For More Boring Mooring

By Tom Neale, 1/25/2007


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Trawler on Mooring in Newport, painting by Mel Neale.
There’s a strange and growing phenomenon in our waters called “picking up a mooring.” I seldom do this myself, unless some kind soul lets me borrow one. I can’t afford most of them and I’d rather trust my own gear. But I’ve been noticing some of the tactics that seem to be in vogue for picking up a mooring. While the practice is spreading far and wide, New England seems to be in the forefront.

The strangest thing about New England mooring fields is that only the rich people can afford them and only the poor people have boats that can use them. They cost $40.00 and more a night. As a poor person, that leaves me out. But the problem for the rich people isn’t in picking up the tab; it’s in picking up that pennant. This is because it seems that a lot of high brows have high bows. They love those big boats. (There are some low bow types of rich folks with the million dollar “picnic boats” and little 40 to 50 foot day sailers. But that’s another story which I’ll get to in a moment.)

We spent several summers anchored near the mooring fields in Newport, RI. On the slow weekends, it was always fun to watch people try to pick up moorings. We were off to the side out of the way, but we’d spend many a pleasant evening with the binoculars watching the show. And, just in case I win the lottery and can afford a mooring, I took notes.

Generally the most successful skippers pick up the moorings by the stern. Their tool of choice seems to be the propeller. But this isn’t what you may be thinking. You don’t back up to the mooring. That wouldn’t be proper and would be far too easy. Anchoring by the stern usually involves a bow on approach. The idea is that the mooring ball is actually a target to help you line up. If you can hit that ball dead on, you’re much more likely to successfully catch the pennant with a propeller. But if you don’t hit the ball dead on, you still have a good chance of connecting up. Even if you just hit the ball with a glancing blow, you’ll probably still snag it with your stabilizer fins resulting in the well known “side-to mooring hang.” This way, when the water taxi comes to collect you and your twenty bucks per head, you can provide a nice lee and no money blows out of the tip jar.

Mooring Tips

1. Don’t take any of the above seriously. I’m just jealous I don’t have a high bow.

2. Unless you know the people maintaining the mooring, don’t assume that just because you’re on a mooring you’re safe.

For those who insist on bow mooring, there is a basic preliminary tactic that must be followed before picking up the pennant and attaching it to the bow. One person on the boat has to get the other to go to the bow with a boathook while the first person remains safely ensconced behind the wheel, avoiding having to show him/her self. But this is where the bow person can really shine. (For lack of a shorter term, I’ll call her/him the Mooring Picker Upper, MPU for short.) You can’t see most mooring balls from the wheel of most boats as you get close and, contrary to the theories of some skippers, you do have to get close to retrieve the pennant. So the MPU gets to tell the skipper exactly where to go—the major difficulty being in doing so without the use of both middle digits. The use of both middle digits always substantially interferes with the process because it usually necessitates dropping the boat hook.

There are four very important ingredients that facilitate the operation. The first is a long enough and strong enough boat hook. It’s bad enough to miss snagging the pennant while the entire fleet is watching. But it’s worse to actually snag it and then see your boat hook bend like a wet noodle as you try to pull up the line while the mooring ball is rapidly disappearing astern.

The second ingredient is a very strong MPU. It takes a lot of muscle to pull the pennant up, get it through the chock, and secure it while the boat is blowing off the wind. Sheer muscle power becomes especially critical when Skipper prematurely slinks below to mix a drink, forgetting that he/she hasn’t shifted into neutral yet.

The third ingredient is good communication. Most use hand signals, but this is almost impossible when the MPU’s hands are full of boat hook and line. It’s even more impossible when she/he is leaning over the bow hanging on for dear life while trying to snag the pennant, the only part of said MPU visible to Skipper being the end opposite the MPU’s face. For docking, anchoring and mooring we find a small walkie-talkie head set to be indispensable. It’s paid for itself many times over, and it enables an aggrieved party to tell the other exactly what’s on her/his mind. It also enables my wife to turn me off when she realizes she can handle the situation much better without my comments.

Ft. Lauderdale Mooring Field, photo by Mel Neale.
The fourth ingredient is a second boat hook since the first boat hook usually goes in the drink when the skipper persists on plowing on or backing down despite all the signals from the MPU to “stop the damn thing.” It’s usually far better for the MPU to just grab another hook instead of clinging to the first while following it over the side into the water. Interestingly, we have noticed, on more than one occasion, that the MPU will follow the boat hook over the side, presumably because she/he was anxious to swim ashore and leave Skipper to handle things alone thank you.

It’s obviously easier to pick up moorings from the small picnic boats, and low bow day sailers. And fortunately the price for some of these has ascended to the levels acceptable to the social standings of even the very wealthy. This avoids some of the embarrassment of being high bowed. I’m not sure how it is that these little boats cost so much, but I think it has something to do with technology. For example, they all have super strong bow thrusters. I’ve seen some of these folks mightily thrusting away from first one side to the other on boats not much bigger than what I used to handle with a paddle. And interestingly, some of these are even coming with joy stick control (as are larger yachts). I think it’s only a matter of a short while before we apply the technology used so well in docking the space shuttle with the space station to picking up moorings. After all, we do have cars that keep you from bumping into things around you and that will even parallel park themselves. There’s no reason we can’t make this work with boats and moorings.

There’ll still be the problem of getting the pennant aboard and rigged to a cleat, but perhaps that won’t be necessary. Modern technology has an even better answer. The bow thruster has to be very powerful, but hey, it only takes money. If the automatic maneuvering technology can just bring one side or another of the bow to the ball rather than create a dead on approach, a slight appropriately timed flick of the wrist at the bow thruster toggle can suck pennant and line in to those propellers and you’re set for the night. Or the Month. Or the Year.

Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale