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Eating humble pie with a side of reality

When trying to pull off slick moves at sea or around the dock, we usually need all the help that’s available.

I just love those times when I know I’m really great.

Docking in less than ideal conditions - especially in front of an audience - can make even a competent skipper break a sweat.

I like it even better when I know there are plenty of people standing around who must be thinking the same thing about me. Unfortunately, these moments of perfection are much more likely to come when I’m somewhere out in the middle of the ocean. But surely you’ll take my word for it, although I’ll admit I seem to have an occasional tendency to misinterpret the facts in this regard.

One of those impressive occasions came while docking some years back at a truly difficult marina. It was difficult because the tide ripped along the shore, horizontally to the docks. It was one of those places where if you wanted to get your boat into slip 10, for example, you started heading into slip 10 around slip 1 with the idea that with a lot of luck your boat would actually be at slip 10 at the time the bow started going between its outer pilings. This meant you had to precisely calculate the flow of the tide and adjust the forward momentum of your boat toward that outer line of pilings.

Sometimes this wasn’t so bad, because if you misjudged you could just stick ’er into another slip and sort it all out later. However, most times all the other slips already had boats in them, the owners of which were usually out on deck with tools ranging from fenders to boat hooks to shotguns.

The watermen who compete in the annual docking contest in Crisfield, Md., move fast and furious.

To make matters worse, the local populace found this to be an ideal place to hang out and watch the shows that happened almost daily. This was a rural area where demolition derbies are popular, but the local folks didn’t need to ruin their pickup trucks or even pay for admission to see the action at the marina. All they had to do was show up with a fishing pole, pretending they were trying to catch dinner, and wait for the major attraction, which consisted of splintered teak and fiberglass from fine yachts crashing and grinding and finally coming to rest, in a chunky mist of debris, on other fine yachts. And then they got to see the real show, as the ego-consumed yacht skipper (who also had been the one at the wheel) fought with his obviously far more intelligent wife over the issue of whose fault it was.

It was with all this in mind that I proceeded to dock one day. As luck would have it, the current was ripping, the wind was blowing abeam and the crowd had gathered. Normally I would have headed back out and dropped anchor to wait for slack tide, but a storm was brewing. And, besides, I certainly had great confidence in myself.

So I headed upstream and pointed the bow to that outer line of piles and carefully began to close with them as my boat swept down toward my assigned slip. I had an extra problem that some don’t have, but I was confident. Unlike the light and nimble express cruisers and smaller boats around, Chez Nous is an exceptionally heavy motorsailer with a long keel. When she hits anything, it’s like an elephant sitting on a daisy. Precision was in order.

As the crowd focused on me, I carefully adjusted speed until the bow was just a few feet up-current of the empty slip. I thrilled the crowd by ramming the throttle forward and, with a mighty thrust of the huge Perkins, goosed the heavy, old boat in between the outer pilings. But there were more pilings — and boats on both sides. If the current were to pin me against one of those outer pilings it would swing me around, and my bowsprit would neatly clean everything from the deck of the upstream boat, probably coming to rest inside its saloon window. And I knew that if my heavy Chez Nous hit the dock and the shore, the jolt would be bad enough to generate several dozen 911 calls from the innocents in their homes in the surrounding countryside.

Crisfield. Md., watermen make docking look easy.

So I thrilled the crowd with the rattling roar of my bow thrusters, and I shifted into reverse — powering up mightily — and swung the wheel to swing out the stern. My bow stopped just sort of the dock where sat the spellbound audience. Chez Nous settled to a quiet halt without a single jolt. Mel, who had been in the danger zone (on the bow) threw the lines to someone on the dock, who didn’t catch them because he wasn’t looking in that direction.

As I was figuring a way to step out from behind the wheel without looking smug, I noticed that no one was cheering. Not even those on shore, whose lives I had just saved by not plowing into them. No one was saying “good job.” They were all standing there, looking at me — no, not at me but past me. What could be wrong, I thought. There had been no jolt, no sound, not even a bump. It was as smooth a landing as it could be. It took a minute to get up the nerve, but finally I looked back too as Mel passed, hurriedly heading to the stern.

I was, indeed, gently resting against that outer piling. But it was my rounded bilge that was resting against the piling, not my rub rail. The top of that outer piling was leaning into the next piling upstream, held there fast by the dock lines of the poor guy in the boat next to me. The piling was broken in two. Never mind that it was about as thick as a pencil a foot under the waterline. The only thing the crowd saw was that broken piling, coming out from under Chez Nous.

* * *

Come on, admit it. You, too, know what it’s like when you’re pointing one end of your boat or the other (with me it’s never a foregone conclusion) into the slip and the crowd is waiting. You know what it’s like when your hands start sweating so much they’re slipping on the wheel and you have to grab the spokes. You know what it’s like to whisper to your partner, “Honey, I’ll do everything you want for a year, just please don’t yell at me in front of all these people when I do what I’m probably going to do in the next five minutes.” You know what it’s like when your whole life (because that’s what you’ve got in that boat) depends on whether the dock hand is going to catch and snub the spring line, and just as you throw it he reaches into his pocket, pulls out a hankie, and starts blowing his nose.

You know what it’s like when the dock hand does catch the spring line and perfectly snubs it, and your boat begins to slow gently alongside and into place as your dorade vent launches into the air toward the channel because said line has somehow wrapped around it, and everyone is yelling “fly ball!” You know what it’s like when you try to blithely ignore that new hole on the deck where the dorade vent used to be, until you step into it as you run forward to recleat the spring before your bow crashes into the power pedestal.

Yes, you’ve been there. If you haven’t, you ought to come along for a ride on my boat some day. Thus, you know how nice it is when one of those rare moments arrives, and everything is going perfectly, and you can just feel that it’s going to continue going that way and, to top it all off, there is a big crowd watching.

I had another one of those days a few years ago. I was docking at one of my favorite marinas, Camachee Cove Yacht Harbor in St. Augustine, Fla., after a couple days at sea. Docking involved a 90-degree turn into a slip from a wide fairway with boats on both sides. The empty slip also had boats on each side — very nice boats, the owners of which, no doubt, wanted them to remain very nice. There also happened to be a stiff breeze blowing across the fairway and at an approximately 45-degree angle out of the row of slips I was to enter.

Casey the dockmaster at Camachee Cove Marina in St. Augustine, Fla., is ever ready to help boaters dock - Tom included.

My 53-foot boat, with her long keel, is great for romping along at sea, but not so great for making sharp turns while going slow. The heavy weight of my boat, which helps to make her so tough at sea, also means she likes to continue doing whatever she’s doing. (The scientific types call this momentum.) My boat also has a lot of windage because she’s a ketch-rigged motorsailer, with main and mizzen reaching high above the water. My boat has a large single screw, which means she favors wide arc turns with plenty of room, not right-angle turns in a stiff breeze inside a marina. My boat likes a fair amount of speed to enable the rudder to bite in and begin the turn. But the more speed she has, the more momentum she has and the more she’s likely to slide as she turns in either direction. But, of course, my boat on that day had me driving it. Now that, I thought, ought to do it.

When you turn a boat, you have to watch the stern as well as the bow, because the stern swings to the right as the bow swings to the left, and vice versa. So you don’t start a turn to the left from a position close in alongside a big beautiful yacht docked on your right — like the very big, very beautiful yacht docked to my right when I had to begin to slow down and start turning left into the slip. My stern missed her with inches to spare, so it was time to proudly direct my attention, concentration and skills forward.

To make a long story short, I executed each maneuver perfectly as I headed into the slip. Everything I did seemed to work to perfection. This day I could do no wrong. The boat responded precisely to every maneuvering tactic. Every shift of the transmission, every thrust of the prop, every squirt from the bow thruster, every anticipation of every wind gust — it all worked without a hitch. It was like a divine hand from above was guiding my boat. As the wind gusted a little harder, trying to pin us against the port outer piling, I applied just the correct amount of prop thrust against the hard over rudder. The boat majestically slid on into the slip where we could spring her.

Sometimes you don’t want people on the dock watching you. But this time I was glad they were there. It’s nice to have people watch you doing so well. They were obviously trying not to distract me, I noticed, because they were all looking elsewhere. No matter.

I stared proudly and intently ahead and gently goosed the rudder. It was clear to me that it was clear to the lookers-on that I knew what I was doing as I felt the stern gracefully lifting clear of that outboard port piling, moving over to our finger pier so the dock hand wouldn’t even have to pull against the wind to bring the stern alongside. So slickly did I pull this off that it was almost as if I had a stern thruster. I made a mental note to somehow offhandedly inform our new dock mates that I did not have a stern thruster, so they would have full appreciation of the talents and skills involved.

Humbly refraining from any appearance of smugness, I smiled at the crowd. They were smiling also, and then applauding. This was great — until I noticed that they were still looking toward my stern. Having need for no more expertise at the con, I suavely moved away from the wheel to help with tying up.

It was then I saw the marina’s push boat on my port quarter. Casey, the dockmaster, was still gently shoving my stern against the pier to hold it there against the wind until all lines were on.

“How long has he been back there?” I whispered to Mel.

“Ever since you almost clipped that yacht on the other side,” she said. “He’s been scooting around back there pushing your stern and guiding the boat into the slip the whole time. Didn’t you know it?”

* * *

All good things don’t happen in marinas. When you’re out on the bow of your boat in a hail storm and you’ve got nothing on but your bathing suit, you’re in a bit of a hurry. So I was, as the bow plunged up and down in the warm waters, the lightning crashed, and the wind howled. This was back in the days when our only radio was a small batter- powered AM set that played plenty of music and occasionally gave a weather forecast. We’d been caught — really caught — by one of those severe summer storms you’d just as soon never see. We were in Mobjack Bay off the lower Chesapeake.

Today's technology - pod drives, thrusters, joysticks - can make docking and departing in tight quarters easy.

We had no cover at the wheel, so we had to get below. But with shoaling water nearby and wind gusting at 60 knots, we had to anchor first. Like the brave hero I thought I was, I yelled to Mel — my bride of but a few years — “You go below; I’ll take care of it.” She did, and I did. I crawled to the bow and knelt down on deck to put over the new Danforth anchor. That’s when the hail began. Quickly, I lowered the anchor over the roller and pulled chain and nylon out of the locker below. Wisely, I snubbed the nylon around a cleat so that if the anchor caught while the chain was still rattling out, I would be able to control the situation and prevent a runaway anchor rode, which could easily have happened with all the wind.

As the rode ran out, I kept some tension on the wrap to control its run and gradually slow it so that the anchor would have a chance to dig in, rather than be jerked along the bottom. I did it just right. The anchor bit hard with plenty of rode left to go, and we swung into the wind. I let out a scope of around 10-to-1 for the conditions and hastily retreated aft to the cockpit and then below.

It’s kind of nice to be safe below deck with a storm raging outside, knowing you’ve done a brave and heroic thing, risking your skin and doing a good job, saving your honey, your boat and even yourself. Mel was dutifully complimentary, if not quite as impressed with me as I was. We comfortably waited out the storm. We’d anchored in fairly open water, but since we were inside the bay and the water around was shallow, it wasn’t too rough. At first.

Then it began to get rougher. Wow, wind’s even up more, I thought. The boat heaved and pitched more and more, and I began to think we might be dragging. I didn’t worry much because I thought the storm would end soon, and there wasn’t much I could do anyway — or at least that’s what I told myself. Finally, the hail stopped, the wind began to die down, and the rain lightened up a bit. We could now see out the portholes and took a look. We saw nothing but water, but didn’t worry because we knew the rain was still limiting visibility. A few minutes later, we looked again. Still we saw nothing but water. “Wind must have shifted,” I said, because when we’d first gone down we had the southern shore of Mobjack Bay off to port.

A few minutes later, I crawled up the companionway — holding on because of the rolling, which was still very bad — for a better look-see. There was no land in sight. No Mobjack Bay. No tall tower that had been to the south. Nothing but water.

I started the little Perkins 4-107 and clambered forward to pull in the anchor — which wasn’t there. Neither was the 50 feet of new chain and 200 feet of new 3/4-inch nylon rode. After carefully paying out the line, I’d forgotten to tightly secure it around the cleat.

Yes, we went back and dragged and dragged with a grappling hook, but we never found our expensive gear. The person who later found it on the bottom was probably fishing at the time. I hope he wasn’t catching anything else.

* * *

And then there was our first cruising sailboat. We bought her used, shortly after we were married. She was a Tartan 27, and we loved her with a passion. This boat had it all. It had my first inboard engine. It had a centerboard and good sails. It had a spinnaker and, of course, a spinnaker pole. This was my first truly “seagoing” boat. It even had port lights I could look out of and port holes I could open.

I’ll never forget the day some friends and I sailed her home on her delivery trip. She was heeling hard to starboard, and I, the owner-man seaman, stood over the head, actually looking out a real porthole, down into the water broiling past the gunwale. I knew I’d finally made it. She’ll take anything, I thought. But that’s not what Mel thought.

“This boat will take far more than we can,” I told her, over and over again. “She’s bulletproof. And besides, I know her limits and can handle her.” She replied with a combination of scowl and pout.

But soon came the first perfect weekend for our new boat in which I could flaunt my freshly realized

sea-MAN-ship. It was to blow moderate southwesterly on Saturday. This would be a good wind to take us to some great anchorages up the Chesapeake in Mobjack Bay. But the true perfection was to come Sunday. A nor’easter was forecast, which would put 25 to 30 knots on our stern or port quarter. This, I explained to Mel, was perfect sailing weather — from perfect directions for our planned trip and perfect for showing her what a great, tough boat we had and how well she could take it. Mel didn’t want to go. She somewhat insisted that the whole idea was, well, stupid. But who can stand down a seaMAN who knows his boat?

So off we went, me wreathed in smiles, she wreathed in pouting scowls, ready for impending doom. The trip up the Bay was great. The anchorage was great. The night on the hook was great. The nor’easter was also great. From my perspective, it was a great “breeze” for the boat to show her stuff. From Mel’s perspective, it was a great nor’easter, meaning high winds and breaking seas.

We first sailed out of the river and it was really nice. Once we cleared the mouth of the river and got out into Mobjack Bay, things began to change. As the winds and seas rolled around New Point Comfort, they took us on our beam. As we rolled from gunwale to gunwale, surging with the gusts, I assured Mel: “It’ll be much better as soon as we come around and put this stuff on our stern.”

It took a long time to do that because we not only had to get out of Mobjack, we had to get far enough into the Chesapeake to clear York Spit Light and the bad shoal it guarded. This meant taking the full strength of the wind and sea pretty much on the beam. Actually, things got much worse because now there was no lee at all to lessen the wind or the waves. But finally the moment came to head in a general southwesterly direction, and we eased the sheets — I was really impressed that I could use that nautical term in a storm — and put the tiller over.

The tiller was another impressive concept. It transmitted, without any dampening, the action of the sea and the boat. There was no question you could “feel” her, as they often say in the magazines. But it also required a lot of muscle and constant attention to steering, especially in weather like this. Naturally, I, being the tough seaman, took the stick with pride. It was all I could do sometimes to control that thing as the wind and sea astern pushed us around. But I was in my element, and we could handle it, or so I told my wife.

Then came a huge sea that lifted the stern and swung it around. Of course, I called it a “rogue” sea. I’d read about them. Then came a jibe. Then another and another rogue sea slammed the transom. I wasn’t familiar with the concept that every wave on the water was a “rogue” sea, but I was ready to deal with it and brag to all the people back at the marina about all the rogue seas we’d encountered. And the boat could handle it, I pronounced to Mel, yet again.

Before the wind finished blowing those words from my mouth, I found myself hurtling backward, a loud “crack” echoing in my ears. I kept myself from going over the side with my feet while still hanging on to the tiller. Unfortunately, this was no longer attached to the boat. Its end, where it had been inserted into the rudder post fitting, was splintered and fractured beyond belief.

Somehow we got the main down, which I should have done much earlier, and followed our jib into the river after I rigged a temporary tiller that worked well enough, particularly after I also doused the jib and finally turned on that blessed motor. I thought long and hard about whether I should mention all the “rogue” waves when I limped back in to the marina. They would make for a good excuse. But there was a witness, and she could tell her own story.

* * *

I’m happy to report that from these and various other “moments of greatness,” I’ve learned a thing or two. But the most important lesson I’ve learned has nothing to do with handling a boat. It’s that when you’re thinking about how great you are while you’re really screwing up, doing it before the crowds on the dock isn’t anywhere near as bad as doing it before the woman you love.

Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” at

This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue.