Next time you walk down the dock or stare over the rail at the pretty boats nestled
snugly in their their berths, consider how it all came about. In the past that 18′ open bow was a snap to bring in. She’d slide right up to the dock and hug the rub rail. Toss a few lines to the cleats and day is done. Go get the truck and trailer and get on down the road. In bigger marinas where we launched I always had to linger and look at the ‘big boats.’ Those 30 footers with fly bridges and big wide sterns. Not once did I ever give any thought to how they got there.
Docking is one of the top 3 topics around docktails at the end of the day. Maybe #1 unless someone brings up what kind of anchor to use. We talk about marinas we like, tides and currents. Dock hands that help, and places you are all alone. We talk about slip widths and water depth. We discuss approaches in detail and how the wind will “walk yer boat back out into the channel before you can say “ahh crap.” We trade stories about this nick and that gouge, those props with the polished edges and that stain on the stern. . .
All for good reason. It’s cathartic. Getting 20 tons to do what we want in tight quarters is like chaperoning 20 teenagers on a camp out with only one helper. Things get loose, they get away from us and things get tense. Not the kind of tense you feel waiting for the dentist hoping the shots have taken effect before he gets back. No, it’s the kind of tense you feel when someone blows a red light 3 feet in front of you. When that ATV four wheeler on the trailer in front of you makes that first bounce onto I-75 after falling off. Like the first time you make acquaintance with black ice. My heart in my throat, Jan coaxing, pleading “Port baby, go to port right now!” all the while trying desperately to keep calm.
We talk about it because it helps. “Hello, my name is Lee. I suck at docking.” It usually takes a while. No one gives up the good stuff right out of the gate. “Yep, nicked a piling one time, pushed me into the dock pretty hard.” If you hang out long enough it devolves into “Honey, remember that time you dropped both engines into forward full throttle while you were putting that cover on the helm?” Those are the good ones. The stories you just smile and say to yourself “Yes!! Haven’t done THAT yet!!”
As it worked out, our docking events rather grew in complexity as we made our way south last year after moving on-board. First, the face dock at Coinjock. No big deal. No current, hardly anyone else there. Slip up to the dock and toss some lines to the dock hands. Done deal. Wrightsville Beach, not so much. Another face dock (where we don’t have to get into a slip but rather just pull up alongside) only this time things aren’t working out. I start my turn towards the dock a bit early. The tide is roaring down the ICW coming head on to me. So even though we’re barely moving into the current, the boat is seeing about 4 knots of flow across the 4′ deep pretty pointed bow. Remember rolling the windows down and putting your hand out there to fly it like a plane. Yeah, same thing. The pointy bow gets caught in the current and in and instant we’re being turned head on into the dock. Not good. As our good friend Dustin told us, “do the right thing, go around.” Reminded me of those war movies where they wave off the carrier pilots because only one wheel is down. I’m thinking how is it going to end any differently the next time?
But, we figure it out and come in at a more shallow angle to a nice neat tap against the dock, all is good. It’s the slips that get you. We almost always back in. The boarding gate is to stern and most docks are no where near 40′ long. That’s when the pucker factor goes off the chart. Calm day, no wind, no current not too bad. Biggest problem I have is I cannot see the stern. At all. Can’t see Jan, can’t tell where the boat is relative to the pilings, dock, other boats (at least not up close.) So at this point, Jan is the Captain. I’m just a wheel hand. “Slow, come port just a bit. . .that’s it, now straight back.” Straight back from where I’m standing looks like a head on collision with the end of the finger dock we’re supposed to be coming alongside. For months I would just wait for the crash.
First off, slow is a relative term. We have 30″ wheels (propellers) with a 24″ pitch. This means every revolution each prop grabs 24 inches of water and moves it. Right now. We idle at 500 RPM, divided by a 2:1 reduction in the tranny – that’s 4 of those turns every second. Our slowest speed is 5 knots. 5 knots in a marina feels like your going through the aisles at Kroger in a 396 Chevelle with Holly double pumpers. It can’t happen. So I snick each gear lever in and out of gear. In for a one count, back out. In for half a count, back out. But wait there’s more. We have two wheels. Pulling Sarah (our starboard engine) into reverse causes the stern to tug to port. Same with port side. When I engage Pam, Shangri-La drags to starboard. Putting them both in gear means we’re pulling a ton of water with every revolution. So it’s left, right stand up, sit down fight, fight, fight!
Actually after a while, it’s much smoother than the herky jerky we started out with. Having twins means we can literally rotate Shangri-La on her own axis. One engine forward, the other reverse. The real fun is creeping into the slip. “Back, back straight back baby.” To me it looks like the swim platform should resemble someone tossing a case of Popsicle sticks into the water by now. “You got 4 feet baby.” Some day I’ll figure out what four feet looks like from 12′ up in the air behind a sofa and dingy. Until then, Jan’s the boss.
It’s all about the spring line. Amid ship are two cleats and a hawsehole through which the lines run through the gunnel. Jan’s first task upon us getting pretty much ‘there’ is to capture a cleat with the mid ship spring line and stop the boat from moving back while we tie it in. If there’s a dock master that’s his job, Jan just tells him where to tie off. If it were just that simple. Half the time they come up asking for a bow line or a stern line. “Nope, take this spring line, and put it on that cleat.” Jan has taken to this First Mate position with all seriousness. They do what she tells them to do. It’s our boat, our responsibility. And she means business.
So when does it suck? Our first shot at a slip was in Carolina Beach. Next to the slip, out on the face dock is a huge old sailboat with a massive rusty anchor dangling off the bow. My first go at the slip in a treacherous wind got us up against that anchor. Reading the wind is critical. And I blew it big time. We got in, but not without some help from a number of boaters. “That’ll buff out” is I’m certain, a boating term. At least you hear it a lot on the docks.
By the time we got to Ft. Meyers in March we were feeling pretty good about our teamwork on the deck. Jan had wiggled us into a slip where ‘there aren’t any available’ after her injury. We had to stuff Shangri-La into a 45 degree angled nest on the inside bend of the pier. And we did. Leaving, not so easy but we sure made it look good. On to West Palm. The marina is about 600 yards from the inlet to the Atlantic. When the tide comes and goes, it is an incredible current, faster than many rivers. They warned us, be careful. The tide is going out and we’re backing in. With both engines in gear we’re drifting backward into the slip. And the finger dock is about 3 feet long. Holy Moly!!
The dock master met us coming in and advised on the VHF radio “you back down to the finger dock, I’ll jump on then we go forward and I’ll tie you off to the piling.” Sure, piece of cake. The current is beyond wild and now we’re going to do a high wire act on the railing while Captain Lee craps his pants. But we did it. That kid walked out front and kept going like he was a lemming going over the edge. Got us tied in and we walked it (well drove it, but that’s the term we use) back into the slip. My heart didn’t stop pounding for a half hour.
So we got this right? Over 50 dockings and they are getting easier every time. Almost. We pulled into our current marina in Beaufort, NC with a steady breeze in the air. Blowing straight onto the port side. We present a fair amount of ‘sail’ when we’re broadside to the wind. Across the runway is Bobby John, standing on the bridge of his beautiful yacht – watching. I’ll be doing my pirouette to make the 90 degree turn for backing into the slip directly in front of his boat. I setup my turn, we have a crowd on the dock ready to assist. Good to go.
Once I get entirely turned, I start backing in. “No, no not here!!” I hear from my First Mate. What the heck? I’m lined up with the wrong slip. Ok, a bit more wind than I planned for. Keep in mind, the runway is about 60′ across from piling to piling and there are boats in many of the slips, some – like Bobby John’s, that hang out into the runway. We’re 46′ overall. With the bow of the boat across sticking into the runway, we have less than seven feet on each end of us. And we’re blowing sideways. Second go round, I’m all lined up, ready to launch. Nope, wrong slip on the other side of ours. Made the turn too soon. Wind is picking up now and I’m over compensating.
Funny thing about docking. You don’t get to pull off in a Walmart parking lot, get out of the car and think it over. Wind is still blowing and now we’re basically overweight out of control flotsam in the marina. “Hi my name is Lee, I still suck at docking.” Round three, and it comes together. “Starboard baby, swim platform is close, go now, NOW!” and then it’s over. Spring line is on and I’m christened the official pole dancer at our new home for now. It never ends. Learning to properly read the elements is part of this great adventure. The adrenaline rush when it’s over is unlike any I’ve had in my past. Jan and I high-five and tie her in.