As you may know, I used to own a 32-foot Grand Banks trawler called Betty Jane, the precursor to the Betty Jane II. The first Betty was a fabulous little beauty. Once I’d purchased her, I resolved to deliver her myself from where she lay on the Sassafras River, southwest of Philadelphia, to her new home in Florida. I say ‘myself’ advisedly. At the time I figured I needed an accomplice, somebody who was familiar with boats and could handle lines, steer and just generally help out.

My friend Chuck seemed perfect. “Yup,” he said, when queried about his experience level, “been around boats all my life.”

Illustration by Kent Barton

But within a day of departing Duffy Creek Marina in Georgetown, Maryland, it was clear that Chuck’s statement had glossed over two critical subtleties. First, as an ex-military type like myself, the boats he’d mentioned were aircraft carriers, not vessels like Betty with no flight deck, no autopilot and no mess hall. And second, because most of Chuck’s views reflected a certain naval fastidiousness, his opinions concerning the dockside maneuverings of small, low-power, single-engine, bow-thrusterless trawlers were flabbergastingly unrealistic.

All this came to a head in Charleston, South Carolina after we’d been on the trail for a week. As I sat on the flybridge guiding Betty up the Ashley River toward the city marina, I called the dockmaster on the VHF and soon got a description of our slip du jour, a half-full double-wide on the northern end of the property. When we arrived, I let Betty drift in the fairway for a bit while I studied the situation.

It looked freakin’ grim. The tide was roaring out, pulling a swift current directly across the slip, from the finger pier flanking the empty upstream half towards the immense ketch, docked stern-to in the downstream half. Would a fancy, near-heroic backdown be overly challenging under such circumstances? I wondered. Heck—not for the Great Bill! I turned to Chuck with the details.

“I’m gonna back in there real fast,” I said, “‘cause the current wants to carry us downstream toward that ketch. You gotta get a line on quick—a springline, it’s called. Starboard side—from the midship cleat aft to the cleat on the finger pier. I’m gonna use it to spring or lever the boat in and hold her in one spot with forward power while you and the guy on the dock handle the other lines. Got it?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Chuck replied, heading below.

Using a back-and-fill technique I was particularly proud of, I swung Betty through a half turn that put her parallel with our slip’s axis but well upstream of it. Then I poured the coal to ‘er, going astern at a speed that was arguably injudicious. The strategy worked, though. Betty’s backwards momentum conspired with the current to sweep her nicely into position, right along the finger pier about a foot off.

Was I the king of all boathandlers or what? Capable of backing virtually anything into any slip anywhere, anytime! I glanced over the flybridge cowling and gave the guy on the dock a devil-may-care grin. He grinned back. But then, he simply stood there. And stood there.

“Chuck,” I yelled, “throw the line!”

The dock guy remained stationery. Moreover, Betty was now sliding sideways toward the ketch at an alarming rate. I ran to the rear of the flybridge and looked down. Chuck stood in the cockpit, the line still in his hands.

“Chuck,” I yelled again, “throw the line!”

“No,” he yelled back, defiantly. “Not until you get ‘er closer.”

Mayhem, of course, ensued. But while I had to employ every one of Betty’s 135 screamin’ horses to power out of that slip without broadsiding the ketch or, even worse, snagging her long, cable-festooned bowsprit, I learned a valuable lesson—if the tide runs hard against you, skip the fancy, near-heroic stuff. There’s no shame in going bow-first into a slip on the second try, or even the first.

And hey, Chuck and I remained good friends after Charleston ... as time wore on, he came to truly appeciate the vicissitudes of single-inboard, bow-thrusterless boathandling. I let him try it a couple of times himself, as a matter of fact. That absolutely did the trick.

This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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