Your Stories, From The Edge


Trials Of The Docking Derby

By Steve Schwartz
Published: April/May 2013

When interviewed about what makes them most nervous, several round-the-world sailors said, "Maneuvering around docks." Our author can relate...

Anyone Care To Relate?

But my current tale takes place not in the Great Lakes, but in the Finger Lakes of New York state, where we kept our boat years ago in a lovely marina on Cayuga Lake. When designing our Cayuga marina, the engineers must have had the day off, because it was a bit roomier than most. But to get out of our slip and into the lake, we had to back out, gun the motor in forward to keep from hitting some boats behind us (this is important, keep it in mind), then wend our way through a couple of interconnected alleys, turning this way and that, to get out into open water.

Photo of the Wind Dancer at anchor
Wind Dancer at anchor — a sometimes viable alternative to a docking derby.
At anchor in the Thousand Islands of the St Lawrence River.

One fine summer afternoon we arrived at our sailboat Wind Dancer. It was a name we inherited from the previous owners — not our choice — but actually quite accurately descriptive, given the way the wind catches the bow and wants to turn it with cheerful disregard of the helm. How could anything go wrong on such a nice day for a sail? We opened the boat whistling a little sea shanty, loaded our gear, and chatted with folks on the docks near us, the usual prelude to a carefree day on the water.

I should describe Wind Dancer's helm. One wheel is all there is, not the double helm as on the "midsized" sailboats of today. Nor, need I add, did we have joystick docking. On the left is the gearshift. Up for forward, down for reverse. To the right is the throttle, a setup not atypical on boats from the 1980s to 1990s. On our boat you actually need three hands to manage everything at once. Our throttle lever was cranky. In particular, it was quite stiff and required a good hard push to get it moving forward, which results in it going too far, with too much acceleration, that then requires a hard pull back immediately, to adjust. But we took the admonition, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," to heart, and sportingly dealt with our minor problems by ignoring them. So our throttle lever wasn't broken, but it wasn't working the way it should, either. Trust me, all this is relevant.

We untied as usual, with no premonition of danger at hand. I was at the helm. Diane was handling the dock lines. I've since given up trying to dock and undock our boat. Diane does all of the helming around docks now. The truth is I'm stronger and more agile than she is and it just makes sense for me to do the untying, boat handling, and stepping from dock to boat as she pulls it out of the slip. She's the brain. I'm the brawn (such as it is, which is not much in my case).

Photo of Diane and Steve Schwartz
Diane and Steve Schwartz

But back then, before we knew better (and we were younger and both more agile), I was handling the wheel and Diane was the boat handler. So let's go back in time to that fateful day.

I pull out smartly backward reversing to port, the only way Wind Dancer will go in reverse, as Diane gracefully steps aboard. I back up to get the bow pointing down the alley toward the entrance to the marina, with very little room to spare. I have to get the boat moving forward sharply so the stern doesn't hit docked boats behind us. After stopping the sternway by pushing down hard on the throttle to bring our boat into forward motion, we still have three turns to make to exit the marina. The turns are between lovely expensive yachts docked in slips all along the way. It's not far, but it's crammed with boats, docks, pilings, and dinghies, and we have to twist and turn through a maze to reach the open lake. Usually, it's no problem.

As I'm changing from reverse, I have to press down hard on the throttle lever and give it quite a bit of diesel to get the several tons of boat moving the other way. Then I have to pull back to slow it down to a crawl and wend our way through the marina. So now we arrive at the climax. As I press down firmly on the throttle and the boat starts moving forward, the throttle handle simply comes off in my hand! The through-bolt has sheared off!

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