When you (and you will) hit something…or…things that go “bump” on the water

It seems that a great many aspiring sailors are hesitant to go and do things that might result in a potentially embarrassing but otherwise harmless bump with another marine object. It saps their enjoyment of otherwise glorious experiences. I am here to tell you that it happens, is happening as I type this, has happened and will happen to everyone who spends a significant time on a vessel of any significant size (over 25′) and in any significant wind or current…(sometimes even not so significant).  While there are techniques to minimize these occurrences…..it happens and is inevitable so don’t stress over it…please.  Is it fun? No….Would you prefer it didn’t happen? Of course….Does it diminish your experience and value as a part of the sailing and boating community? Absolutely not.  Do you think that guy or gal doing 30kph in the no wake zone stays awake at night worrying about when he will do that again?  Haha…they certainly don’t seem don’t stress about it (or even notice) and neither should you.  That’s not to say that you shouldn’t continually strive to improve your skills…that will always generate a sense of pride in your accomplishments……just realize that you weren’t (as one of my close friends pointed out after a particularly grueling docking maneuver) “born with a rudder hanging out your rear end, were you?”

Where does this obsession come from and how do you deal with it?

I continually find myself obsessing over when my next “collision” will take place.  My nightmares are filled with images of me crashing into a variety of fixed and mobile obstacles, pilings, shoals, freighters, mermaids…some at speeds our boat could never dream to attain…..doesn’t really matter what it is, I do it in my daydreams, regular dreams and in my visions of landfalls and docking maneuvers.  I’m not really sure what the particular psychology is behind this haunting condition but it is apparently rampant in the sailing and boating community.  I have seen enough forum posts about getting in and out of slips, around marinas and down fairways to fill a fleet of dump trucks if they were all printed out.  I have read about others obsessing over the embarrassment of rebounding from a piling in a marina basin or while leaving a slip with a crowd watching.  Then there’s always that “one guy” (in real life or a forum) who has done it all, seen it all, docked every boat in hurricane force winds and never made contact with anything….anyone know this guy? I am coming to the conclusion that this “guy” and his unidentified cohorts will stand around in a marina relishing their schadenfreude while denying ever having done the same exact thing are the ones responsible for this anxiety.  There are simply some people incapable of admitting their faults or mistakes, who feel the need to bolster themselves by bringing others down just to shore up their own self image.  Don’t listen to, or even worry about, these folks.

By whom is it are we worried about being judged?  Is there anyone out there who hasn’t hit something ? The short answer is NO.  If anyone claims that I’d have to seriously consider that they are either dishonest, inexperienced or just have a boat that never leaves the marina.  I’ve seen sailing instructors with decades of experience bounce off a piling in a slip that is in a marina and on a boat they use EVERY DAY.  I recently saw a video of an 20+ year owner of a sailing magazine with several licensed Captains on board hit a dock with ZERO fenders out.  It is a part of the risk you accept when you venture out onto an ever changing, sometimes unpredictable liquid surface and inject an object that is designed to be moved by the wind and currents with limited means of propulsion or resistance to those forces.

I have certainly been a victim of this particular neurosis.  I originally believed that once I experienced a few bumps and jolts that the contemporaneous and lasting feelings of stress and despair would dissipate…..I was wrong, but I am recovering.

My first experience was in Charleston, SC.  I had enjoyed almost a week of (mostly) very successful docking and un-docking maneuvers, mooring ball arrivals and general navigational successes.  We had purchased our boat about 6 months prior and were attempting our first long distance (460nm) trip to our home slip in North Carolina.  I may have become a little cocky. We had spent the night and were planning to take on some diesel prior to our departure.  The fuel dock was about 400′ down a fairway (some call it the fuel alley) lined with powerboats, …(cue the ominous music).  I pulled away from the transient dock and made a large turn in the channel so I could be centered as I entered the fairway.  It was necessary to move slightly to starboard in order to make the turn and come alongside the fuel dock.  There was only about 60′ open to get our 44′ boat into…I was worried.  I was using the pilings as points of reference for my course.  About halfway down the fairway I began to drift to starboard in preparation for the turn to port. Just as I was starting my turn to port I heard the dock hand call out “watch your stern”.  My heart sank as our dinghy transom caught the bow pulpit of a power boat that was hanging about 5′ beyond the line of the pilings and out of the slip where they were docked. I had been focusing on the pilings hadn’t noticed how far this particular boat extended into the fairway.  There was quite a clang….the dinghy swung violently as I eased the helm to center and then back to port once we cleared the pulpit.  The remainder of the docking was uneventful.  The dock hand went over and inspected the power boat for damage and thankfully reported none.  The woman who owned the boat was on board with her mother and her daughter.  They were very, very nice and understanding.  She also told me it was the fifth time their boat had been struck!!!  She had asked to be moved out of the fuel alley due to the length of their boat and that hopefully this incident would make that move a reality.  She was the polar opposite of what I would have expected from someone jolted awake by a loud clang that wasn’t her fault.  Fortunately, “that guy” wasn’t around.

How do we address this and reduce our stress?

1. Have a plan for each docking and un-docking, discuss it.

2. be familiar with the “pivot point” of your particular boat.

3. We have found that communications is essential so we currently use Motorola waterproof handheld FRS radios with voice activated headsets.  They have been fantastic.  We are considering upgrading to some even nicer ones, these take a second or two to activate the microphone but have proven to be very valuable.

4. Have backup hand signals.

5. Put out too many fenders….put some on the non dock side as well…just in case you have to change your docking plans from port to starboard or vice verse.

6. Control your speed…just enough to maintain steerage will reduce any damage in the event of a collision. About 1kt is all we need. Also, try and stop just after entering any area (basin,marina) to see how the wind and current is affecting your boat in that environment.

7. Have a “roving fender” or boat hook equipped crew member on deck to fend off.

8. Have predetermined and thoroughly understood throttle/rudder descriptions for the amount, direction and duration of their use.

9. Have a “bailout” plan if things go wrong, the wind or current changes, increases or some other unforeseen incident takes place…(boats always seem to arrive and depart unexpectedly when we dock)

This is a great seminar I like to watch regularly as a refresher….(credit to the Maryland School of Sailing)

As always comments, feedback and personal stories are welcome….Don’t forget to follow us!!!  Thanks

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I'm the average sailor...converted from a landlubber of course. While I was born with a love of the ocean it has evolved into a love of sailboats and other vessels that ply the open seas and connected waterways. I am probably like most of the people who (hopefully) will read our blog with the exception that we are now doing what we always dreamed of doing and I hope to help others do the same. I am NOT any of the following...a naval architect, a marine surveyor or connected commercially to any builder, distributor or boat sales organization. My opinions are generally my own, although influenced by many years of research.

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