When You Know Youre Great

By Tom Neale, 4/20/2006


Tom Neale's logs have a new name and home on BoatUS Magazine. We know Tom has a loyal and devoted readership, so we wanted to share his tips and insights with an even bigger audience! For the latest articles, click here for Onboard With Tom Neale.

We’ve all had them. There are those moments when you just know you’re great. Those moments don’t come too often when you’re running a boat, and they come very rarely when you’re docking a boat. But they do come. Usually mine come like the rainbow after the flood. Or like the first flower of spring after a long brutal winter. Or like the first sip of cool oasis water after a long trek across the dessert. In other words, they’re very very rare. But they come even for me.

These moments are sweet enough on their own merit. But they’re OH so much sweeter when people are watching. The converse is also true, but that occurs so commonly (at least on my boat) that there’s no point in talking about it. (Besides, it’s too painful.) You know. You’ve been there. Not only at the helm but also on the dock or in a boat in a slip when someone else (with emphasis on the else) comes in to dock. No matter how hard we try to be polite and look away, or even pretend to look away, we end up looking. No matter how hard we try to look disinterested, we end up smirking. No matter how hard we try to be silent when the splinters fly, we end up pointing and calling out to all of our friends who’re missing the show, “Hey Harvey, come here quick and look. Another demolition derby.”

So you know what it’s like when you’re pointing one end of your boat or the other (with me it’s never a foregone conclusion) to the slip and the crowd is waiting. You know what it’s like when your hands start sweating so much they’re slipping on the wheel so that you have to grab the spokes. You know what it’s like to whisper to your partner, “Honey, I’ll do everything you want for a year, just please don’t yell at me in front of all these people when I do what I’m probably going to do in the next five minutes.” You know what it’s like when your whole life (cause that’s what you’ve got in that boat) depends on whether the dock hand is going to catch and snub the spring line and just as you throw it he reaches into his pocket, pulls out a hankie, and starts blowing his nose. You know what it’s like when the dock hand does catch the spring line, perfectly snubs it and your boat begins to slow gently alongside and into place as your dorade vent launches into the air toward the channel because said line has somehow wrapped around it and everyone is yelling “Fly Ball.” You know what it’s like to ignore that new hole on the deck where the dorade vent used to be, until you step into it as you run forward to recleat the spring before your bow crashes into the power pedestal. Yes, you’ve been there. If you haven’t, you ought to come along for a ride on my boat some day.

About Marina Docking

1. Always be attentive to what’s happening on the dock and try to work with a good dock hand.

2. One of the most common skipper errors I’ve noticed occurs when the dock hand has the spring and it’s wrapped on the dock cleat, but not yet secured because the dock hand will need to let out the spring as the boat moves into place.

Click Here for More Tips

Thus you know how nice it is when one of those rare moments arrives and everything is going perfectly and you can just feel that it’s going to continue going that way, and, to top it all off, there is a big crowd watching.

I had one of those days recently. I was docking at one of my favorite marinas, Camachee Cove Yacht Harbor in St. Augustine, after a couple of days at sea and then enough hours dealing with bridges on the ICW to drive me nuts.

Docking involved a ninety degree turn into a slip, from a fairway with boats on either side. The empty slip also had boats on each side—very nice boats whose owners wanted to stay very nice. There also happened to be a stiff breeze blowing from the nor’east, across the fairway and at around a 45 degree angle out of the row of slips that I was to enter.

My boat is 53 feet long. She has a full keel—great for romping along at sea, but not so great for making sharp turns while going slow. My boat is very heavy, which means that she likes to continue doing whatever she’s doing. (The scientific types call this momentum.) My boat also has a lot of windage because she’s a ketch rigged motorsailer, with the main reaching high above the water. My boat has a large single screw which means that she favors wide arc turns with plenty of room, not right angle turns in a marina. My boat likes a fair amount of speed to enable the rudder to bite in and to begin the turn. But the more speed she has the more momentum she has and the more she’s likely to slide forward as she turns in either direction. But, of course, my boat on that day had me driving it. Now that, I thought, ought to do it.

When you turn a boat like my boat, you have to watch the stern as well as the bow, because the stern swings to the right as the bow swings to the left, or vice versa. So you don’t start a turn to the left from a position close in alongside a big beautiful yacht docked on your right—like the very big very beautiful yacht docked to my right when I had to begin to slow down and start turning to the left into the slip. My stern missed her with inches to spare, so it was time to proudly direct my attention, concentration and skills forward.

To make a long story short I executed each maneuver perfectly, as I headed into the slip. Everything I did worked to perfection. The boat responded perfectly to every maneuvering tactic. Every shift from reverse to forward and then reverse, every thrust of the prop, every squirt from the bow thruster, every anticipation of every wind gust—it all worked without a hitch. As the wind gusted a little harder, trying to pin us against the port outer piling, I applied just the correct amount of prop thrust against the hard over rudder. The boat majestically slid on into the slip.

Sometimes you don’t want people on the dock watching you. But this time I was glad they were there. It’s nice to have people watch you doing so well. They were obviously trying not to distract me, I noticed, because they were all politely looking toward my stern. No matter.

As I stared proudly and intently ahead, it was clear to me that it was clear to the lookers on that I knew what I was doing because I could feel the stern gracefully lifting clear of that outboard port piling, moving on over to our intended finger pier so that the dock hand wouldn’t even have to pull against the wind to bring the stern alongside. So slickly did I pull this off that it was almost as if I had a stern thruster. I made a mental note to somehow offhandedly inform our new dock mates that I did not have a stern thruster, so that they would have full appreciation of the talents and skills involved.

Humbly refraining from any appearance of smugness, I smiled at the crowd (now politely smiling also, but, as before, toward the stern—I assumed they didn’t want to distract a master at work). Having need for no more expertise at the con, I suavely moved away from the wheel to help with tying up.

It was only then that I saw the push boat on my port quarter. Casey, the Dock Master, was still gently shoving my stern against the pier to hold it there against the wind until all lines were on.

“How long has he been there?” I whispered to Mel.

“Ever since you almost clipped that yacht on the other side. He’s been scooting around back there pushing the stern the whole time. Didn’t you know it?”

Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale