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Adventures in Docking

By Derek Rupe

Adventures in DockingCaptains learn to recognize fear in eyes of the crew. I’ve seen fear, deep fear, white eyes and long stares. I wish these moments were always on hard crossings, rough groundings, or the occasional dismasting. But alas, terror is most likely experienced during the mundane task of leaving or returning to the slip. This is especially prevalent in people who grew up boating and have developed a Pavlovian fear response to being in the vicinity of a docking boat.

Too many boats are seldom used, the author reckons, because a lot of sailing couples haven’t mastered the nuances of incident-free docking.

I am an amateur student of the human condition, and as such try to observe how other people go about their lives. In the case of boating, I’ve made a study of docking; in particular how the human dynamics of communication and social interaction have a similar effect on the movements of a vessel as the tide against the keel and the wind on the freeboard.

There is of course a spectrum of particulars, but I’ve observed three stereotypical couples. They represent three states, probably not linear stages but more likely three paths with three different destinations.

The Blameless Dictator

Our first example can be found on any vessel, but I like to imagine most people with boats much nicer than mine fall into this bucket. The captain in this stereotypical couple is usually male, but not always. When docking, the captain is a blameless dictator who remains planted at the helm. He shouts orders, often in a condescending way, and blames everyone else for whatever is happening to the boat. The deckhand runs around, attempting inhuman feats of strength in an ever-changing situation as new orders and admonishments are issued. In the worst case, that deckhand has long ago run out of the will to hustle, or lacks the physicality to do so, and watches helplessly as the boat scrapes its way down the finger.

Often any particular line is referred to as “The rope…No, not that rope!” All other docking instruments such as cleats, boathooks and fenders fall under the “That thingy…No, the other thingy!” designation.

There are a few reasons beyond the obvious why this is a bad strategy. The blameless dictator often does not know why the boat is behaving as it is. Having not grasped all the forces at play and the subtleties – or not-so-subtleties – of prop-walk, he covers for his own inadequacies by blaming the deckhand, explaining to everyone who has gathered – to pulling on docklines and kick off gunwales, how she wasn’t able to lasso a piling from 20 feet away or act as a fulcrum to swing a 14,000-pound vessel against the current. After assigning any failures to those around him, the captain comes to believe his blameless nature, which is reinforced with each recalling of the event. In the long run, the real failure of this system is that the captain never realizes he’s awful at docking, doesn’t practice, and doesn’t seek information or help.

There is a temptation to assume that this captain is a tyrant on land and the deckhand is always put upon, but that’s certainly not always the case. Many of these couples have great communication and interact positively outside of docking, but the worst comes out when the gelcoat’s in jeopardy. Beyond the captain not accepting responsibility for docking, the deckhand experiences increasing frustration at being admonished for things outside of their control…by the person actually responsible for smacking the dock.

The boat gets used less and less, and unless it serves as a dockside escape this couple will probably leave boating, although that’s not always the case. I often see couples that have been doing “the blameless dictator” for over 20 years by the looks of it, and plan to continue on well beyond the grave. I envy them a little; those captains without fault who know the failure of the boat to go upon its set course is due to the poor job everyone else is doing.

The Static Duo

The next typical couple is the effective, but none-too-adaptable, static duo. They have perfected pulling into and out of their home slip and have a great system for cleating lines and placing fenders. Floating docks make this process easier. And if the boat is kept on a mooring, fairly competent sailors can fall into the static duo category when docking.

This couple is reasonably confident because docking has become easy where they keep the boat, but that changes once they start cruising and need to pull it in somewhere new. This also goes for fair weather sailors who have only gone out on bluebird days and don’t know what to do when a crosswind kicks up. Communication is clear as long as the situation is familiar, but new roles aren’t clear once something new happens or plans change.

I’ve found that the more I learn about seamanship and sailing in particular, the less I perceive myself to know in general. There’s no better way to build false confidence then by having a string of successful dockings, without waves, wind or strong current, only to discover on a rough day, when you’d very much like to be back at the dock, that the captain and crew lack the skill to dock safely in adverse conditions.

Once things start going wrong, the captain can devolve to something close to the blameless dictator, but with one small difference. The deckhand in the static duo isn’t used to being assailed with orders like a maggot in boot camp. The deckhand’s reaction will most likely be to also lose their preverbal “stuff,” and chaos ensues.   

Once that confidence – and possibly that relationship – is shattered, boating becomes a less enjoyable experience…because what if it happens again? Sailing is full of difficult situations that can shatter one’s sense of competency, which is very hard for some. These folks seem to prefer to maintain their perceived high level of confidence by not leaving the dock anymore. Small tasks and a never-ending list of little but plausible excuses keep the boat safe in port, but as John A. Shedd told us, that’s not what boats are built for.

I have only a short time scale of observation and thus cannot compare the current state of boat utilization to any wonderful yesteryear, but it seems to me that most boats are rarely used. I often wake with a start in a cold sweat, thinking about all the passionate sailors who spent lots of money on a boat and continue to maintain it at great cost in time and treasure but don’t really use it. I’m sure there’s a perfectly good explanation, but I suspect that the real reason is fear and intimidation caused by a bad docking experience.

The Competent Couple

This brings us to our final couple. They may sound like a prototype, but I have witnessed a benevolent few who walk like Tolkien’s elves in the land of filthy, fallen humans. In these competent couples the female is usually the captain, though not always. Either individual is capable of helming, with whoever’s at the helm taking full responsibility for what’s happening to the vessel. Commands from the captain are quick, if at all, as both are situationally aware of the wind, current, boat position and speed as well as the rudder angle. Words like “port bow spring” and “breast cleat” accompany orders.

When these two are working together, rarely are docklines pulled or pilings pushed off of. The helmsman positions the vessel so they can tie off to windward, securing lines calmly and quickly. Typically, both adjust docklines once the boat is in position.

The competent couple doesn’t think they are good at docking, by the standards they have for themselves. This means that instead of steaming hard into the marina, they might slow down and strategize before getting into a tight space. If they’re in a strange port – or on an unfamiliar vessel – they might grab a mooring and scout with a dinghy to learn about tidal current and space to maneuver once inside.

This couple was not born good at docking, but they worked on it. When things do not go right there are no blame games, but it’s understood that the person at the helm is responsible so no blame need be assigned. They discuss the play of the current and wind, along with prop-walk. The effectiveness of the rudder at certain speeds is tested, and each person makes a mental note of how much water speed is required to come about into the wind when getting into position. Mistakes are internalized, and problems are practiced instead of avoided. The challenges of docking become skills to master, not dread or plan around.

The exceptional sailing couple makes docking as easy as possible for themselves, possibly even swapping out their inboard diesel engine with its slow-shifting gearbox for an electric inboard. With a direct drive reduction gear, an electric motor changes from forward to reverse instantly without risk of stalling, and all of its torque is available from zero rpm. Those exceptional sailor types can go to captineer.com to get more information on electric auxiliary power.

I’ve found the best experiences are often the most challenging. Docking is an exception to this. It’s easy to screw up, and doing it properly goes unnoticed, but it’s the bookend for where we want to be: on the water, sailing. With that goal in mind, I’d like to encourage everyone to dock with consideration. To captains, I’ll add that consideration extends to the crew. If you’re even a little bit of an ass, particularly at the end of a day of sailing, that’ll be what the crew remembers. And that just might result in yet another boat resting in berth on beautiful days.

Derek Rupe is the founder and president of Captineer, a New London, CT-based company specializing in electric auxiliary power for sailboats. To learn more, log onto captineer.com.


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April WindCheck 2017