Frank's Blog - Yes, Finally
Some Thoughts On Docking - 15 November, 2016
We are currently sitting here in Atlantic Yacht Basin, waiting for our annual transmission repair job. Every year for the past three years, we have
had a transmission failure, twice while we were at Atlantic Yacht Basin. AYB does very good work, but they are very busy and so unscheduled work
doesn't always happen fast.
The other good thing about being here is that I get to see a lot of docking. Since I teach docking classes, I like to watch how people do it. When it
is done right, I think it is amazing. When it is done....um....not right, it can be a real learning experience, for all of us. So, here are a few lessons I
have picked up in the past few days.
The first is that you should never count on talking to someone after a docking experience for at least ten minutes. Some people are so good at
docking that they can pull up to the dock, throw a few bowlines on pilings and head out to the bar, Captain Ron style. Most are not. One of the
dock masters here at AYB is very good at picking up on this. He seems to have some intuitive stress meter that allows him to judge how much he
can talk to a boat owner after they have just successfully docked. Some people get the full work up, some get the "come see me in the office when
you get settled" treatment. The funny thing is that it doesn't seem to be the quality of the docking that determines this or even the state of the
boat. It is all about the people on board and how they feel.
Second, I continue to see husband-wife teams where he is on the wheel and she is on the dock. This makes no sense to me for two reasons. First,
the person on the wheel has much less information to be making decisions than the person on the deck. The person on the wheel is trapped at
one end of the boat and is relying on the other person to make assessments of distances and speeds. Now, this makes PERFECT sense if the
person on deck is controlling the maneuver and the person on the wheel is following directions to change direction or to reduce speed. This does
not often seem to be the case. The person on the wheel is yelling instructions to the person on the deck, trying to get information and assess it
while doing very little with the wheel or throttle. In fact, if he is doing much with the wheel or throttle, the docking is going very badly. Most docking,
much like most airplane landings, should be a case of getting on the right glide path and then making very small adjustments to keep the boat on
I have done "experiments" with my docking classes where I have had a student take the wheel and I worked the deck, doing only what I was told.
We then reversed the procedure and I was on the wheel, again doing only what I was told. It always works out better when I am on the wheel
following directions. Even a person with only one day of docking experience can do a good docking maneuver when they are controlling the shots
from on deck. This year, I even did a docking maneuver, stern first, into a slip, blindfolded, as a training exercise for another instructor. She
controlled the maneuver while I sat at the wheel, completely unable to see and only doing what I was told.
Of course, having a "smart" set of hands at the wheel is much better than having a blindfolded person. A smart set of hands can anticipate needs
and be ready to respond. But any hands at the wheel will go better if the person on deck is controlling the docking. Now, this, in itself, does not
mean that the husband should be on deck, in control. The wife could be equally as competent and could be just as able to exercise control.
However, this leads to the second issue I have with this policy of woman on deck, man at the wheel. Generally speaking, on average, statistically,
men have greater upper body strength and more mass than women. It is not always true, but if it is, it certainly would make more sense to put the
person who can use their superior physical attributes in the more physical operations. Throwing lines, hauling in on them to hold a boat in position
or warping around a piling all require physical strength.
Now, it is possible that the woman on deck is actually the stronger of the two. Suzanne has a back injury and some muscle weakness that makes it
very difficult for her to move freely on deck. You cannot tell that to look at her, of course. So, it is possible that in some of the cases I have seen,
the reason the man is on the wheel is because he has some injury or condition that actually makes the woman more physically able.
However, given the frequency with which I see this combination, either the boating world is full of injured men or some men simply don't get it.
Strength should be used where strength may be needed.
But wait, I hear you say, we don't need someone strong on deck. She just has to get the line to the "guy on the dock" and he will do all the work.
There are, to my mind, three problems with this position.
The first problem is that sometimes, there is no "guy on the dock." If you are coming in outside of operating hours, or coming into certain marinas
(LBM is one of them) that do not provide a dock staff, there may only be the crew on deck to handle lines. This is not a good time to start changing
The second problem is that sometimes, the guy on the dock is not a guy. I was at two marinas last year where the dock hand was a teen-aged
woman. Now, I am sure that they were very competent - neither their femaleness nor their age is being held against them here - but it doesn't
invalidate my position that, on average, the person with greater body mass and upper body strength should be doing the line work. The fact that
there is someone on the dock doesn't change the math if the person on the boat is throwing the line and then surging it or holding it fast.
This leads us to the third, and what I consider the worst, problem. The people on the boat should never, ever give up control of the maneuver to
the people on the dock. The fact that there is a person on the dock, waiting to take your line, should never be taken as a guarantee that the
person on the dock has any idea of what they are doing. Even if they do have an understanding of how boats and docks work, they literally have
no experience with YOUR boat. You know all of the quirks and foibles. Where is it safe to put a fender and where you don't want one. Which lines
are longer and which are shorter. Where your shore power connections are and how long your cables are.
The "guy on the dock" may not even be a marina employee. He may simply be the guy three boats down who likes to be considerate and really
doesn't know how little he knows. He wants to be helpful and, if you let him, he'll tie your boat up just like he ties his - without taking into
consideration any of the differences.
Some of the worst experiences I have had docking have resulted from relying on the guy on the dock to do or not do what I expected. I will discuss
some of them in later posts, but for right now, just understand that I feel that the absolute worst thing you can do while docking is to rely on the guy
on the dock to make it work. To go back to my airplane analogy, this would be like expecting the person in the tower to land your plane for you.
Of course, very few people have ever died from a bad docking - but a lot of gin-and-tonics have been consumed after one.