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Death by Docking

By Tom Neale - Published May 06, 2004 - Viewed 897 times

You can usually tell when the dock master is paying attention by whether he notices the piling that you just knocked over floating away. The last time I knocked over a piling, he noticed. He was leaning on it.

A piling floating away downstream from the pier that you have just tied onto is a serious matter; especially if your line was tied to that particular piling. The entire situation presents some conflicting interests. In the first place, nylon ropes are expensive. In the second place, we all hope for a diminished degree of conspicuousness in times like this. So you have to quickly toss off the expensive line from your cleat while maintaining as nonchalant a composure as possible. The trick is to do it behind your back while everyone else is pointing and looking at the piling. On this particular occasion, it didn’t help that it was the Fourth of July.

Death Free Docking

I’ve been dealing with docking for over 50 years, in boats ranging from kayaks to a 53 foot motor sailer. I’ve never completely sunk a boat in the process. Yet. Here are a few pointers that have been helpful.

A sturdy piling can be your friend. If circumstances warrant, don’t be afraid to gently come alongside an end piling and work your way into the slip with engine(s) and rudder and maybe a spring line. This can be particularly helpful if the current is running perpendicular to your slip. Practice with your boat in easy conditions until you learn your boat’s maneuvering characteristics with this tactic. Anytime you approach a piling or the pier, look for things that could damage your boat. Examples include beams extending out beyond the pilings, pier corners with no fender material, and bolts protruding from pilings.

Click Here for More Tips

I can understand why the marina was upset. This piling was worth keeping. It had so much pre?historic marine life attached, you could sell it to the Smithsonian. It carried its heritage about a foot below the water line, so how was I to know as I slid in alongside. But it didn’t matter that I couldn’t see the growth; I wouldn’t have realized there was a problem anyway. Even from under water there would have been no way to know that, under the hundreds of layers of barnacles and crustaceans (whose lives had just been shattered by the combination of a slight nudge from Chez Nous and years of contented munching), the piling was about as thick as a pencil. “No problem,” I thought, “it’s clear that this isn’t my fault.” But my jumping up and down and yelling, "The barnacles did it–the barnacles did it," didn't seem to help much to clear up the obvious misunderstanding among the growing crowd.

But as much as I try, I can’t feel too sorry for myself. Back in the mid 80’s we witnessed an even better show. We were tied in a marina in North Carolina. We’d just come in the inlet after running into some rough weather in the Atlantic during a trip up from south Florida, and were rewarding ourselves with a secure and relaxing tie up.

As the afternoon faded and evening began to settle, there approached a sailboat which had just come in after a non stop trip all the way from the Caribbean. The voyage had gone perfectly in every respect, and the owner and crew were looking forward to some good meals ashore and a restful evening without hassle or watches. Happily, they furled sails as they approached the docks under power. The current in this marina runs hard into or out of the slips, depending upon the tide. They wanted to dock against the current, but the only slip open had current running into it and was most of the way in from the outside T-head. In the slip on the opposite side of the dock lay a nice new yacht whose owner, like the rest of us, was smugly appreciating a relaxing ending to the day.

The incoming boat had to come in between the rows of slips and sharply turn to starboard to enter its berth, as the tide pushed it mightily sideways toward all the boats lined up in the slips. The skipper knew what to do and he did it well. He ran in full throttle to give him enough speed to crab against the side pushing current, and to give him enough rudder to turn sharply and head into the slip without being slammed against the other boats and pilings. It was then just a matter of throwing her into reverse and backing down hard to bring her to a stop as the crew threw lines around the poles. This he did at just the right moment. It was at this moment that he learned that a tiny little linkage pin had worked its way loose somewhere between Tortola and the Carolinas. While the shift lever came back, the motor remained in forward. We got a clue that something was amiss when the foredeck crew began running wildly toward the stern. You really couldn’t blame them for deserting their post as the boat crashed into the pier full speed ahead, with the added boost of 2.5 knots of current.

The owner of the nice new yacht on the opposite side watched with widening eyes as the event unfolded, ashamed to admit, even to himself, that this was going to be an interesting show. Unfortunately, the boat didn't stop when it hit the pier. It continued on, obviously loathe to end its voyage, until it had crashed part way through. Not to be undone, the pier itself crashed into the yacht sitting in the opposite slip amid a cascading shower of water from burst pipes and sparks from severed wires. The marina took the position that the pier wasn’t included in the gentleman’s dockage fee. Actually most marinas are so insensitive as to want you to pay extra for broken pilings. (I always figured I was paying for at least two or three whenever I paid the transient rate.) But, as the experienced boater knows, there are two ways to handle such a situation.

The first is to blame the spouse. It doesn’t matter which spouse, it’s just whichever one you’re not. But I can’t do that because everybody who knows my spouse knows that she knows about a hundred times more than I know, and has at least as much experience as me. To make matters worse, people who know her also know me. When my credibility is already down the tubes from my latest docking disaster, the last thing I need to do is torpedo it by blaming my wife. I know a better way. I can always blame it on the dock hands. After all, everyone agrees that they sometimes don’t appreciate the particular idiosyncrasies of our boats. Actually, we’re all pretty close to unanimous in this conclusion whenever we execute a crash landing. I do try to explain things over the VHF, but occasionally there’s a misunderstanding. Last time I told one that I was a single screw and unable to maneuver well in tight quarters, he thought I was looking for a few hours in a motel with a large bed. Even when communications go well, there can be other problems, such as over eagerness. Some just can’t wait for that midships after spring line and grab the bow line instead, snugging it tight to stop you as you motor alongside. As the bow pulpit and anchor swing over the dock neatly clipping off the power pedestals, I’ve learned to serenely walk back to my stern which is, at this point, jamming into the neighboring boat, and say, “Can I borrow some change for a tip?

I shouldn’t complain. I’ve been saved many times by dock hands who were true experts. They were not only experts, but also unselfishly generous. Tips are important to these folks, (Believe me I know. One of my daughters in college works part time as a dock hand.) The sight of Chez Nous coming into the marina is not one that inspires visions of imminent lucrative business. When I compare my boat with all the gold plated mega yachts running around loose these days, I get the idea that I should name her “The Savaged Salvage.” But it’s great when you can work with an experienced dock hand. Even though they don’t get the impression that I’m going to be able to hand over a $20.00 tip, they’re still sincerely motivated to help me. They happen to be standing on that pier I’m aiming for.

The good news is that modern techniques are making some docking problems obsolete. More and more marinas are shielding their pilings within the actual dock. The concept is called “floating docks.” The only way that you can knock over a piling is to sink the dock………Now that presents some interesting possibilities.

Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale





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