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Docking Tales

Even the most-experienced captains can get nervous approaching the slip.

January 16, 2020
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Steve Haefele illustration
The show must go on, but go slowly—or else. Steve Haefele

I hate crosswind landings,” my pal Hank said after seeing a video of a docking attempt by a skipper manhandling a 70-footer. Armed with oversize diesels and thrusters, the skipper jammed a joystick as his vessel lurched fore and aft. It seemed like a Titanic moment, which made me think of the ship’s captain, Edward Smith.

Unlike the helmsman in the video, Capt. Smith was no slouch when it came to boat-handling. Neither is my pal Hank, and I found his humility inspiring. On occasion, performance anxiety overcomes us all.

I was weaned on board a 1955 Chris-Craft and evolved into a boat designer and captain, yet, performance anxiety affects me too. Once, while skippering a vessel with fellow marine experts aboard, I was so focused on my throttle play that I neglected to detach the shore-power cord before departure. Snap, crackle, pop. On another occasion, I grew tired of waiting for weather and gambled that my keen sense of timing would soften the sour conditions in a ground-swollen inlet. The vessel raised her nose and burped the contents of her salon into the cockpit.

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One of my worst moments, however, was in a crosswind. A 25-knot breeze had the waterway convulsing like a washing machine. It was getting late, and the only hope for sundowners and a happy crew was a small boatyard with an unprotected marina.

As I approached, I realized that the conditions for landing were impossible, but the old fella who owned the place spotted me hesitating and hailed me on the VHF radio.

“It’s a cinch, cappy,” he insisted. “Ya can’t miss the spot I’ve got for ya.”

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He suggested I power through the churning seas in the crowded marina, turn my boat’s beam to the wind, and back into the concrete haul-out slip. His plan seemed bizarre, but now that I understand boatyards, I realize that he was simply planning ahead for the inevitable repair work.

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I came in hot, and at just the right moment, I twisted abeam to the blow, balancing amidships on the slip’s outer piling. In a leap of faith and a cloud of diesel exhaust, I throttled aft as my crew attempted to secure a line to the dock.

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But the play was incomplete, leaving the line beneath the boat in reach of the wheels.

I watched helplessly as the alloy bow-rail staff snagged a line in the tangle and sacrificed itself, softening our impact.

I shared my crosswind tale with Hank and claimed the Titanic defense: “Imagine how Capt. Smith must have felt. A prudent skipper takes his time, but he was playing to a tough crowd that expected a memorable performance. I would have never attempted the hot landing if my audience hadn’t insisted the show must go on.”

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The old fella gave me a repair estimate and offered up his welder, but I declined. I left the remains of the fractured limb in clear view of the helm for years as a reminder of my poor performance.

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