Working waterfronts are fascinating places. Whether it’s the lobstermen or a fleet of fishing boats returning with their catch, experienced captains handling their boats is art in motion. Waterman’s Day in Rock Hall, Maryland, celebrates the lives of these working watermen on the Chesapeake Bay, along with the crabs and oysters we love so much.
One of the most popular events at the summer festival is the docking competition. Spectators watch in awe as these professionals handle their boats with finesse and precision.
But simply saying, “I’ll just watch these pros and do what they are doing” is like learning how to drive by watching the Indianapolis 500. Conversely, don’t think that just because you’re a recreational boater, you can’t dock as well as the pros do.
Participants in recreational activities who reach high levels of performance do so through continual training, while frequently hiring professionals to coach them. Most new boaters believe they are practicing their boat-handling skills every time they take their boat out. Unfortunately, they are under a false belief that using their boat is the same as practicing. The educator and learning expert Eduardo Briceño says that to excel at anything is to know the difference between “learning mode” and “performance mode.” When you are using your boat, you are in performance mode. Your mind is not open to learning.
When operating in performance mode, your goal is to avoid making any mistakes. This is especially true in docking situations. There is the pressure of people on shore watching your approach, or you may have guests on board. Your primary goal is to get the boat out of or into the slip without damage or embarrassment. In this scenario, you are not able to observe your actions objectively. Your mind is not open to seeing the mistakes you are making.
When operating in learning mode, you accept that you are going to make mistakes, with the intent of learning from them. This is also where a professional trainer comes in. Training captains will see mistakes you are making, that you are unable to see in yourself.
Now, you might be tempted to have an experienced boating friend or slip neighbor give you some pointers, but rarely is that approach to learning successful. Just because someone is good at what they do doesn’t mean they know how to convey the information to others. Knowing how to do something well and knowing how to teach it are two very different things.
It is also important to learn and practice aboard your own boat. Each boat handles differently. Differences in depth of keel, pivot points, hull shapes, windage, engine configuration, thrusters, helm location and more will affect how the boat responds or behaves at slow speeds. Learning how to handle a planing hull Down East express cruiser will do little good if you own a displacement hull raised pilothouse trawler.
Taking it slowly is another caution to heed. Most professional captains dock their boats much faster than I would recommend; this is also true of recreational boaters who are still learning. Unless you are highly experienced, being heavy on the throttle mostly results in writing hefty checks to the fiberglass repairman. If you hit the pier going slowly, you bump it. If you hit the pier going fast, something is going to break, and rarely will it be the pier.
Regardless of experience, people who strive to excel, even at an amateur level, are always learning. They are always students of their craft or activity. You, too, can bask in the compliments of a dockhand saying, “Wow, you made that look easy.”
Take your boat to the mountain. Seek the wisdom of the masters. Time spent on your boat in learning mode, under the observation of an experienced training captain, is one of the best ways to improve your boat-handling skills.