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Finding My Confidence (Again)

It’s confession time. Please don’t hold what I’m about to share against me. You see, I recently had a docking situation, which, well, let’s just say produced a sizable dose of heartburn. I don’t want to sound like an absolute windbag, but I began docking big boats before I was old enough to drive a car. Over the years, I’ve been put through the ringer and gained some confidence that has served me well from Malaysia to Gibraltar.

George Sass Jr.

There was the time I had to dock a 102-footer with props the size of pancakes at night surrounded by old pilings that seemed to break the surface with stone-cold determination to meet my running gear. Next to me a drunkard wobbled uncomfortably close to my shoulder, slurring in my ear. “H-h-h-heeeeey. Wheeere r’weee goin’? Why dooo you hate meee?” (We had just met.)

A few years back I managed to make a 180-degree turn on a 63-foot Trumpy—a boat with no sightlines whatsoever—in a 60-foot wide canal, intentionally driving the bow up onto a little sliver of undeveloped mangrove between two houses to pivot the boat.

So, I was feeling pretty good about myself until this particular February morning in the Florida Keys. But by 8 a.m. my palms were clammy and nervous pacing had replaced my swagger. Uh-oh—had I lost my docking mojo?

When I pulled my in-laws’ boat into a side tie at Plantation Yacht Harbor in Islamorada the previous afternoon, I knew our departure the next morning would present some challenges. We docked with our port side on the dock, with the wind gusting over 30 knots, sometimes close to 40, pinning us against the pier.

My father’s boat was a few feet ahead—the two bow pulpits staring each other down like sparring partners. The fuel dock was at our stern, jutting windward at a 90-degree angle. If the wind caught the bow before we gained forward motion, we’d end up crashing into my father’s boat. Just think about that scenario and let it marinate—crashing your father-in-law’s boat into your father’s boat. Trust me, if you met either one of these guys, my angst would be immediately understandable.

I sweated through breakfast, my mind already imagining the sound of crunching fiberglass, followed by my father’s look of disappointment, and then my father in-law undoubtedly wondering aloud who really married his daughter. If he can’t get off the dock, can he really do his job for the magazine? If he can’t do his job, how the hell is he going to take care of my daughter?

Ah-ha! I had a solution. I’d call Executive Editor Capt. Bill Pike. Bill not only serves as this magazine’s technical guru, but I lean on him whenever I’m in a quandary.

“Hey Bill, George here.”

“George! How’s it going?”

“Let me ask you something, Bill. If you’re pinned against the dock, wind is blowing 25 to 30 and gusting, there’s a boat ahead, and a T-dock behind you, do you have any tricks?

“Well, George ... there was this time ...”

Bill carried on for several minutes reminiscing about similar scenarios, even explaining how he once sweated through a breakfast himself wondering how he would get his beloved Betty Jane out of an almost identical situation. However, it took Bill a few minutes to get to the punch line and I wondered if I was doomed to stay in this purgatory.

Then he delivered sound advice and suggested I try running a short spring from our aft quarter forward and pivoting on that with the outboard (starboard) engine in reverse. I started chuckling. You see, I’ve written about and completed this same maneuver several times. I simply was not in the right frame of mind to think logically on this particular morning. Bill also reminded me to swing the rudders toward the dock while backing down on the spring to give a more pronounced turn.

The whole setup worked like a charm. My mother-in-law provided the finesse, placing a fender on the port aft quarter to allow me to pivot. My father-in-law worked the spring line liked a seasoned stevedore, while my wife tended to the other lines around the boat. (My father, I will note, was nowhere to be found.) Once our stern was parallel to the dock, we let the spring go, applied a decent amount of throttle, and headed out.

I was reminded once again why I love boating. It’s not just enjoying the company of family and friends. It’s also that it’s nearly impossible to experience every scenario during a lifetime of boating. Even salts like Capt. Bill have their moments, yet folks are always eager to offer advice. Better yet, I was reminded of how good it feels, to finesse a tight situation without any issues. I had found my mojo (again). See you on the water. And don’t worry. I’m better now. I won’t scratch your boat.