Boats take damage when they run into things. But does it matter what it runs into? Does it take less damage running into dirt than, say, cobblestone for instance? I know soul sand doesn't hurt boats, but is there a more mundane material recommended for building docks?

Also, does it only take damage if you run into something while going fast? If you slow down and gently land at your dock will the boat be ok?

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    I'm not sure if the boat takes damage so much as it has a damage threshold. This means you can hit a boat against a block and take damage as many times as you want, but once you finally hit it just hard enough to pass the threshold the boat will break. I don't know if this threshold changes from one block to the other (except Soul Sand because of its implementation) but I think every block will allow you to hit it at some sort of non-zero speed without breaking. – Sadly Not Apr 15 '11 at 20:25
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    Summerizing @Sadly's answer: Damage is not cumulative. Slow speed is safer. – Arkive Apr 15 '11 at 20:27
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    Summarising @Arkive's answer: Damage not kept. Slow good. – Stu Pegg Apr 15 '11 at 22:03
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    Summarising @Stuart's answer: Slow! – AnnanFay Apr 15 '11 at 22:43
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    Summarising @Annan's answer: ⏯ – o0'. Apr 16 '11 at 12:13

Just some important points from the Minecraft Boat Wiki that you may find useful.

If you enter sneak mode while on a boat, the boat will not break on impact while traveling at high speed.

Boats do not break when running into Soul Sand at water level, because Soul Sand has a lower top surface so that the boat merely runs aground rather than crashing, so it is useful to make docks and harbors out of soul sand.

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    Basically, build docks and channels with soul sand, remove ice with underwater glowstone, avoid high speed collisions and you should be safe! – badp Apr 15 '11 at 21:10

As was mentioned in the comments, boats do not take cumulative damage from running into things. There is a threshold of damage above which it breaks up. Below that you can bump it gently as many times as you want without losing it. It doesn't look like the type of block you run into matters, just your speed. And running into something in sneak mode prevents it from breaking up at all.

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