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Guardian Angels

Sometimes when you really need ’em, they just show up.

Last spring I skippered my 28-foot flybridge trawler Betty Jane II for her pre-purchase, survey-related sea trial, which gave me a fairly good understanding of how she performs in open water. Unfortunately, my understanding of her dockside personality did not fare as well. The discrepancy arose, I’d say, because Betty’s survey, or at least the portion devoted to the sea trial, was both hurried and fraught with a sporty tidal current. It’s not easy determining whether a single-screw boat backs to port or starboard, how dramatically she evinces this bias, and how the rudder reduces or enhances the effect, with both time and tide bearing down.

Illustration by Kent Barton

Anyway, a few months flew by. Betty became mine and eventually she took up residence stern-first in a slip in an old Florida boatyard, thanks to a fine little trucking outfit as well as the tugboat-like machinations of a scruffy little skiff. But although Betty was home, I was still in the dark concerning how she’d maneuver dockside. Would she crab to starboard? To port? Fast? Slow? What?

Such questions deserve expeditious answers, of course. But then again, if you’re a guy like me, you gotta be careful, even secretive. I mean, what if a whole bunch of people were to witness “The Great Capt. Bill,” an ironic designation I use on myself occasionally, struggling and thrashing around, trying to figure out how to dock his new boat, amid a cacophony of diesel roars and transmission thunks? What would they think? What would they say?

Which is why I chose a nice Sunday morning (when virtually everybody in the Sunny South is in church) to take Betty out for her first, real, experimental-docking extravaganza. “Yup,” I told myself as I strolled the boatyard’s parking lot, en route to the showers, after a peaceful night aboard. “This is a perfect time. Nobody’s around to observe any possible flub-ups. Perfect. Perfect!

A small fly plopped into the ointment once I’d finished my ablutions, however. While heading back to the boat, I ran into my buddy Jerry, a liveaboard from Oklahoma. “Hey Bill,” said he, towel in hand, obviously en route to the showers himself. “What’s up?”

It was a tricky question. If I spilled the beans, I ran the risk of generating an audience of at least one, maybe more. But hey, after thinking it over, I relaxed—Jerry’s boat was a good ways from Betty’s slip and besides, he spent most mornings inside, presumably reading the newspaper, with his air-conditioner blasting and the windows sealed shut. Chances he’d hear anything were slim. And chances he’d come out to reconnoiter were even slimmer. What the heck—I filled him in. 

But then another issue surfaced. After I’d warmed up Betty’s 240-horsepower Yanmar and tossed off her lines, it became immediately apparent that way more current was running than I’d anticipated. In fact, there was so much that Betty’s bow started moving briskly to starboard where an old, protruding plank threatened her spiffy Awlcraft paint job. I zoomed down from the flybridge, ran forward, pushed the bow off, and zoomed back up to the bridge where I shifted into gear and hit the throttle. 

Vroom! One short burst was all it took to make the fairway, and while Betty and I were out there, I spun her around in her own length, first to port and then to starboard, determining in the process that she sports a right-handed prop and backs to port. 

“Now for the real test,” I told myself, after aiming Betty’s stern at a point well above our slip’s up-current, outboard piling. My intention was to back cattycorner across the current, let it bring the center of Betty’s transom down to the very center of the piling, and then, at the last moment, kick the stern to starboard (and downstream), thereby effecting a perfect lineup for a robust, straight-shot backdown.

Things went smoothly at first. The stern behaved as planned but, because it took so long to do so, the bow started falling off to starboard again, a development that put the protruding plank (which I vowed to soon remove) back into play.

“Docking your boat all by your lonesome—bad idea sometimes,” I muttered while eyeballing Betty’s stern over my left shoulder, preparatory to giving it another starboard kick. Would the ploy pull her bow to port, back up into the current, and away from the plank? Maybe. Maybe not.

“Hey Bill,” came a voice from up forward. I turned my head. It was Jerry, standing on the finger pier on the starboard side, towel still in one hand, Betty’s bowrail in the other. He gave the rail a faint but fabulous shove. “Need some help?”

Amazing! My guardian angel! Just in the nick of time!