Last week, I almost crashed Falken into the dock. We were returning from the third trial sail in the English Channel since completing our Farr 65’s yearlong refit, and I was distracted. The following day we were set to have our first open house to share our newly refit dream boat with the fans who’ve followed it and the boatyard staff who did the actual work. I wanted to park stern-to, to make use of that beautiful open transom that allows exceptionally easy access from the dock.
The wind was from the east-southeast at 10-15 knots, making for a downwind approach into a small marina along the tidal south coast of England, just opposite Portsmouth. To my right was a large shoal that dries at low tide and is marked by a series of green pilings. Our floating slip was located down the first fairway, towards the end of the long dock where finger piers extend north-south; docking stern-to meant the finger would be on our port side. There was a large motorsailer parked in the adjacent slip.
To get Falken stern-to, I’d have to turn sideways in the narrow fairway, beam to the wind, and back into the slip. She has no bow thruster.
On final approach, I thought I was set up perfectly to crab down the fairway, sideways in the light breeze, then use some port prop walk to kick the stern towards the dock and back into our spot. But Falken’s 65 feet were too long to fit sideways in the fairway…and by the time I realized this, we’d drifted downwind, too far in the fairway to back out safely, and worryingly close to the boats on the opposite dock to power the bow through the eye of the wind and escape in forward.
Was I about to crash my new boat before we even had her out on the high seas? For real?
The mark of a good seaman is debriefing your experiences, whether things went poorly or perfectly. If you can’t identify why something went well, the chances of you identifying why something went wrong are slim.
This seems like an easy debrief: Given the wind conditions that day, the lack of a bow thruster or dinghy to use as a tugboat, and the tight quarters and shallow water, I should have never attempted to back into that slip in the first place. A bow-to maneuver would have been safe, quick, and easy. Debrief over, right?
But that’s not really the full story. It’s easy to say in hindsight that I simply shouldn’t have attempted that maneuver that day. I think that is the right answer in this case, but it’s not the realistic answer.
Every situation we find ourselves in, whether at sea or close inshore, involves myriad factors and variables. In a vacuum, if I had really analyzed that situation, I may have opted to go bow-in. I certainly would have if the wind had been stronger. But operating a boat never happens in a vacuum.
In reality, I had all these other factors to contend with—I wanted to be stern-to for the open house; we had five other professionals onboard; I had the confidence I’d gained in driving big boats in tight spaces over the years; and I had my ego, trying to prove that I could pull off a difficult maneuver like this.
The pro crew onboard that day is worth looking at more closely. When I’m with paying crew in these situations, I tend to be more present. We walk through each maneuver and make sure everyone not only understands what their role is, but also why I’ve decided to do a particular maneuver the way I’m attempting it. I talk it through more, thinking out loud as I go. If a paying crew had been onboard that day, I wonder if it would have been harder to justify backing into the slip to them—and therefore myself. It’s certainly not how I’d have taught docking that day, given the crosswind.
But with the pro crew onboard, I didn’t have to explain myself in the same way. Part of my decision-making process, I now realize, was circumvented, and I think that different mindset was the primary cause of my mistake. Add in the other factors I mentioned, and you get a situation where I didn’t process what was actually happening in the way I should have.
Spoiler alert—I didn’t crash into the dock. Using Falken’s prop walk and some judicious throttle, I was able to pivot the boat around to starboard and only just got the bow through the eye of the wind before drifting down onto the adjacent docks. The thought crossed my mind that I’d be better off motoring onto the shoal and burying the keel in the mud than I’d be smashing a handful of pleasure boats, but thankfully it didn’t come to that.
Besides the decision-making process, there are some practical takeaways here. Falken doesn’t have a bow thruster, so keeping the boat straight in a crosswind when trying to go astern from a dead stop is next to impossible. I should have known better. All sailboats will naturally want to sit with the stern towards the wind, and indeed will back much more easily going against a stern wind.
In close quarters, the saying goes, “approach the dock at the speed you want to hit the dock.” Had I not been able to make that critical turn through the wind, I’d have been best off just putting out all our fenders and drifting down onto the adjacent boats. It’s a better option than sideswiping them at speed.
In close quarters, always leave yourself an escape plan. I never considered what our plan B would have been if my crabbing-sideways-down-the-fairway plan failed. When it did fail, I had to act quickly and on instinct. While there was some skill in me driving out of that situation, there was a lot more luck, and I’m very conscious of that. If you can’t find a plan B in a given situation, then you must reconsider your plan A.
Sometimes in close quarters in the wrong conditions, you simply can’t get the boat to do what you want it to do. While that’s hard to accept, it’s a better alternative to drive to a nearby fuel dock or even to anchor out than it is to cause an accident.
I did manage to get Falken stern-to into that slip. It involved a lot of docklines, some well-placed fenders, line handlers ashore, and it wasn’t pretty, but we did it. I’m certain I wouldn’t attempt it again.