What’s Up, Dock? Practice Makes Perfect

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Often around Newport Harbor, I overhear other boaters commenting to each other that that person must be a professional skipper after executing a flawless docking and an orchestrated approach to securing the dock lines.  Many times, I have been asked if I was a professional skipper, and then they walk away mumbling that’s why you can dock so well.

Just think how many times you have watched recreational boaters approach the dock at a high rate of speed, and then have their inexperienced guests jump out to try to stop the boat, and you can hear the Capt. Bligh screaming at his guests with words I cannot print in this column.  What is wrong with the situation? How about, preparation, planning, practice and training that are completely missing from this equation.

First, let’s start with a nautical nomenclature lesson, and I want to start with the ropes.  I hope your neck hair just rose as I mentioned “ropes,” because these are called “lines.”  Furthermore, the lines have specific names, like bowlines, stern lines, forward or aft spring lines, and my favorite, breast lines.  As much as you memorize the names and configurations, you cannot expect your inexperienced guests to know what lines you are referring to while they are helping you dock.

Also, the protective cushion (flat cushion, ball, or blowup tube) that hangs off the side a boat for protection between the boat and dock is a fender, not a bumper.

You will see a professional skipper test the docking conditions by coming near the slip then putting the engines in neutral to float-by testing the drift, or pace towards and away from the slip to test momentum.  So, take the time to look at how the elements will affect your docking, such as how the wind might blow you into or away from the dock.  Then before you begin your approach, organize your vessel by hanging the fenders, readying the dock lines, and explaining what to do to any guests who might be helping.

Always dock as slowly as you can while maintaining steerage, as a slow bump will not cause any damage.  This is where the pros shine, as they might bump or use a dock wheel to maneuver in, but it looks natural and under control at slow speed.

Once, when I was in British Columbia to deliver a beautiful new yacht, I was approaching an inside side tie for the night, and a stiff wind was blowing off the dock towards a rocky shoreline that was very close.  We noticed a person emerge from an already docked boat, and he was gesturing that he would help with the lines.  My only crewmember graciously handed him the bowline and asked him to wrap a specific dock cleat.  This extra help would eliminate the need to use the rigged spring line, especially since this boat’s bow thruster was not working.  While my crewmember scurried aft to attend to the stern line, I noticed that the Good Samaritan was just standing with the line in his hand, and he was not listening to repeated polite requests to please wrap the cleat.

As the line slid through his hands, the bow drifted further away from the dock until my crewmember quickly cut the stern line for me to immediately back out before we drifted onto the rocks.  Well, we re-set the lines and this time docked as originally planned, without any assistance from the stranger.  He commented on what a great docking job for this big of a boat.  Huh, I thought to myself that your help or lack of almost put me on the rocks?  I just let it go as I was a guest in his country – plus he knew a great spot for dinner.

Moral of the story is that planning and proper preparation will help you look like a pro when docking.  However, constant planning for the unexpected and continual practice will keep you looking like a pro.

Tip of the week is an email question that reads, “I heard a boater call Mayday over the radio the other day for running out of gas, and the Coast Guard did not sound happy.  What should the boater have done?”

My answer is never hail Mayday over the VHF Marine Band radio if you simply run out of fuel, unless you are going on the rocks or in immediate life threatening danger.  Remember that channel 16 is a hailing and distress channel only, but it is often misused by the Sunday sailors.  You use 16 to hail another vessel and then switch to one of the working channels 68, 69, 71, 72, or 78.  Also, 16 is where you will transmit a call if you are in distress, however, Mayday is reserved for immediate danger to life or the vessel.

And don’t forget: Tune in to the No. 1 boating radio talk show in the nation, Capt. Mike Whitehead’s Boathouse Radio Show, broadcasting coast-to-coast on the CRN Digital Talk Radio syndicated network every Saturday at noon, Pacific Time.  Join Chandler Bell and me as we talk about “all things boating.”  You can find the station listings, cable TV channels, live streaming on the Internet, and available apps to listen to the show for your iPhone, Blackberry, iTouch, Android, Palm, and Windows Mobile at www.BoathouseTV.com or www.BoathouseRadio.com.

Until next week, Safe Voyages!

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