Getting to Know Her

By Tom Neale, 1/27/2005


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That boat, in reverse, was like a bull in a pasture full of cows in heat. It didn’t know which way to go, but it was sure going to ram something.

The boat, as you might imagine, was a sailboat. She was great romping along out in the ocean under a full head of sail. But when motoring in tight quarters, or any kind of quarters at all, putting ‘er into reverse meant a total abdication of control. There was a reason, not that knowing it helped much. The barn door rudder was well aft of the propeller, and hung on a massive skeg. This resulted in an immovable blunt leading edge, unlike the counter balanced rudders of some of the more modern sailboats. The distance aft of the propeller made the boat more responsive under sail. The skeg gave the rudder much more strength. But these two factors, combined with the fact that she was a sailboat, made reverse a mystical concept. As I said, she was a great sailboat.

The best way to try to control her (the operative word being “try”) was by backing and filling. With full throttle forward and all that water pushing past that barn door, she would jump and her bow would point where you wanted. Since I was really trying to fool her and back down, I’d point the bow in the opposite direction I wanted to point the stern, and then throw her into reverse. Once I got her aimed in the right direction, if she were so inclined, she’d keep backing in that direction for at least a moment or so. When she decided to wander to other parts of the pasture, I’d throw her into forward and do the same thing again.

It was always irritating when people would ask me why I didn’t just take advantage of the propeller’s pull when reversing. Most single screw boats will walk to one side or another, just from the turn of the prop. Not this one, and I don’t know why. Each time I’d try to explain this, I could tell that the listener/advice giver was really thinking, “Yeah, he doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about.” Which is true, but she still wouldn’t walk.

Getting the Feel for Your Boat

1. If your boat isn’t behaving the way you think she should, try to figure out why. There may be something that you can do about it.

2. The prop(s) may be the wrong pitch or size. Sometimes this can be true even with a new boat.

3. Simple and relatively inexpensive additions may help. An example could be the addition of a splash rail on the hull, forward, above the waterline.

Click Here for More Tips

This whole thing was exacerbated by the fact that the mast was at just the right distance from the hull’s pivot point for even a little breeze, from anywhere except the bow or the stern, to spin the boat like a top. Or so it seemed. It was so bad that whenever I came into a tight marina and they asked me if I wanted help docking, I’d say, “Yeah, just have all the dock hands line up in the office, close their eyes, and pray for me.”

Many other boats have plagued me with their idiosyncrasies. Like my “tender” boats. I don’t think Elvis had a clue about the potential import of the words when he was singing, “Love Me Tender.” I’ve had sailboats so tender that they’d flip when I swatted a mosquito. I had a rowing dinghy that was so tender it would flip if I raised one oar higher than the other. Then there have been my slow boats. My motor sailers have been the ones that wouldn’t sail out of the way if the QE II were closing on them, unless you turned on the motor. I’ve also had boats with what they call a “fine entry.” I think this is supposed to mean something good, but I’m not so sure. What it’s meant to me is that foredeck is just as likely to be under water as above.

Long ago I had an 18 foot outboard motorboat. You wouldn’t use the word, “fine” to describe much of anything about her, except that she did do a fine job of running bow down. This was probably because she was built as a common ordinary wooden skiff and I added a heavy plywood cabin to her bow, two bunks therein, two huge brass portholes thereon, and a real “ship’s wheel” with spokes on the after bulkhead. Instead of sitting astern holding on to the outboard tiller like the boat’s builder intended, I stood forward of midships holding onto that wheel. I can’t really blame the boat for wanting to “dive dive” all the time. When we ran down a wave she acted like I’d thrown out the anchor. Her bow would dig in and her stern would swing around like it wanted to get there first. Sliding down a wave sideways was often the only way I got down the waves. Those were in the days when I thought that a “broach” was either something that my grandmother wore on Sundays or a boy cockroach. It meant for a lot of twirling of that wheel with spokes, but we survived, although precariously. Maybe I didn’t know what I was doing, but that boat and I generally got where we wanted, even if we were going sideways half the time. Steering into the waves was better. I didn’t have this problem of sliding down them sideways. That’s because we never went up them. She’d just plough on through. The side decks, wash boards and bucket were the only thing between me and the crabs. Reversing on this boat was never an issue. The outboard propeller would pull the stern wherever you wanted it to go, as long as I could get the stern to settle down low enough for the propeller to bite.

I’ve been to the “factories” of many boat manufacturers, both power and sail. I’ve seen boats built and put together from bottom to top. Although I like to think of boats being lovingly built plank by plank or layer by layer, I know that most are built in assembly line fashion, to one degree or the other. They can do that these days, and make good boats that are a lot more affordable than they would be if they were built like they “used to do it” 100 years ago. You’d think that with all this uniformity, all boats of a given build would behave alike. Well, they don’t except sometimes, and you can’t rely on that “sometimes.”

But that’s a part of what makes you love your boat. No matter how much it looks like it came out of a cookie cutter, you know it’s special. It’s special because it’s your boat, and it’s special because it’s special. You’ve gotta learn about her idiosyncrasies just like you do with a partner. You’ve gotta learn how to communicate with her in ways that you both understand. You’ve gotta learn what she’s saying to you, in fair weather and in storm. And the more time you spend together, whether out running or working on her at the dock, the better you’re going to get along together and the more fun you’re going to have.

Copyright 2004-2005 Tom Neale