Trials Of The Docking Derby

By Steve Schwartz

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

Where we usually sail and cruise in eastern Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, many of the marinas have been designed by squinty-eyed engineers with calipers and micrometers, who have determined the exact minimum space necessary between slips and within alleys between the rows of slips to accommodate rather diminutive sailboats. Similar to economy-class airplane seating, or cheap New York restaurants, not an inch is spared for comfort or peace of mind.

Nothing quite concentrates the mind as arriving late on a weekend afternoon at a windswept marina where you've reserved a dock for the night. It usually goes something like this: We've approached with the usual windy afternoon onshore thermal, assigned to D37, or some such slip. The best we can determine from cryptic communications with marina staff is that it's down a long alley, a starboard tie-up. So we proceed, knuckles white as our sun-bleached decks, between boats bow and stern in their slips, with only a whisper between them and our beamy boat. It looks like our assigned slip is on the other side of that enormous sailboat, the one with the bow sticking a yard into the alley, and two bristling, evil-looking anchors on bow rollers waiting to impale us as we try to slide by. The tailwind is really catching us now. There's no turning back. We're in the grip of the causal nexus. Somehow, with luck and bravado, engine in reverse, then idling, then a little more reverse, a little forward, a turn quick here, a shove off, and we're in the slip, the nerves in our legs still twitching.

As we wipe those little beads of perspiration off our foreheads and start adjusting our dock lines, the dock boy comes running and shouting: "No, No, No! You're in the wrong slip! You've got to go back out!"

"Honey, open the seacocks and let her sink, will ya?" I drawl to my wife. "They can't make us move if we're grounded on the bottom here."

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 anchorWind 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 SchwartzDiane 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!

What The ...?

Now here's the pressing question: What do you do? The rpm are way up and the boat is accelerating forward quite frighteningly. Without the throttle handle, there's no way to reduce the speed. We could not turn and thread our way out of the marina with this increasing acceleration, and we had only seconds before we started smashing up lots of expensive boats, not to mention our own! This comes about as close to staring into the boating abyss as one can without actually sinking.

Fortunately, I didn't have time to brood on all my failures as a human being and skipper. I couldn't possibly turn the peg with my weak little fingers. Shutting off the engine still would leave us moving forward too quickly with no way to maneuver the boat even as it slowly slows down. Would the engine even shut down at such high rpm? I don't know! If it does stop, then our boat stops powerless in mid-marina, caught by the wind! Get the anchor down? Now, there's a seamanlike idea, but I knew with dreadful instinct that there just wasn't time or room enough in the confines of the marina maze.

And then, with an instantaneous flash of brilliance (although I do not remember thinking at all, just acting — and this is so uncharacteristic of me, a deep thinker), I dove down into the lower part of the cockpit, threw open the lazarette, and grabbed my toolbox. In less than a second, I had a Vise-grip in my hand. Back up to the helm breathing hard, I clamped the Vise-grip onto the peg with desperation bred by raw fear. If this didn't work, we were doomed, and so were a lot of other lovely boats. Not that we were in any physical danger, but oh, what a mess we'd make with an out-of-control sailboat in a crowded, windy marina.

But it worked. Perfectly. It gripped the little steel peg and turned it just as effectively as the handle — nay, better. I smoothly used the Vise-grip to decelerate, and neatly motored out of the marina. We never yelled, or screamed, or swore. We'd been struck dumb. And we had a lovely day on the water. Disaster averted by my quick action, I modestly say.

Of course, we now make sure that all bolts and attachments are secure and solid, and that levers and such are working smoothly. I recommend you do likewise. Just in case, though, have a Vise-grip handy. It's a dandy little device.

Photo of the Wind Dancer safely in her slip in Sackets Harbor, NYWind Dancer safely in her slip in Sackets Harbor, NY. The docking derby a dim memory.

Lessons Learned:

This is going to be short. Make sure that the fittings on the helm (and everywhere) are sound and that everything is not just "unbroken," but working as smoothly as designed. It's not a bad idea to have a toolbox with Vise-grips and other useful tools in a readily accessible spot. 

Diane and Steve Schwartz, BoatUS members since 1986, have cruised and sailed in New York state, Lake Ontario, and the St Lawrence River for many years. Since 2001 they have based Wind Dancer, their 1993 Hunter 30, in Sackets Harbor, New York. They've trailered smaller sailboats for cruising in the Chesapeake and chartered in the Bahamas. They live in Ithaca, New York and retired from teaching in 2003.

— Published: April/May 2013

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