Captain's Tips

Docking with Confidence

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January 2015
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By
Captains Chris & Alyse
Caldwell

If you've ever sipped a beverage while sitting in a waterside restaurant then you've probably witnessed some awesome docking ... sometimes in a can't-look-away-from-the-wreck awesome. To avoid being the star of a Youtube video you will want to use these docking tricks and tips, many of which only require a bit of practice.

Docking Neophytes

As with anything worth doing, a little bit of effort goes a long way, and practice will enhance that effort! For the first few times you take out your new boat try to do it when the marina is not busy and few boats are underway. A weekday morning when the tide is slack creates the best learning environment. Don't forget to tell the marina staff that you will be in and out of your slip and won't require any help. You will feel less pressure if you have no audience as you practice your close quarters maneuvering.

If you are fortunate enough to work with a training captain, start your very first time at the helm well after the boat is out of its slip. Discovering what it takes to slow, stop and actually reverse your boat combined with how it is affected by tide, current and wind are the first steps to successful docking. Performing these skills while away from the dock allows a new helmsman to build docking confidence without concern for the occasional oops! Soon these skills will become instinctive with diligent practice.

Marina Approach

Whether this will be your home port or your temporary tie-up for a weekend adventure, there's a first time in every marina. Everything looks different from the water so try to learn as much as you can before coming in to your slip. One easy way to explore your options is to stop at the fuel dock first. Fill your fuel tanks or pump out the holding tank then take a walk over to your assigned slip. Scan the surrounding docks for protruding bow pulpits or swim platforms that may require extra maneuvering. Is the power pedestal positioned that you must go bow or stern in? Will the starboard or port side be against the finger pier? Is the pier floating or fixed, as each calls for different fender requirements?

For those boaters in tidal areas, be sure to see from which direction and how fast the current is moving. You may need to compensate and overshoot your slip, allowing the dominant force of wind or current to help your maneuvering. Don't fight the force. Let the force be with you.

Tools of the Trade

While every helmsman should become adept at maneuvering with engines only, it's not cheating to use the tools you have at your disposal. Bow and stern thrusters are a bonus when you must slide right into a side-tie slip, but it's important to know their limitations. Get comfortable with how much power is available, either battery- or generator-assisted hydraulic thruster.

Remember that pilings are your friend, unless they are cement! It's OK to lay your boat's rub rail against a sturdy wood piling, sometimes using it as a fulcrum when the wind or tide challenges your maneuvers. And for good measure, have a walking fender -- one that's loose and easy to grab -- ready for your mate to strategically place when contact is unavoidable. Boat poles can make the difference between getting that line over the piling or launching a dinghy to make it happen. One pole is essential, two is preferred, and three assures you will have a boat pole available when the others go in the drink! A floating boat pole is wonderful, but you still need a second pole to retrieve the first.

Dock lines with large loops are terrific for placing over pilings without choking them. A choked line is difficult to remove from a piling and may need to be left behind. Either splice in a large enough loop or learn to properly tie a bowline, which will create a loop of the size you desire. Many boaters purchase prepackaged cut and spliced dock lines. That's usually fine for smaller boats. Be sure to have long enough lines to spring forward and aft to deal with tidal changes once you've landed safely and are permanently securing your lines.

Breast vs Spring Line

This is always a great topic for a dockside discussion, but our first docking line is almost always a breast line. ?is docking line is attached to the centermost cleat on your boat and unlike the spring line, the breast line is secured at the dock perpendicular to the boat and as short as possible.This is a temporary line that prevents the boat from blowing off the dock or moving too far forward or aft. Once you have successfully landed, readjust this line to become a spring line.

With a bit of practice the breast line can often be secured to the dock without your mate ever leaving the boat. no jumping from the side deck and no dockside help needed! But if you do require help, $5 makes a nice thank you to the marina dockhands.

Crew Communications

Unless you are single handing, it is essential to keep your crew in the loop. Plan your docking strategy, then share the plan with your crew, agree to it and be prepared for changes. It helps if you walk in each other's deck shoes and understand the responsibilities of each crew member but minimally you must find a way to communicate what is occurring --breast line is ON! When the line is secured or Secure stern line first! When the helmsman feels a change in the plan is required.

So how do you talk when the wind is howling or your boat is too big to hear each other clearly? Technology is a wonderful thing and options are plentiful. In addition to a two-way hailer there are head-set selections for every budget. Be sure you recognize the possibility of snagging wires and cumbersome battery packs so try before you buy when possible. After you become competent with each other's roles then short, key words can help describe a multitude of situations. No need for long explanations to get the job done.

Docking is an art that can be refined with practice, or for some lucky boaters it is plain ole raw talent. Just remember that sometimes you watch the show and sometimes you are the show.

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Making Your List and Checking It Twice
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Frequent analogies are made between piloting an aircraft and piloting a boat. Both require similar skills and place you at the mercy of the elements in a medium that's foreign to our bodies. Granted, being suspended in the air may be a tad more precarious than floating on the water, but when the downward spiral of a problem begins in either setting, it typically doesn't end well. For this reason, an aircraft pilot wouldn't dream of taking off without performing a pre-flight checklist. Boating is safer when using checklists, too.

boat row - captain's tips - marinalife
Courtesy of Lukas on Pexels

The concept of a pre-flight checklist was developed following the fatal crash of a test flight in 1935. Leading up to WWII, the U.S. Army Air Corps was looking for a new bomber to meet the demanding needs of long distant flights with heavy payloads. U.S. aircraft company, Boeing, submitted a new plane model for the Army to consider. The Army agreed to try it and scheduled a test flight to see how it would perform.Flying the plane that day were two highly experienced Army pilots, Boeing's chief test pilot, along with a Boeing mechanic and a representative of the engine manufacturer. After takeoff the plane began to climb, but suddenly pitched up, stalled and crashed into a ball of fire upon impact. All on board were initially rescued, but both pilots died from injuries sustained in the crash.The accident investigation determined that before takeoff, the pilots overlooked a safety lock on the elevator and rudder controls, which kept them from controlling the plane's pitch or attitude. Following the accident, a newspaper stated that the Boeing plane was just too much plane for one man to fly.Fortunately, this was not the end of the story, but the beginning of a life-saving idea that would transform how highly complex systems can be operated by average people. Out of this tragedy came the simple and effective concept of the pilot's pre-departure checklist. Time would prove the Boeing plane was not too much for one person, but just too much for one person's memory. Using a simple checklist on future flights would ensure that important steps required prior to takeoff were not forgotten.Checklists were developed for more and more parts of a flight, for emergency situations as well as more routine situations. NASA adopted the use of checklists for almost every part of the Gemini and Apollo space missions, and all astronauts were trained in how to use them. Astronauts logged hundreds of hours familiarizing themselves with and learning how to use these checklists. In fact, checklists were so important to the success of the Apollo moon landings that astronaut Michael Collins called them The fourth crew member.

Safety from the Skies to the Seas

Aboard our boat, we have several checklists for different applications. For example, we've found it useful to have two pre-departure checklists: one for leaving a marina and another for leaving an anchorage or mooring.Preparing for each is different enough that having a specific list for the different situations ensures that everything is safe to get underway.A checklist is also one of the best ways to manage your boat maintenance and personal safety. When your boat breaks down out in open water, you become vulnerable to additional problems.Reminder and to-do apps popular on smart devices today are a great platform for building a list of regularly scheduled maintenance tasks. The apps allow you to set a date to inspect items like fire extinguishers, or when engine fluids or anodes need to be changed. Using apps with reminders set, relieves you from having to remember critical items that need attention. They also have a notes section where you can record engine hours of the last change and numbers for any parts used in the process.

boat - captain's tips - marinalife
Courtesy of Dan Prat

Checklists are most useful for regularly reoccurring tasks, ones we believe we do so often we've memorized them tasks like starting your boat and leaving the marina. Therein lies the problem: It's easy to become complacent with reoccurring tasks and believe you've done this so many times you don't need reminders of how to do it.For most people, life is busy, so it's easy to get distracted while going through a task. I've seen it happen on many occasions the ever-present phone rings or a boat neighbor asks a question as you're preparing to get underway and the next thing you know you're pulling out with the shore power cord still connected. Before we started making checklists a habit, I was occasionally upset by a boat passing close by, without calling us on the VHF radio, only to realize I'd forgotten to turn it on.Checklists are also important when multiple people are involved in the same process, so we use checklists for departing from the boat as well. More than once on our Sunday drive home from the boat, we looked at each other and asked, did you take out the trash or did you turn off the propane? Using a boat departure checklist makes sure important items don't get missed and you don't assume the other turned off the water pump breaker or turned on the battery charger.Using checklists also has unforeseen benefits: The more you follow them, the more you benefit. The more you follow a routine process in the same order, the more you understand its faults and failings, allowing you to make improvements.It's easy to see the benefit when developing a checklist and when you first begin using them, but the real benefit comes into play when you continue using them even though you feel like you don't have to anymore. That's when they keep you from forgetting something important.

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Exploring Antigua by Land and Sea
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The beautiful island of Antigua was our destination for a short Caribbean getaway. Having visited many of the Caribbean islands, we were looking forward to exploring a new tropical locale and experiencing the wonderful local charm, culture, vistas and beaches. In fact, this Eastern Caribbean island boasts 365 beaches: one for every day of the year!

My travel companions for the week included my husband Jim, brother Anthony and sister-in-law, Amanda. Always a great group to travel with (our last adventure together led us to Greece, Italy and Croatia), so I knew a fun week filled with laughter was in store.

JenJimCatamaran - cruising with members - marinalife
Jim and Jen on the catamaran

As we peered out the airplane window on the approach to Antigua, we were instantly mesmerized by the pure turquoise blue waters and rolling green hills, and eager to get out on the water.

For my brother, this trip was not just an ordinary vacation. While it was my first time visiting the island, my brother has incredibly fond memories of trips to Antigua during the 1970s as a child, traveling with his grandparents, affectionately known to us as Meemah and Deedah. This week was an opportunity to share with us one of his favorite places in the world.

Anthony decided the best way to explore the island was by land and by sea. The first part of our trip was spent touring the island with a local driver and tour guide named Elvis, who is a native Antiguan living in one of the six parishes on the island with his wife and children. When Anthony spotted him on the beach wearing a Yankee cap, he knew this was the tour guide for us. Anthony and Elvis instantly bonded (even discovering they shared a birthday) and together planned our extraordinary excursion.

Our tour of the island started with a visit to St. Johns, the capital city of Antigua. While part of the town is geared toward the large cruise ships that help support the local economy, St. Johns retains its charm, filled with farmers markets, stalls and local restaurants. Amanda was immediately enchanted by one of the young local shopkeepers selling souvenirs with his mom.

The next stop was Betty's Hope, one of the earliest sugar plantations dating back to 1651. The sugar mills are beautifully preserved, and we learned about the large role these sugar plantations played in Antigua's history. While enjoying the scenery at Betty's Hope, Elvis surprised us with homemade sandwiches and rum punch. A delightful snack to recharge us for the next stop -- Devil's Bridge in the Indian Town National Park.

antigua - cruising with members - marinalife
Jim, Jen, Amanda, and Anthony

Devil's Bridge is a natural stone arch that was carved from the rocky coast by the constant pounding of waves. Locals say its name comes from surges of water that snatch away people who stray too close to the edge. The area around the arch features several natural blowholes that shoot up water and spray powered by waves from the Atlantic Ocean.

While Jim and I stayed far from the edge, Anthony ventured out close to the bridge for a unique photo opportunity. Later in the week, we would have a chance to see this incredible rock formation from the ocean.

We continued to travel up the rolling hills to Shirley Heights Lookout, first used during the Revolutionary War as a signal station and lookout for approaches to English Harbor. It is truly one of the most spectacular vistas I have ever seen.

Having reached the highest point in Antigua, it was time to get back to sea level. Our next stop centered around Nelson's Dockyard, a working Georgian-era naval dockyard, designated as a world heritage site in 2016. We delighted in exploring the dockyard and gazing over the beautiful yachts and sailboats moored at the Antigua Yacht Club Marina.

Driving through the lush dense greenery of the rainforest led us to an Antigua delicacy the black pineapple. On the side of the road just outside the rain forest, we stopped at a local fruit stand and chatted with the proprietor while she carved us a fresh black pineapple, known as the sweetest in the world. It definitely lived up to its reputation.

The final stop on our island tour was my favorite -- a chance to taste the island cuisine! Elvis called ahead of our arrival and requested a platter of local foods for us to sample. We arrived at Darkwood Beach Bar & Restaurant and were immediately welcomed by the staff.

antigua - cruising with members - marinalife
Darkwood Beach Bar

After selecting a table near the beach and ordering the national beer of Antigua, Wadidli (another name for the island itself), we had the privilege of hearing Elvis' story, learning more about his life and family, and even calling his wife to thank her for the yummy sandwiches. Then we feasted on fungee and pepperpot, a hearty meat stew with eggplant, pumpkin and squash, as well as local Caribbean lobster, curries and roti. All in all, an amazing way to end a spectacular day. We said goodbye to Elvis, exchanging addresses and knowing we had made a friend for life.

After exploring Antigua north to south and east to west, we opted for a catamaran tour to circumnavigate the island as our next adventure. The morning was spent pleasantly motoring in the calm blue waters of the Caribbean Sea around the north side of the island. Before we knew it, we were sailing along in the open Atlantic Ocean passing by Long Island, also known as Jumby Bay and a popular destination for celebrities.

After a wonderful morning on the water, we anchored in a protected cove for a stop to swim, snorkel and eat lunch near Green Island. It was a perfect destination for Amanda's first snorkeling excursion. After spotting a large sea turtle, magnificent coral reefs and exotic fish, we enjoyed a lazy swim near the beautiful powdery white sand of Green Island Beach.

Following a traditional lunch of jerk chicken, rice and plantains, we continued our journey around the island down to the southern tip to experience English Harbor and Devil's Bridge from the water. It was even more extraordinary from this vantage point.

As the sun started to dip low in the sky, we returned to the Caribbean Sea on the western side of the island watching a storm brewing in the distance. During the quiet sail back, each of us felt grateful for another magnificent day in paradise.

While traveling with your closest friends is always fun, my favorite memories of our time on this magical island were Anthony's reflections of his previous trips to Antigua with his grandparents, the excitement at sharing his favorite place with his new wife, and the joy that much of the island remained as he remembered it. We are already planning our next trip to Antigua!

STORY BY JEN LEROUX, CEO OF MARINALIFE; PHOTOS BY ANTHONY DESANTIS

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Join a Father & Son Trip up the ICW
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Paul Kekalos - cruising - marinalife
Paul Kekalos and his father

"Might as well get going" said my dad as we stood on the dock, fresh out of things to prepare. I laughed to myself and replied, "Yeah, I guess we might as well." That conversation plays out in my head every time I set out on a boat a sign that all preparations are complete, and it's time to start the trip.

When my father asked me to help him deliver his Hatteras 40 from Charleston to Cape May via the ICW, I jumped at the chance to return to a special place in my life (I spent my summers in Cape May growing up) and spend bonding time with my dad. But I was not without apprehension. It would be my first trip on the ICW, his first in years, and the first on a new-to-him vessel. While I spend a lot of time on the water as a sailor, the twin diesels of the Hatteras were new to me.

As we were about to push off, dolphins showed up, easing the inevitable start-of-voyage jitters that accompany any trip. As we turned into Charleston Harbor and pointed toward the markers at the entrance to the first portion of the waterway heading north, our three dolphin friends escorted us through the channel markers. I took it as a good sign.

Starting Point: Charleston, SC

Charleston aerial - cruising - marinalife
Charleston Aerial | Pixaba

Estimated Mileage: 48 NM

We were warned that the first stretch of waterway was known for scattered shallow spots in the first few miles, but we found none. As waterfront homes of Sullivan's Island and Isle of Palms slowly peeled away to reveal the quiet wilderness of the Santee Coastal Reserve, I thought, "This is the ICW I imagined. Pristine, undeveloped and peaceful."

In the coming days, I would learn this was only part of the story. We pulled into Georgetown for the evening, and our first day was behind us. With that came the simple lesson: the only way to get over the nervousness of a trip is to start the journey. We slept well that night knowing we had done so.

Leg 1: Georgetown, SC to Southport, NC

Estimated Mileage: 72 NM

Leaving Georgetown and heading north up the Waccamaw River, the previous afternoon's tranquility continued. The soft light over the marshlands showed that ours was the only wake in sight, save for a few passing southbound boats. It was an easy way to start the day. And then ... Myrtle Beach ... on a Saturday... in June. The morning peacefulness gave way to a bustling stretch of waterway filled with all sorts of people enjoying the day center consoles, water skiers, kayakers, stand-up paddlers, floating tiki bars. Mile after mile of developed waterfront checked our speed and changed our perspective.

Eventually, we cleared through the beautiful chaos of Myrtle Beach, crossed into North Carolina and preceded toward that night's destination, Southport, NC. This was our first time experiencing the wonderful ICW phenomenon of just pulling over to dock on the proverbial side of the road. We settled into the facing fuel dock at Southport Marina and marveled at how the ICW contains multitudes of experiences.

Leg 2: Southport to Beaufort, NC

Estimated Mileage: 83 NM

The weather was mostly settled with morning showers, and thunderstorms were predicted, but clear skies were forecasted for the afternoon. Only on Day 3, we still were under the misguided illusion that the schedule was ours to keep. We wanted to cover some ground today, so we ducked out of the well-marked and relatively easy Masonboro Inlet for an outside run up the Atlantic to Beaufort, NC.

As we approached the Inlet, a local Sunday morning sailing race was underway. Half the fleet made it out of the inlet with us before we heard on the radio that the race committee was recalling the fleet due to approaching thunderstorms. We debated staying inside, but the weather quickly passed us, and we rode the gentle swell up to Beaufort Inlet. It was good to get in the miles by going outside the ICW, but we realized that was not the point of this trip. Leaving the ICW, we missed the variety that the waterway provides. We stayed inside for the rest of the trip to enjoy the view.

Leg 3: Beaufort to Belhaven, NC

Estimated Mileage: 50 NM

On a trip up the ICW, you discover it's anything but a highway. Leaving Beaufort, we noted how the waterway that we experienced thus far was a straight-line narrow cut with land close by on either side, often called the proverbial ditch. But the ICW also provides moments of wide-open beauty.Heading out of Beaufort and north up Adams Creek, the ICW gives way to the relative vastness of the Neuse River and Pamlico Sound. Navigation aids are more spaced out, and the wind waves have more room to gather up. We traveled a short stretch of the Sound, pulled into beautiful Belhaven Marina for the night and found the sleepy but utterly charming town was a great place to stop.

Leg 4: Belhaven to Coinjock, NC

Estimated Mileage: 58 NM

norfolk - cruising - marinalife
Norfolk's Busy Harbor | David Mark on Pixabay

Years of boating taught me that you seldom go five days without seeing weather that you'd rather not see. The past four days were pretty good weather-wise, so we were due for something else. Pulling out of Belhaven in light sprinkles and overcast skies, we entered the famed Alligator-Pungo River Canal. This is truly the ditch 21 miles of a virtual straight line that connects the Pungo and Alligator Rivers. It is narrow and long, and it helps to see where you are going.Fortunately, the weather cooperated, and we navigated the canal with ease. But just as we emerged into the wide-open Alligator River, heavy rains and stiff squalls closed in around us. I'm always nervous with weather, but my dad has a measured demeanor, so he put me at ease. We picked our way from buoy to buoy and emerged from the storm just as we passed through Alligator River Swing Bridge and started across Albemarle Sound for the evening's destination, Coinjock Marina & Restaurant. Here I learned the real lesson of the day order the prime rib!

Leg 5: Coinjock, NC to Norfolk, VA

Estimated Mileage: 34 NM

On every trip, you reach a point where you've gone over the hump. With five days of ICW behind us, we hit that point and could sense a change coming. We left Coinjock and picked our way across the long, shallow Currituck Sound into Virginia. As we wound our way through the meandering and pristine North Landing River Natural Area Preserve, both of us were excited to make Norfolk that evening and enter the Chesapeake for our final stretch. Several bridges are on this stretch of the ICW, but our timing was good, and we passed each without much wait.

Sliding through the Great Bridge Locks, we approached Norfolk. The city and its surrounding waterways' bustle was an absolute eye-opener after the past few days. It made the pace of Myrtle Beach seem bucolic. We slept well, knowing that we had come to mile zero on the ICW safely.

Leg 6: Chesapeake Bay: Norfolk, VA to Chesapeake & Delaware Canal

Estimated Mileage: 200 NM

If approaching Norfolk from the south is eye-opening, then traveling into the Chesapeake past the heart of the Naval docks is something else entirely. Mile after mile of grey steel. More naval ships that I'd ever seen in one place. Amazing! And just like that, you pass over Hampton Roads Tunnels, enter the Chesapeake and you're back to wide-open beauty.

Chesapeake & Delaware Canal - cruising - marinalife
Chesapeake & Delaware Canal | Lee Cannon on FLickr

Our time in the Bay was a bit rushed. I had to return to commitments at home, so we had to get in some miles now. The plan: proceed to Solomons for a night and then reach the C&D Canal. However, our optimistic timetable did not stop the Chesapeake from dealing us a few lessons along the way.

The Chesapeake does not care about your schedule. The weather was too crummy in Solomons to leave, so we wisely decided to stay an extra day. When we finally poked out of the Patuxent River, we realized the residual effects of the rain was still evident. The Bay delivered a wild ride, with wind, rain, short chop and limited visibility for a few hours. We pondered cutting our day short, but the weather lifted quickly. By the time we passed Annapolis, blue skies and flat seas surrounded us all the way to the C&D Canal. It was amazing how quickly and dramatically conditions on the Bay changed for the better.

Leg 7: Chesapeake City to Cape May, NJ

Estimated Mileage: 54 NM

After transiting the C&D Canal and entering the Delaware Bay for the final stretch, we were truly in home waters. But despite the time I spent on the Bay growing up, I had never navigated a boat down this tricky body of water. The Delaware is busy, with a narrow channel and many big working boats. We hugged the channel's edge as we made our way down the Bay leaving ample room for others.

As the bay widened out, we plotted our approach to Cape May Harbor. Our entry took us through the Cape May Canal and into the harbor, then on to the boats' summer berth, not far from where I had spent my childhood summers. With the trip virtually complete, we experienced the bittersweet feeling of nearing our destination. And the final stretch provided perhaps the best lesson of all: When you get the opportunity to bring a boat from one place to another with your old man, take it.

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