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Teamwork can take the angst out of docking

There is nothing quite as funny or sad as an ill-prepared and insecure skipper and crew docking or anchoring — usually husband and wife, girlfriend or significant other. It’s funny if you realize what a spectacle you made of yourself in the past. It’s sad when you realize what a spectacle you made of yourself in the past.
When I taught sailing, we would tackle this toughest and most critical problem for new boaters from the get-go. I would explain that when they mastered these steps everything that followed would be a piece of cake. (So I exaggerated a little.)

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Actually, I wasn’t far off the mark, because few things can ruin a day on the water faster than a botched departure or arrival at a dock. And nothing can shake your confidence more than a botched takeoff or landing. Believe me, I know. I’ve been there, bought the cast album and the T-shirt.

It’s especially humiliating when it seems that everyone at the club, marina or yard happens to be watching. Heck, it feels as if everyone on the planet and maybe a few guys from off-world are there. They appear to be sympathetic and helpful, but it’s hard for them to hide the smirks.
Above all, take the time to prepare the boat and prepare yourself and your crew when docking or anchoring. For example, how many dockings (and anchoring attempts) have been fouled up because the effects of wind or current weren’t considered before the evolution was attempted? If you’re in an area where there is current, regardless of how weak you may think it is, orient your boat perpendicular to the dock without making way, and you’ll be able to determine right away whether wind or tide is the dominating factor that will affect your docking.
The same is true when anchoring. Although the tide usually will be a minor factor with regard to the loads placed on your ground tackle, it can affect the positioning of your boat for anchoring. It can also affect the way the boat will ride at anchor, so plan for the possibility of rigging a spring line to your rode.
Let’s get back to the raison d’être of this article: teamwork. Teamwork is the result of communication well before the fact. Communication involves understanding, and when there is understanding, fear no longer is a factor. Most of the problems between the skipper and mate are usually the result of fear of the boat and water, rather than out-and-out resistance to boating.
The solution is education and familiarization, with instruction by a professional, not the partner (think about driving lessons). Even if all parties are familiar and comfortable, you need to understand what will be required, in terms of direction, between the person responsible for line handling and the person at the helm.
After years of my wife’s unwilling (passive-aggressive) participation in boating and my throat growing sore from yelling, I took the radical step of paying her the same respect and courtesy I gave paying students. I taught her to dock during an extra-long weekend, and, lo and behold, she learned. I rarely docked our boat after that. She had the helm, and I became the figurehead. (Admittedly I was playing a bit of “mine is better than yours.”)
Lou and I worked out a series of arm and hand signals for anchoring and docking that are based on Army and Marine Corps signals. I’ll describe them, but the caveat is that they only work if both of you are competent in boat handling and familiar with the boat and the way each of you reacts. That takes practice and experience.
We start by facing each other and then give the signal for “Are you ready?” — an arm extended at shoulder level, palm facing the other person, who responds in kind. My directional signals begin with both arms raised, palms facing each other. I indicate the direction to turn by lowering the appropriate arm to shoulder level for a hard turn (about 90 degrees). For a hard turn to starboard I face the bow and lower my right arm. If the turn is to be less than 90 degrees, I lower my arm above the horizontal at an angle to signify the amount of course change required. As the boat changes direction I raise my indicator arm until, when the heading is correct, both arms are together in their original starting position.
To call for an increase in speed I extend either arm (usually my right arm) at shoulder level, forearm upward, with my fist pumping up and down. I indicate how much of an increase I want by how rapidly I pump my fist. When I call for the helm to slow down, my arm is at an angle below shoulder level, fingers extended, my arm moving up and down but not to shoulder level. The rapidity of my arm movement indicates how quickly we need to reduce speed.
I signal reverse by facing the helm with both arms at shoulder level, palms and fingers extended and joined in a pushing motion. How fast I push indicates how quickly we must move in reverse. I indicate stop with both of my arms, hands fisted, dropped vertically from a position above my head. The emergency signal to stop whatever the helm is doing is my hand, palm out, fingers extended, waving up and down rapidly in front of my face.
At night we take these steps holding chemical light sticks. Every boat should have them because they are safe for use around flammables, such as propane and gasoline.
You can develop your own set of signals. The key is to practice and rehearse. It’s really neat to pull into a dock or anchorage and successfully complete the necessary maneuvers peacefully, calmly and efficiently, with nary a word spoken. It’s usually a conversation starter and worth at least one drink at the bar.
Again, practice, practice, practice and hope that there are no unfortunate surprises. Of course, that’s where situational awareness and studying your charts and tide tables comes in.
At any rate, good luck.

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue.