Dockmasters

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Dockmaster Confidential

We go behind the scenes with the men and women who help us tie up, fuel our boats, and answer the dumbest of questions.

Bayport NY, photo by John V Turner

Sitting on my boat in a busy marina, I saw a large center console approaching the fuel dock with music blasting and an attractive woman in the bow. The guy at the helm yelled over the music to the dockhand fueling another boat. “Hey dude can I tie up behind that motoryacht?”

The dockhand answered, “No sir, I don’t think you’ll fit.”

Captain Cocky yelled back, “Don’t worry, I’ll make it fit.” 

Rushing to the much-too-small dock space, the dockhand muttered under his breath, “Whenever they say that, it never ends well.” The next thing I heard was a horrible crunching as Captain Cocky’s triple Yamahas scraped along the gleaming hull of the mega-dollar motoryacht. It was the beginning of a profanity-strewn shouting match that nearly ended in a fistfight between the two boat owners. It was just another day in the life of a dockhand. 

The incident made me wonder what it must be like to work at a marina with a constant flow of transient customers coming and going. Indeed, some of my soon-to-retire boating buddies have often romanticized about getting a job at a marina, where they can “have fun” helping fellow boaters. So during a recent cruise, I asked a number of dockhands to describe their daily routine and to suggest ways that boaters can better enjoy their marina stays.

Georgia on My Mind

Chris Hodges

Chris Hodges helps boaters at Isle of Hope Marina.

Isle of Hope Marina (www.iohmarina.com) sits on a river’s sweeping curve along Georgia’s ICW, five miles south of Savannah. Its convenient location, long floating docks, and easy-to-access fuel dock make it a popular stopover for those running up and down the waterway. Chris Hodges, one of two managers, has been working at the marina since he was 17, and now at the age of 31 he hopes this will be his one and only job. Says Hodges, “I tried college but found the classroom was not for me. This is what I was meant to do.” 

He emphasizes that the marina’s owner, Charlie Waller, has trained the staff to create a low key, relaxed atmosphere, and that he and his crew work hard to make things as stress-free as possible, especially during docking maneuvers. With a river current of 2 to 3 knots and the need to parallel-park between boats, things can get dicey especially for first-time visitors. “To begin with,” says Hodges, “we answer the VHF radio the first time someone calls. We know how frustrating it can be when trying to find a place to stop for the day and not have anyone answer the radio.” He explains that there are always one or two dockhands available to guide a transient to a slip and help them tie up. “We’ve learned never to run or shout, because there’s already enough tension in the air when docking. We also never give the captain a direct order. Instead we give him or her vital information, like ‘you have 6 feet behind you’ or ‘you’ll be heading directly into a 2-knot current.’ We try not to overstep our role.”

Keeping tension low usually works but Hodges has witnessed some amusing—if not embarrassing—moments. “Bad things always tend to happen when people are watching,” he says. “The level of tension at the helm rises, and things can deteriorate quickly.” He can also sense domestic tension: “Sometimes there’s a lot of other stuff going on between the captain and his spouse that we don’t know about. It can get ugly,” he says. But what Hodges likes most about his job is the interesting people he meets. “Our customers are here to enjoy themselves, and they’re fun to be around,” he says. “Some of them, in fact, are real characters.” 

What Happens in the Keys…

Lisa Watts of Plantation Yacht Harbor

Lisa Watts of Plantation Yacht Harbor

Lisa Watts, dockmaster at the popular Plantation Yacht Harbor in Islamorada, Florida, (www.pyh.com) used to work in a food-processing factory in Indiana. The day she set foot in the Florida Keys, she promised herself she would never again work inside a building. While her office window now looks out across the aqua-blue flats of Florida Bay, she spends much of her time on the docks helping transients. Besides the view, she says the best part of her job is getting to know the people who stay at the marina. “Most people that get a slip here are great,” she says. “They’re here to relax and have fun. I enjoy helping them.” 

But her idyllic setting and pleasant clientele are not without challenges. “We have about 82 slips, yet we could fill another 80 if we had the room,” she says. “My biggest problem is juggling reservations and availability. Once people get here, they don’t want to leave. And that can cause real problems.” Like at most marinas, transients enter a departure date when they sign in. But once boaters see the family-friendly, resort-like amenities of the marina and adjacent Founders Park, many ask to stay longer. With such a solid reservation list, it’s sometimes impossible for Watts to accommodate them. “Most people are very understanding, but every once in a while we get into a situation where someone refuses to leave. In a few rare cases we’ve actually had to call the police and charge them with trespassing.”  

Otherwise, Watts loves her job. She is particularly proud of how she can often lower the stress level for certain couples while docking. “I think being a woman can sometimes defuse a tense situation,” she says. “When there’s a guy at the helm yelling at his wife, things aren’t going well. So I quietly and calmly ask the woman to simply throw me a line, and then I can usually get the boat in. The yelling stops, and everyone calms down.” 

Being a dockmaster is also like being a travel agent. “Everyone wants to know what the best restaurant is, how far it is to Key West or where to get groceries. We hand out a little booklet by the Chamber of Commerce that answers the majority of these questions.”  But in order to get the most out of the area, Watts recommends doing some basic research before arriving. “It’s amazing how many people come here and have only a vague idea of where they are or what the Keys have to offer.” 

Just Ducky…

Mike Wise of Hawk’s Cay Marina

Mike Wise of Hawk’s Cay Marina

Located halfway between Key Largo and Key West, Duck Key is a resort island with an endless number of amenities including Hawk’s Cay Resort (www.hawkscay.com). If you’re lucky enough to visit when the ever-cheerful dockhand, Mike Wise, is on duty, you’ll be greeted with a smile and a helpful hand. Wise, a retired math teacher, explains why it’s the perfect job for him. “I get to work outdoors in the beautiful sunshine and play with boats.” Asked what the worst part of his job is, he emphatically says, “There is none. I love coming to work everyday.”

Hawk’s Cay Marina is a busy place, as it serves as a base for tour boats, charter boats, dive boats, and rentals of all types including runabouts, and kayaks—all catering to the island’s resort clientele. Wise starts his mornings with an early-bird inspection to make sure no one has taken a slip without checking in. Flags then go up, bait freezers, and live baitwells are restocked and complimentary newspapers are delivered to each boat. He spends the rest of the day helping transients come and go and working the fuel dock.  

Wise points out that at certain times of the day the current in the marina can create docking challenges, so during these times he has another dockhand assist him. “When a transient first contacts us by radio when entering the breakwater, we inform him of what the current is doing,” he says. “The more information, the better.” At times, Wise has to give a helmsman precise instructions on how to dock and is especially proud of one unusual situation. “The owners of a twin-engine trawler were away and visitors were onboard who had little boating experience,” he says. “The boat had to be moved to our nearby pump-out dock, so I simply told the fellow to leave the rudders centered and throttles in idle, and during slack tide I talked him through moving the boat using just the gears. We had extra dockhands ready to assist, but he did great, and I felt like I was boating by remote control.” (Wise explained that insurance regulations prevent him from actually driving a client’s boat.)

On occasion, he’s also had to step in and offer some stern advice to novices. “A couple came in with a brand new 27-footer with a single gas I/O they had just bought,” he says. “The guy casually tells me that the next day he is going to run over to the Bahamas, because his ‘map’ showed it was only about 50 miles away. After I talked him out of the idea—describing what the Gulf Stream was all about—his wife looked totally relieved.” Wise undoubtedly saved this fellow from an unwise passage. 

“Another fellow showed up in a large, luxurious center console. As he was getting close to the dock he yelled, ‘Hey, where are your ropes?’ He had just bought the boat in Miami and had no idea that he was responsible for having docklines.” Somehow, Wise maintains his positive attitude, shows absolute patience with inexperienced boaters, and works hard at helping people have a fun, safe time while at his marina. 

Hey Charles, Where Am I?

Charles Martz of South Seas Island Resort Marina

Charles Martz of South Seas Island Resort Marina

Charles Martz is the friendly harbormaster at the posh South Seas Island Resort Marina (www.southseas.com) on Captiva Island, Florida. Although his elevated office sits high enough over the marina to provide a spectacular view beyond the harbor, he couldn’t provide an immediate answer to an incoming VHF call, “Hello harbormaster, can you tell me where I am?” With no one in sight, he began asking questions of his own to determine the location of the boater. Finally, he determined he was 6 miles from where he should have been, and eventually talked the mariner into the marina.  

In addition to his normal harbormaster duties, Martz, who has been at South Seas Island Resort since 2006, is responsible for booking daily fishing charters at the resort, and he can also check guests in and out of hotel rooms within the resort. A busy day begins with getting the resort’s fishing guides on their way with their charters and then reviewing the marina’s upcoming arrivals and departures list. Since many transients are repeat customers, he is often asked for specific slips or spots within the marina creating some extra juggling of slip assignments. By late afternoon, most guests have arrived, and he then functions much like a hotel concierge. “Our facility has 330 acres of beauty and nature as well as all the amenities of a resort,” he says. Martz and his crew are busy throughout the day answering questions about restaurants, beach locations, golf course and tennis court availability, trolley service, room accommodations and more.   

After Hurricane Charley left a path of destruction throughout Florida’s west coast in 2004, the marina was not only rebuilt but its entrance channel from the ICW was changed. Martz and his staff alert visiting boaters to these changes before they arrive, explaining that older charts are no longer valid.   

His favorite tips and tricks? “When coming into tight areas, go as fast as you want to hit something.” Indeed, every dockmaster recommends that “slower is better” when entering a marina. Martz’s biggest “no no” is turning off the engines before a dockline is given to a dockhand. Lisa Watts of Planation Yacht Harbor agrees, “Some captains seem to think that once they see me on the dock, their job is done and they can turn off their engines.”

If there is one common denominator among these dockhands, dockmasters, and marina managers it is that each is a real “people person.” They truly enjoy meeting and getting to know their customers, and they like helping them regardless of their level of boating experience. It’s comforting to know these gracious men and women are there to grab our lines, welcome us to their marina, and steer us in the right direction with their local knowledge. 

Come to think of it, if you really like people and love boats, being a dockhand or dockmaster could very well be the perfect job.

Know More:
Tips & Tricks When Visiting a Marina ▶

This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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