I was planning a day cruise with friends for this past Saturday but my friend who acts as emergency back-up to handle the boat if I get in over my head was not going to be able to join us. I felt comfortable running the boat on the prior trip up until it came time to dock her in my slip in my very shallow marina. A boat adjacent to me which extends a little past his pilings and very shallow water make docking a challenge. I asked a friend I met through Cruisers' Forum for some docking advice.
We met on his boat so I could also pick up some supplies for patching the inflatable. We talked about what my docking plan had been on the prior trip, (it wasn't too far off from working), how to make it simpler, and back-up/alternative plans if winds are not cooperating or I need to stop, take a deep breath, and tackle it again. He grabbed a bunch of spice jars from the galley and set them out as pilings. One remote control was the boat in the next slip, sticking out, another remote was my boat. We noted areas where water becomes too shallow to approach.
We talked about how to use prop walk to my advantage, that it may be a seven-point turn to back into the slip, and how to use spring lines to pivot the boat into the slip if necessary. He suggested trying to just use gears rather than throttle to make the little adjustments to squiggle Ambrosia into her slip. I already had a good understanding of docking theory both from my studies and time spent on other boats over the years, but it helped immensely to play out the different scenarios and how wind, current, lines, and prop walk would factor into different docking situations. While experimenting with docking a television remote between spice jars was a huge help over simply reading or discussing theory, it's still not the same as being behind the wheel and doing it in real life.
So after the theoretical discussion and planning, last Friday I asked my friend Phil from s/v High Life to come out for some docking practice with me. One of the key aspects of trying to back into my slip, (necessary for the dog ramp to extend from the stern to the dock), is learning how to maneuver the boat in reverse. Everything seems to happen slowly on my boat, but then keeps going. I'll turn the boat to port and even when I've stopped and begun turning the wheel starboard, she's still turning off to port. It just takes time to get a feel for the wheel and when very small adjustments are needed versus when one needs to turn the wheel sharply. Whatever maneuverability one has going forward, it is far, far less in reverse.
We took her out to a little basin between the little creek my marina is on and Back Creek proper. I practiced running her in reverse and stopping the boat by changing gears. We took her out to where the Severn River meets the Bay, where wind and waves were much stronger than near my very protected marina. Trying to run her in reverse there was even more difficult. As soon as I would turn the wheel slightly the pressure of the water over the rudder would grab the wheel and spin it all the way in one direction. I would fight it back and whoosh, it would grab and pull all the way the other direction. We also played around with seeing how many boat lengths she coasts before stopping. With a displacement of 19,500 pounds, when she gets moving it takes a while to slow her back down.
We headed in to dock her. Phil suggested just "ghosting in," throttling all the way down and letting her coast. It's always easier to throttle back up than to slow the boat down in close quarters. The plan was to come very close to my slip and the boat sticking out next to me, get to where there was enough space for the stern to clear the piling to port, and turn hard aport to begin lining her up with the slip. Naturally, I was nervous to be so close to the adjacent boat, but Phil calmly fended us off the boat and its inflatable (which was drifting into my slip, of course). I left the throttle alone and just shifted between forward, neutral, and reverse to gradually edge her straight and let the prop walk help kick the stern starboard to straighten us out. It was probably a five or six-point turn and we were lined up between the outer pilings. I cut the engine halfway into the slip because I'm always scared to suck mud into the impeller in such shallow water. It's probably best to leave her running just in case, but we finished pulling her in by the lines and docked her nicely on the first try. I'm grateful to have friends to help me tackle the challenge of docking so I can do it myself; many, many thanks guys!
Docking will simply take lots of practice to be very good at, but that's how it is with most things in life. But like anchoring, getting to where I can dock her singlehanded will let me take her wherever I want. I still think it's ironic that anchoring and docking--the things that hold the boat in one place--are what will set us free. Now every time I drop the hook or bring her back into her slip, I feel myself just a little closer to the islands, to my freedom, and to all the adventures that lie ahead.