One of my most impressive mess-ups occurred when I was trying to dock the Cal 47 charter boat that I was skippering. It was never easy, and often difficult, but on one occasion everything seemed to go wrong. In theory it was so simple; come in steadily, turn up into the wind going slowly enough so that the crew on the bow could pick up the mooring buoy in the water, and then with that aboard, drop back down wind so that we could dock, mediterranean style, stern-to for our passengers to disembark. Well it didn't go quite according to plan though it started alright as I entered slowly and turned up into the wind. Then a gust caught the bow, the crew couldn't reach the mooring buoy and the bow blew down-wind towards the highly vulnerable (and expensive) sports fishing boats who were our neighbors on the dock. It took some nifty manoeuvering at the helm to keep us away from these boats but that done, I was ready for my second approach when the engine died. But it didn't just stop of its own accord; I had run over the mooring line and it was now well and truly around the propeller. The boat was effectively anchored by the stern with the bow swinging in a gentle arc just feet from the closest sports fisherman. Remaining calm, I lowered an anchor into the dinghy, rowed it out and then pulled in from the stern to take the weight of the mooring line attached to the prop. Then it was down below for my swimming shorts, snorkel and mask. It was a mess around the prop but after several attempts and a lot of sawing I was able to cut the rope free and attach a line to the mooring. Aboard once more I towelled off, dressed again and went forward to pull up the anchor. This done I eventually managed to back-up into the slip so that our somewhat disgruntled passengers could step ashore. With the last one off, I breathed a sigh of relief and tiredness. It was over. I looked the boat over, decided tidying up could wait for a while and stepped ashore. Well at least that was the intention; my tired step was not quite long enough and for the second time I found myself in the water! It wasn't pleasant to be around me for a while after that!
Though it may appear that getting a boat in and out of a slip should be as simple as parking the car in the garage it is very definitely not so. In fact, though it is something most of us have to do frequently, it is probably one of the most difficult procedures we have to undertake. Just getting out is often difficult enough. With the boat bow in, putting the engine into reverse causes the first problem as the stern nearly always kicks severely sideways rather than just going back. Then as you cast off the lines, the bow blows down wind and you find yourself running around fending off from pilings or your neighbors boat. And even when you are out of the slip it is often not over with as you have to then turn the boat around so that you can head out. If you are lucky and have a pretty maneuverable boat then you will manage fine on most occasions though I have seen many accomplished skippers mess up impressively. If you are inexperienced and have a boat with a mind of its own you will probably prefer to take your boat out at night when no one is around to watch!
With the number of variables involved it is just not possible to look it up in a manual and find out how to do it though some books do attempt to cover the various alternatives. The following are just some of the considerations:
Your boat: may have a left or right hand rotating prop
- the prop may be large or small
- the prop may be near to or a distance from the rudder
- the keel may be full or fin
- the rudder may be balanced, hung on a skeg or affixed to the keel
The slip: entering the slip may require a turn to port or to starboard
there may be finger piers on one side or two
And then the wind (and possibly current) will probably be different in strength and direction each time you enter or leave.
So what can you do to improve your expertise, reduce the shouting and minimize damage each time you take out your boat. There are a couple of techniques which I have often shown to students which may be of help to you. The first involves learning how to turn your boat in a tight circle, almost within its own length. Being able to accomplish this will help you correct any turning effect as you back out of the slip and even to turn the boat around to face the opposite direction if necessary.
Start practicing out in the bay away from the channel. Stop the boat then put the wheel all the way over to one side (you choose which). You are now going to leave the wheel in this position and turn the boat around just using forward and reverse on the engine. Firstly put the boat in to forward and then increase the rpm to around 2,500 for a two or three seconds before returning it to idle. The boat will initially begin turning before it begins to move forward. Next engage the reverse gear and give a few seconds burst on the engine. Again the boat will turn some more before it starts going backwards. The technique for turning the boat around just involves repeating this process until it has turned sufficiently. Put it in forward, give it a burst on the engine until it begins to move forward then put it in reverse and give another burst until it just starts to move backwards. Once you have got used to this you can then try the procedure with the wheel hard over in the opposite direction. What you will find is that most boats will turn in a tighter circle in one direction. When you know which this is and have got used to turning in a tight circle you will be able to turn the boat around in the marina without causing palpitations for you or your neighbors.
The second technique that you should learn does not involve the engine at all. If your boat is just plain obstinate in reverse or your slip and the prevailing wind makes exiting gracefully impossible then its no loss of face to use ropes to gradually pull your boat out and turn it around. Diagrams 1 and 2 show how this can be done in a couple of instances but you will need to tailor the lines to meet your own situation. The great advantage of this technique is that everything happens slowly and even if you do start edging close to your neighbors boat, with the slow speed you should have time to get a spare fender between them.
The more boat manoeuvering you do in tight situations the better you will become but even now there are times when things go a little out of control for me. If you have any good ideas for getting in and out of your slip let me know and I will try and share them in a later Seamanship column.