cruise ship (5000 passengers or more) and you want at least 6,423 feet prior and 6,000-10,000 feet behind the intended docking spot of absolutely clear space. Again, you can test by aiming for other spots and listen to the obstacle finder on the right seat. Once those things are appearing safe, it is now time to prepare the captain for the docking procedure.Pre Docking And Docking
It is now prune to take off any piece of clothing you wish to use for the remainder of the day. Cellphones, wallets, things you wish to keep, neck chains, jewelery, everything you wish to remain dry should now come off. Yes, the seatbelt too! (Ask me how I know). It is now prune to speak a short prayer and take the headset off (GOD NO DUDE!!! Don't put that ON the damn instrument panel, do you want to die???) At this point you wish to make darn sure that no piece of the headsets cable is wrapped or caught on you! Chances are the connector plug piece will snap but the headset may strangle, hit or kill you first while you fall into the water. Sometimes you can play with the magnetos (it makes the engine sound sick or with the mixture to bring this giant meat-grinder to a stop before you hit things. Sometimes your judgement is clouded which is when you want to wait for the angry fish-finder guy or gal to do stuff.
Open the door and attempt to step on the float, never taking your eyes from the prize (general direction of land). You may now either find a desire to use the paddles strapped to the floats or wish you had an anchor because chances are, you're too far out to jump and swim or way to fast to manage a full evacuation of the neighborhood. Doing It Again - And Once More For Grandpa
With increasing noise levels in the cabin, or if the engine suddenly starts cranking, its probably time to get back inside and face the music. Chances are, you're doing it again or need to burn another 3 gallons trying to get closer to the dock. Eventually, you will find yourself on the float just in time when the airplane is close enough to the dock to dare the jump. I know what you are thinking - "What about that graceful step?!" but forget about it. In times of distress it is absolutely natural to feel the way you do
and its sometimes better to at least make sure you will in fact hit the dock before slowly sliding into the water between the aircaft's float and the rubber tires. Once on the dock however, the noise levels should subside. You will likely be busy with tying the impossible knot while the other end of the float tries to weather-vane far enough out to make you take another swim. Here it helps to hold on to any line attached to the aircraft - not
the dock! Holding on to a rope attached to the dock won't keep the airplane around and chances are the screaming red headed guy is already grumpy and on his way out of the cabin. It absolutely sucks to watch the last occupant of your aircraft walk off with a $150K dollar toy making it back out to sea. After tie down it pays your weight in gold to just sit on the dock next to the airplane for 15 minutes or so. If someone comes by asking what you're doing, you can always say that you are "reflecting" on the flight when in fact you're worried sick that the darn plane will develop some devilish way of leaving dock on its own.Don't try to look cool!
The last thing you wish to do is try to look cool while doing any of this, again - it is perfectly human to cry, shake, call for mommy or wish you were dead.
Fortunately, most seaplane pilots watching you throughout the ordeal are not laughing about you, they are laughing from the painful reminder about their own past, watching another greenhorn going through the phases towards becoming the worlds bestest seaplane pilot. Eventually things click, or if you are like me, you'll just start a discussion forum for other seaplane pilots in hopes to learn and help others be prepared to learn.