April 2, 2009

Parking problems

WE WERE TALKING about fear the other day, the kind of anxiety you feel when you’re out sailing and you see a storm approaching, or the feeling you get in your stomach when your auxiliary engine suddenly fails while you’re entering a strange port. These are very common fears, and ones you can overcome with experience and practice, but the most abiding fear for most sailboat owners is fear of docking, especially with a new boat whose charming eccentricities are as yet unknown.

The trouble with this business of parking your boat in a tiny slot in a congested marina is that circumstances are hardly ever the same twice in a row. Sometimes the wind is from ahead, which slows you down and makes steering more difficult. Sometimes the wind is from astern, which speeds you up and raises your heart rate. And sometimes it’s from the side, which always means extra trouble. Add to this the fact that the wind speed always varies, even from minute to minute, and you have a situation that can’t possibly be compensated for by experience or practice. It’s different every time.

On top of this, there’s current. Even well-sheltered marinas can have currents running through them. But the current’s speed is never the same, and its direction varies, too.

Now all these factors affecting the course and speed of the boat are invisible, of course. You can’t see them. They might be there, and they might not. Your only clue to their presence is the erratic movement of the boat, compared with the dock you’re trying to moor alongside.

So now you have a boat on final approach that is almost totally out of control, for no apparent reason that any bystander can see. To cap it all, a boat is a vehicle that really does go completely out of control if you stop it. You can’t steer it if you stop it. A boat has to be moving if you want to change its direction. If you stop, you’re a dead duck.

Nevertheless, it is now your unenviable task to stop the boat; and stop it within its own length, if, by any lucky chance, you should find yourself anywhere near the dock when you’re attempting to moor. You must have steerage way when your bow enters your slip, but you must not have steerage way when your stern enters your slip. You must be quite still after your stern enters the slip for technical reasons we needn’t go into right now, but which involve expensive repairs and painful talks with insurance companies.

Thus, if you have a 30-foot boat, you have 30 feet in which to bring five tons of fiberglass, wood, and metal to a complete rest from a speed of about 2 knots. Anyone clever enough to figure out the math will tell you this is quite impossible, especially if you’re coming in sideways and 20 feet away from the dock.

This is why experienced sailors pray. In my book, How to Rename Your Boat, there’s a chapter on mariners’ prayers for various occasions. Here’s the Prayer for Safe Docking. You might want to commit it to memory:

Yea, though I glide through the valley of the shadow of disaster, I will fear no problem, for thou art with me; my fenders and my docklines, they comfort me still.
Thou preparest a plan before me in the presence of mine smirking neighbors: a plan that will guide me miraculously into my dock as a finger squeezeth into a glove. My cup of joy runneth over.
Surely envy and wonderment shall follow my neighbors all the days of their lives: and I will dwell in the house of Fabulous Boathandlers for ever. Amen.

Today’s Thought
The shore has perils unknown to the deep.
—George Iles, Jottings.

“Wow, did you see old Rita at the tennis-club dance? My word! Talk about décoletté!”
“Really? Only last week she told me she never touched a drop.”

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