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Settle Down, Skipper

If you're having trouble with docking skills, the problem may be anxiety.

"You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, a fifth dimension known to terrify many boaters. Your next stop: the docking zone."

Countless boats lie at rest in marinas, rarely used because of nightmares and anxiety about docking. In spite of training and encouragement, many boaters fear handling their boats in a marina around other boats. The fear is not unfounded: More insurance claims arise out of damage to boats in a marina than from events in open water.

The problem stems in part from books and classes that cover the mechanics of prop walk and twin-engine pivots, but that fail to address one of the most important aspects of close-quarters handling—that is, the mind game involved.

In boat-handling classes at TrawlerFest, we begin by having students practice maneuvering the boat in open water away from obstructions. Frequently, when these same students move into the marina basin to practice putting the boat into a slip, those who performed flawlessly in open water struggle. They are consumed by fear of damaging the boat in close quarters.

Anxiety and fear can overtake your attention, making it difficult or impossible to think clearly. Imagine trying to dock a boat in fog so thick you can barely see the boats or piers around you. This is what it’s like trying to dock a boat when you’re overly anxious, except the fog is in your head. All you can focus on is your sense of fear. Stressful situations incite clouded thinking, making it difficult to concentrate or take in new information—both critical skills required in docking.

There are no quick fixes when it comes to relieving anxiety and clouded thinking, however, there are proven exercises that can improve performance in stressful situations.

Practicing mindfulness meditation for 10 minutes before beginning a challenging event improves concentration. Ten minutes of focused deep breathing increases the ability to keep information active in your mind. The brain becomes more efficient, requiring fewer resources to do these tasks.

In a report published by the scientific journal Nature, researchers studied participants tracking two to five discs, or targets, moving on a computer screen. Those discs were among 16 identical discs also moving on the screen. Those who practiced mindfulness relaxation before the exercise performed significantly better. In separate studies, air traffic controllers also showed increased performance and concentration after practicing meditation and deep breathing. So did people playing fast-paced video games.

It is easy to see how these studies relate to docking situations. Docking a boat requires taking in information from multiple sources and then acting on the most important information, in order of importance. Maintaining concentration, and singling out important information from distractions, are useful skills when docking.

None of this diminishes the importance of learning how to maneuver a boat, but it does show that those skills alone may be inadequate to perfect docking ability.

You may say to yourself, “I don’t see my friends or partners doing this, and they dock the boat just fine.” It’s true that some people are naturally more relaxed in stressful situations. An increased level of knowledge or practice gained at a young age will also make a difference.

However, my experience matches the data. The more relaxed you are, the more easily you will be able to concentrate. Coupling concentration skills with knowledge of how to control your boat will give you the confidence to be successful at docking.