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Boat Handling

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We were up long before breakfast at a yacht club moorage on Cortes Island in British Columbia, planning an early departure to gain a knot or more in speed from a favorable current for a day's run south. And there was a small problem.

Quadra was at a starboard tie on the long leg of an L-shaped dock. There was a larger yacht directly behind her. Another big one was to the left on the short leg; Quadra was bow-to-bow with her.
No sooner had the engines been started, however, than the owner of the boat on the short leg of the dock appeared and began helping with our lines. He kept the bow line looped on the cleat, the end in his hand. "I'll hold the bow for you," he said.

Ellen centered the rudders and put the starboard engine in reverse and the 42-foot Quadra began backing to the left, her stern swinging well clear of the boat behind us while the bow was nearly motionless. With our stern safely away from the dock and other boats, the helping hand freed the bow line—which then was functioning as a spring line—tossed it back aboard and returned to his coffee. Problem solved.

I thanked him for knowing how to use a line effectively, noting mentally that most helpers would have pushed the bow away from the dock, which could have turned our stern into the boat behind.

That simple act was a pleasant moment in a six-week trip along the Inside Passage, from my home port in Anacortes, Washington to Port McNeill near the north end of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, and to the marinas, inlets, and harbors in the Broughton islands along mainland B.C.

It reinforced my view that there are many boat handling tactics in our mental files, but they are lost among the cobwebs from lack of use. One of the most practical is the use of spring lines, a topic that may seem confusing because lines performing different functions may all be called springs.

Typically, spring lines are used to prevent motion fore and aft while a boat is tied to a floating dock, to hold it in place while the tide rises on a fixed pier, and to position fender boards against pilings. In those situations, one line leads forward from a boat's amidships cleat to a cleat or bull rail on the mooring float, while a second goes aft from the same ship's cleat; lines led from the bow or stern to a cleat near the center of a boat offer the same results. Together, these lines keep a boat from slamming forward or aft into a dock or another boat. If a storm is approaching, doubling up on spring lines (as well as bow and stern lines) may be a good idea.

These are the uses for spring lines most boaters practice regularly.

I began writing this from a marina at Ganges, a small port on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia, and I interrupted my work to join a couple of boaters helping the owner of a 51-foot motoryacht move his boat to another slip.
The move required the owner to back around the end of a pier, which was easy with twin engines. Then he needed to parallel park it, a challenge because an east wind was gusting 10–15 knots across the mooring float and smack against the boat's starboard side. Other problems: the rocky shore was not far away to port, and the water was shallow.

The skipper moved the yacht's stern to within a few feet of the floating dock, but the bow was blowing away. A stern line was tossed to the dock—technically, it was an after quarter spring—and a helper quickly tied it to the cleat. This allowed the owner to power ahead gently to starboard. The bow moved slowly, slowly toward the dock while the stern moved forward a little but not farther away from the dock. In seconds a bow line was handed ashore and the boat was secure.
This would have been a difficult move for the couple aboard to handle themselves. But with the spring line and a couple of helpers on shore, the maneuver was accomplished quickly and with ease.

At another marina, in Port McNeil, B.C., I watched as the owner of a single-engine boat—with a stern thruster—tried to move away from a side tie by going ahead and steering the bow away from the dock. This, of course, is next to impossible. You can't steer a boat the way you drive a car.

He was at the bottom of a U-shaped moorage and other boats were moored along the vertical legs. As the skipper wrestled wheel and throttle and shouted instructions, he was in grave danger of smashing into one of those boats; he also was unaware that as he tried to turn the bow out the after corner of his boat was being battered as it dragged along the dock.

There was a lot of shouting and several men on the dock were pushing and shoving, trying to make it happen. The boat's engine roared occasionally and the stern thruster splashed. Little happened.

I thought about our experience at Cortes Island and realized that a simple duplication of that process would have worked. One of the grunting dockhands could have cleated the bow line while the skipper backed to the left, with the aid of the thruster. In seconds the stern of his boat would have been clear of other moored craft and he could back straight out of the marina.

There are many other uses for springs.

Skilled boaters may shoot a landing against—or with—currents, using springs. They can be used to shoehorn a boat into a space between two other moored boats. If a wind on the beam nails your boat to the dock several combinations of spring lines may help break it free. A spring may be connected to an anchor chain to prevent swinging in the wind.

Trouble is, we tend to forget how helpful a spring may be as we approach a difficult landing and we just charge ahead hoping things will work. I know. I've been there.

We need to polish these skills simply because they make boating easier and safer. They are the difference between looking like a pro and a weekend warrior.

Marina employees need the same skill enhancement; many have no idea about the principles of using spring lines. I once approached a dock with the wind on the beam. The deckhand took a breast line—we were that close—but ignored my plea to tie it off. Instead, he tried to pull us in. Imagine, one normal-sized human trying to move a 21-ton boat against a 10-knot wind.

Everyone's favorite boat line is the one attached to the bow. Watch a boat coming into a slip and someone is in the bow ready to hand off that line and it may be the only one on the boat ready for use. Or, a dockhand is crying out "give me the bow line."

Bow lines are necessary, of course. But they are not my front-line favorite.

On Quadra, the deck crewmember stands amidships with a breast line in hand when we approach a landing; bow and stern lines are readily available.

The breast line goes over first and is the first to be secured to cleat or bull rail. With it in place, wind and current can do little to push the bow or stern away. It can also serve as a spring line to swing the stern to the dock if the boat is several feet from the dock.

A bow line can double as an after spring to swing a stern against the dock. But it is much longer and may chafe and bind against the hull on some boats. A dock helper in Seattle once took my bow line and secured it. Thinking she knew what she was doing—it was and still is a first-class marina—I powered ahead on the starboard engine to swing the stern in toward the dock. Instead of tying it short, she tied the bitter end of the line to the cleat; Quadra surged ahead against the long, loose line and bumped the dock. Wouldn't have happened with a breast line.

Resources abound. Find an excellent review of spring line use in Chapman's Seamanship and Small Boat Handling. Google "spring lines" to find dozens of items with explanatory text, pictures, and animated illustrations. Schools and personal trainers also teach the use of spring lines.

I know a small dock on a dry, rocky island in British Columbia that rarely is full and often empty. Ellen and I have agreed that next time we go north we will spend an hour or longer trying each of the spring line combinations—with each sharing time at the wheel and on deck. That's the only way to root out those dormant skills and make them instinctive and available for everyday use.

Here's another way to sharpen these seaman's skills: PassageMaker Magazine has provided seminars on improving boat handling at some of its Trawler Fest sessions; look for the topic to receive renewed emphasis at Trawler Fest programs in 2009. The use of spring lines likely will be on seminar schedules.