Grenada Yacht Club and twenty knots of crosswinds wrestle with my attempt to bring a forty-foot boat to the dock. In reverse. The boat’s not mine (lesson one – know your vessel) and I have never Mediterranean-moored in my life.
It’s not pretty.
A guy on the dock is screaming, “Go to starboard!” And I’m screaming back.
My crew’s at the bow, brandishing a boathook, fishing for the line attached to the mooring ball as we glide past. The boathook goes in the water, a passing dinghy picks it up, pretending it’s salvage until my wife yells and they sheepishly return it.
Crew on neighboring boats set out extra fenders and lean over the side, watching with looks on their faces like rubberneckers at a car crash. But somehow we make landfall.
A wealth of words might describe the process. ‘Dignity’ is not among them.
On the upside, type ‘A’ that I am, it was impetus to do my homework, to do everything possible to learn to dock in future with the grace of a prima ballerina.
Fast forward: Aboard a Sunsail yacht in Antigua’s English Harbour. Life lesson two: Pick an expert’s brains.
We’ve just finished a bareboat charter and radioed Sunsail staffer Clive Gilgeours, who dinghies out and boards us half a mile off the dock.
“Got to start early,” he says, assigning roles to the crew, turning around as he faces the stern and puts her into reverse.
“Prop walk when you first start,” he says. “Once she’s moving it’s easier to steer.” Yet another life lesson – he’s facing aft. “Just like driving a car this way.”
As we approach the dock he offers more advice. “Dock crew on a windward line. And drop the anchor (If you’re using anchor instead of mooring ball) to the waterline.” He chuckles: “you’ve got your dinghy forward. If you drop the anchor a bit first it won’t end up in the dinghy.”
Sunsail Antigua Base’s technician Chris Donahue adds two important pieces of advice. ‘Don’t over steer,” he says, “just the tiniest bit of helm.” Then he pauses before sharing the most important wisdom ever. “Practice.”
Seems like a no brainer, but I have chartered boats across the Caribbean and never tried to dock them until the last day – even when I didn’t know the boat.
Practice – and its corollary: knowing your boat – is the central concept shared in a recent Toronto boat show seminar on docking presented by Craig Hamilton, an RYA Yachtmaster and founder of www.boaterskills.ca
“What part of the boat gets pushed by the wind the most?” he asks. “How do winds affect your boat? How long does it take to turn your boat in a circle? And how long to bring it to a stop? How slow is your boat when you lose steerage?”
He pauses for dramatic effect. “Practice,” he says, “is key.”
But what and how to practice?
“All conditions. Wind’s probably the biggest and most important variable. You’re coming into the dock at three knots with a following wind. How hard are you going to hit?”
He suggests tossing a fender or man overboard pole into the water to practice approaches well away from the dock. “Work on variable approaches in different winds and sea conditions.”
Two new tips I learn from his seminar are practicing standing turns and shifting gears quickly and efficiently to control speed and momentum. How do you do that? Practice.
In his book, Boat Docking, Charles M. Low points out that “driving a boat is an art and a science. The art you learn at the helm.”
A must-do addition to your nautical library, Low’s primer deals with every possible scenario and every consideration: steering and hull shape, lines and fenders, human factors. The book includes useful checklists for leaving and entering moorings, for tying up and anchoring. Two key points from Low’s lessons … have a docking plan and crew communication. Oh, and practice.
“If you practice a particular approach a dozen times,” he writes, “your harbor neighbors may wonder about you, but they will certainly notice your docking improving …”
Furthermore, next time around you’ll make landfall with the elegance of a megayacht.
You, too, can dock with dignity.
Mark Stevens is an award-winning travel writer whose specialties include Canada, the Caribbean and boating.