Skip to main content

Great Day On The Water— Now Bring It Back To Dock!

Fear of docking. Everyone has it, to varying degrees. It's not something we boaters talk about, and it's certainly something no one likes to admit, but it's a daily part of our boating pastime.
Only rarely do you hear someone whisper of their secret fear; other times you might hear it in their exaggerated relief at having made a safe docking. Either way, we all have it, even if it's just a tiny voice in our heads that says, “Is this going to go right for me today?”
Perhaps the only people who haven't developed this fear yet are children. They're still wrapped up in their invincibility cocoon and can do no wrong. Why can't we hang on to just a bit of that blind confidence?

I grew up boating in the waters around Vancouver, British Columbia. My dad taught me how to run the family boat, a 28-foot Crown Pioneer (Uniflite hull) with a single diesel. He taught me engine checks and proper running, and most importantly, how to dock it. He's a great teacher and I learned to run that boat as well as he did (his words, not mine). When he had a business trip booked during a long weekend one summer when I was 14, my mom, sister, and I decided not to let the weekend go to waste, and we took the boat across the strait (over 24 miles) to the yacht club outstation at Silva Bay, Gabriola Island. It was more than twenty years ago, so I don't remember much of the crossing, but I do remember that it was sunny and when we got into Silva Bay, and there was a stiff breeze and a bit of a current running. I selected a spot that was just more than a boat-length long, in front of a beautiful old navy-hulled lapstrake Grenfell, and prepared to dock. The Grenfell's admiral, upon seeing a virtual child at the helm, came rushing out onto her foredeck waving a tea-towel and shouting, “You won't make it! Don't even try! Go somewhere else!”
I glanced at her only once, confused as to why she would be so concerned, and put the boat in to dock perfectly. Today, I understand what that woman saw, and understand why she thought damage to her own boat was imminent. We must have made quite a sight, with my 11-year-old sister on the bow and my mother in the stern with the lines! But back then, there was no fear. No concern at all that there would be a problem putting the boat anywhere I wanted it to go. Today, it's a different story.
When my husband and I bought our first boat, a 19-foot Double Eagle hard-top, we ran it from the south arm of the Fraser River to Coal Harbour in Vancouver, where we'd secured a slip for the summer. It was quite a run, and when we reached the marina and saw our new slip, I panicked.
“They want us to dock HERE?” I exclaimed, requiring no answer. It was about 24 feet of dock, sandwiched between two beautiful 50 and 60-foot yachts. I still didn't know how to run the boat, never mind dock it, and it had been years since I'd run any kind of boat at all. My heart quickened and my mouth went dry as I lined up the slip. Miraculously, I got it in without damage or major jostle. I was exhilarated! The adrenaline coursed through my veins for a good hour after that, and I kept asking my poor husband for confirmation on a job well done (which he patiently and kindly provided).
I've asked my father before if the excitement over a successful (if not graceful) landing ever goes away, and he agreed that it doesn't. I've never asked him about the anxiety, though. Still, I know I'm not the only one.
It's an anxiety born out of concern for your vessel (and others around you), and from the potential for extreme embarrassment. The boating community is a helpful one by nature, and there are usually several people on the dock to help you with the lines when you come into a marina, as well as several more relaxing in the comfort of their own cockpits while watching to see if today is the day you might crash.
If you're new to boating and crowded marinas, how do you practice without that embarrassment factor? You may find an empty stretch of dock to practice on, or try the fuel dock with its line-up of fenders, but every landing is different and impossible to replicate. Wind, current, and other obstacles work against us to make every landing a challenge. It's not like driving a car, which turns when you want it to and has brakes when you need to stop. Boats don't turn as much as they slide, and reverse may stop your forward way eventually, but there's more sliding involved and you may not stop exactly where you wanted to.
Today, as there are more and more boaters finding their way to the water, marinas are becoming more and more crowded, and more and more awkward to maneuver around with added-on docks sticking out at odd angles. There is one marina in West Vancouver that really blows my mind with the number of boats shoe-horned into it. I can't imagine how boats get in and out, and figure they must need a crew of four on all corners ready to fend off with feet and poles. That would definitely affect my decision on whether or not to take a Sunday afternoon cruise!
While we only have a 28-footer today, which responds extremely well to the helm, I marvel at larger yachts as they effortlessly slip into port, and wonder how their captains became so good. Is it practice, or are you born with it? Do they feel the same anxiety that I feel coming into an unfamiliar marina? They may not show it, but I'm confident that they do—they must. The bigger the boat, the costlier the potential damage. That has to keep at least a few skippers awake at night. Maybe they've stumbled upon some sort of safe-docking prayer that helps them through. I know I'm praying to something when I make a dicey landing.
Then there are the days when everything goes wrong, and you find yourself limping into dock on one engine instead of two, on your kicker instead of main engine, or even worse, under sail. Maintenance of your engine(s) is key, but no one can predict that the starter will fall off mid-cruise, or the rad hose that looked like it was fastened well enough wasn't. Unexpected things happen. And this changes the whole dynamic of docking a boat. Boats with twin engines don't move the way you want them to with only one engine. Boats with a single engine don't respond very well to a tiny kicker outboard mounted to the swim grid. They'll get you home, of course, but you may not want witnesses to your landing when you finally make it back to the marina.
We met some friends one summer who had recently converted from sail to power. One friend was a master sailor and the rigging was like an extension of his own limbs. When he sailed, he had little trust for the engine he had aboard for coming and going from port, and when it let him down, as engines will at some point, he had no qualms about bringing the boat in by sail. Now, on a power boat, his legs shake with the idea of bringing it back to the dock, and he's on edge the entire time they're out running, even after several years of motoring.
I yearn for those days again when I was young and confident, with not a concern in the world. When I knew the boat well enough to react to her, instead of having her react to me, and when every landing seemed a perfect one.
On the other hand, maybe it's the fear that keeps us sharp, and what hopefully sees us through more good landings than bad. As long as the fear doesn't stop us from trying again, I guess we all just have to learn to live with it.
As a recent convert from single outboard to twin inboard engines, I'm just looking forward to the day when handling the boat again becomes second nature and I don't have to think my way through choosing which engine to engage in which direction. I hope it comes soon; it'll keep another chunk of the fear at bay.