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Master and Commander

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The Long Run, by Capt. Bill Pike (continued)

Bruce Kessler

Bruce likes to handle Spirit of Zopilote from her upper helm station, directly above the wheelhouse, where the sightlines are best. And over the ensuing several days I had the opportunity to watch him perform some exceptionally artistic single-screw boat-handling moves from this lofty perch in a succession of ports along the Maine coastline.

Preparation was always key. Whether we were picking up a mooring at Bucks Harbor, squeaking into a tight spot at the city dock in Belfast, or squeezing into an even tighter (and decidedly more complicated) spot further south in Camden, Bruce’s modus operandi was routinely the same. First up—a short tryout of every piece of equipment pertinent to the job at hand, from the backup steering system to the engine controls. Then—a wireless, pre-arrival conference with Joan on deck. And then finally—plain ol’ unruffled quietude.

“Starboard-side tie-up, Joanie,” Bruce said, nearly whispering into his mic as Zope worked her way up the fairway of Camden’s crowded inner harbor. “Our thrusters—still not working due to the hydraulic issue. I’m gonna have to go slow. Really, really slow.”

We continued to purr along, finally catching sight of our side-tie berth, still a good ways off, hard to port, and semi-obstructed by the boom and gaff of a big schooner. Other perplexities soon obtruded: a couple of giant mooring balls dead ahead, complete with outgoing spider webs of stabilizer-fin-snagging hawsers; a 70-foot sailing yacht with an ample, outboard-powered inflatable cantilevered off her stern which would, according to Joan on deck, overhang our cockpit once we were settled in dockside; and, last but not least, a towering, menacingly located, multi-piling dolphin held together with an array of fiberglass-screeching steel bolts.

Bruce conferred with Joan. Then as he turned Zope end-for-end using conventional single-screw, back-and-fill technique, I noticed for the very first time that he was paying very little overt attention to the visual cues arising all around—instead, he was relying almost completely on directions and distance-off approximations from his deck crew.

At length, as we backed slowly and diagonally toward the stern of the big sailing yacht (with very little breathing room between our starboard bow and the dolphin), Joan tossed a forward spring to a line handler on the dock and began snubbing it, thereby both levering the bow in and preventing Zope from slamming her 80-ton displacement into the tender-accoutered yacht behind us. It worked

“Hell man,” the line handler told a passerby once we were tied up, “’round these parts we’ve seen Bruce put that boat into a lot tighter spots than this one! The guy’s good!”

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