August 2, 2009

The hardest part of sailing

BACKING OUT OF A SLIP is the most challenging part of sailing. That’s the opinion of a couple who recently started sailing. I met Carl and Mona last week while they were practicing docking and undocking their Catalina 27. They can already sail pretty well once they’re clear of the marina, and they manage to berth the boat without causing too much damage, “but backing out makes us really tense,” said Mona.

Humph, I thought. Backing out a Catalina 27 is chickenfeed. They should try backing out a heavy-displacement full-keeler like my Cape Dory 27. At least they can steer in reverse.

Their trouble is that they have an outboard that can’t be turned left or right to steer in astern gear. So in theory they should go straight back. But in practice the stern always turns to port no matter what they do with the rudder. That leaves them facing the wrong way in the narrow channel once they’ve left the slip. Then they have to steer backwards until they’ve cleared the approach channel.

It’s prop walk that sends them the wrong way, of course. It applies to small outboards just as it applies to large inboard engines. But, as I said, once they’ve gathered a bit of speed, they can steer the Catalina quite well in reverse. They don’t like it, though. It makes them uneasy. They think it highlights them as beginners who don’t know what they’re doing. But in fact it’s a perfectly legitimate maneuver in a responsive boat, and I told them so. There’s a beamy 40-footer that regularly comes zipping past my stern in reverse with a pint-sized lady at the wheel. She obviously doesn’t suffer any apprehension.

Part of Karl and Mona’s problem is that they’re still very cautious. They back out of the slip with the engine idling because they’re scared of running into the row of boats berthed just 50 feet behind them. They go so slowly that the rudder can’t steer the boat. My feeling is that if they gave the engine full power in reverse from the very beginning, they would have sufficient stern way to steer the boat in the direction that counteracts prop walk. A quick change into forward and a short burst of full throttle with the helm over would have the boat facing the right way to exit the channel.

That won’t work with my boat, however. She takes too long to gather stern way, even at full throttle. And she won’t steer in reverse even on the best of days, so you never know where you’ll end up. The one constant seems to be that if there’s a decent wind blowing, she will tend to hang dead downwind from her propeller.

So we use a light line from the end of our dock to the starboard cockpit winch. The line is doubled around a convenient fitting on the dock. We back her out until, at 25 feet, she comes to the end of the doubled 50-foot line, and then the bow suddenly gets jerked around to port, no matter how skew she is. I let go one end of the line. It feeds through the dock fitting as I pull it smartly aboard. It’s magic. We’re facing the right way in forward gear in the middle of the channel, exactly where we want to be. If there were an audience, they’d applaud, I’m sure. This trick actually makes us look like masters of small-boat maneuvering. That’s always good for self-esteem, even if we know it isn’t actually true.

Today’s Thought
Chaos is a friend of mine.
—Bob Dylan

A little girl had just finished her first week of school. 'I'm justwasting my time,' she said to her mother. 'I can't read, I can't write,and they won't let me talk!'

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Backing out an outboard powered sailboat...

I have a Catalina Capri 26 with an
outboard on a swing up mount.
The previous owner walked the boat out of the slip on ropes, then jumped aboard and powered away.

I tried backing out a few times and scared myself silly ever time - until...

I removed the bolt locking the motor direction. Now I can walk back to the motor and physically turn it - by hand (no tiller) and literally steer with the motor.

Once going straight, I can drop the bolt back in to lock it again.

What was terrifying now probably looks a little strange to outsiders, but it works perfectly.

Richard Lamb
S.V. Temptress