“Laws” of Close Quarters Boat Handling

We all recognize there are “laws of nature.”   Things like “what goes up, must come down.” Or, “spring follows winter.”  While watching a great number of docking maneuvers the past 10 years I have come to the conclusion there are also Laws of Close Quarters Boat Handling.  There are probably more, however, I think these sum up most of the “situations” I have seen.

  1. No matter what you have been told, it does not drive “just like a car!”
  2. Slow is pro … too slow won’t go!
  3. Given two or more options, a scared helms-person will nearly always pick the wrong choice!
  4. The first and last 100′ are always the most nerve wracking!
  5. Spring is a beautiful time of year … and spring lines are a beautiful things to use!

It’s not a car!  I enjoy teaching teenagers how to sail.  Teenagers young enough to have never driven a car.  They just seem to get it.  They have no expectations as to what the boat is going to do, so they just go with it.  I can’t tell you how many times I have seen an adult put the tiller over the wrong direction, and when the boat turns the wrong way, move it further the same direction. Don’t laugh.  I don’t think I have had more than ten students of all the Basic Keelboat students I have taught that did not do it at least once during class. If you put that same tiller into the hands of someone that has never driven, when the boat goes the wrong way they reverse the tiller, and the next time do it the correct direction.  I believe part of the confusion is boats do not handle like cars.  For example;

  • A car steers from the front while a boat steers from the stern.  If the stern moves to port, the bow moves to starboard.  We tend to look at the bow and think we are steering into the slip when actually, the stern is moving laterally, and the bow is just going along, in the opposite direction, for the ride.
  • With a car, the front end follows the back end.  A boat pivots on a point near the middle of the boat … and, that point moves.  The faster you go, the further forward the pivot point moves.  When stopped, the pivot point on every sailboat is different, however, generally just about the mast.  As a matter of fact, if you visualize the mast extending all the way through the boat and down into the mud your fairway turns will improve dramatically.  The goal of a fairway turn is to turn the boat in it’s own length.  It works on a boat because of the pivot point.  That will never happen in a car, where the best you can hope for is a “doughnut.”
  • By it’s very nature, a boat is never sitting completely still.  Even in a slip with dock lines secured a boat moves.  Take the dock lines off and the boat is at the mercy of wind, current, and momentum.  You might think you are stopped.  You are not.
  • A car has brakes.  The closest thing to a brake on a boat is shifting to the other direction, and when you do, the boat doesn’t just slow and stop.  The stern is going to do some lateral movement, with the bow moving the opposite direction.  As an example shift into reverse and as the boat slows its forward momentum, the stern will move the direction of the prop walk.  Shift into forward while turning and prop wash moves the stern away from the direction of the turn (tries to point you back the direction you came from.)

Enough of the examples … just remember … it’s not a car, never will be a car, and doesn’t handle like a car.

Slow is pro!  Don’t go any faster than you are willing to hit something, and don’t hit anything any harder then you are willing to sign a check for.  Sadly, there isn’t a hard fast “go XX knots” for every set of circumstances.  With no wind and current, it works great to bring the boat to a stop with the pivot point even with the center line of the slip and then “rotate” the boat 90 degrees to line up with the slip.  In that case, zero is a great speed.  Don’t ever try that in wind and current, it doesn’t work well, especially when turning to an upwind slip.  A bit of speed is needed to control the turn, all the while knowing that the faster you go, the faster things go wrong, and the more damage is done.

Speaking of things going wrong, a scared helms-person will nearly always do the wrong thing, and often, that “thing” is more power when less is better.  You see it over and over.  During a fairway turn, the boat reaches a point where it is sideways to the fairway, and begins to blow to the lee side of the fairway, which also happens to be the direction the bow is headed.  The helms-person realizes there is a problem, but instead of just shifting into reverse and “pulling” the boat back to windward, he throttles up in forward trying to spin around before hitting the boats in front.  When that happens, wind and momentum are both pushing towards danger, not away, and unfortunately, even if the bow makes it around in time, the stern swings wide and impacts a boat or two and maybe a concrete post.  How do you overcome the tendency to do the wrong thing?  Plan ahead.  Location … Orientation … Transition.  Where do I want to be?  How should the boat be oriented?  What are the steps to my transition to whatever I am transitioning to?  Using the same example, the transition is from a fairway turn where the boat is rotating in place, to motoring in forward down the fairway.  When you start to transition you should be located on the windward side of the fairway.  You should be oriented straight down the fairway (or possibly with the bow a bit to windward).  Definitely not still pointed to the lee side!  When you have proper location and orientation, the transition is a simple as straighten the rudder, shift into forward, and throttle up.  The more planning you do and the more “this could happen” preparation you make, the more likely you will not get scared, and you will be much more likely to make the right decision under pressure.   As I write this, I am still wet from a small rain “squall” that came across during a docking class.  During the time is took to motor down the fairway between the dock and the rocks, turn into the correct fairway, and negotiate into the slip, the wind went from less than 10 knots from the SW to nearly 25 knots from the NW (right down the center of the fairway).  Ten minutes later, after the next student departed the slip with 22 knots on the beam, the wind shifted again.  Before we could get the boat turned around and back to her slip the wind was back from the SW at 2 knots.  In both cases, our original docking plans needed to be changed during the process.  Planning ahead made for a non issue.

The first and last 100 feet are the challenging part.  Always plan for the first and last 100 feet before actually getting into them.  Again, Location, Orientation, Transition.  Before leaving a slip, know what you are going to be doing every foot of the first 100 feet.  When docking, know what you are going to be doing every foot of the last 100 feet.  An adage to live by is, “if you didn’t think about it 10 minutes ago, you waited too long.”

A spring line is a wonderful thing!  I’m not sure how I handled docking and departing before learning how to use a spring line!  This isn’t the place for detailed instruction of use of a spring line, however, you should be proficient at each of the following spring line maneuvers.  In describing a spring line, aft and forward refer to the direction the line travels away from the boat.  Bow, waist, and stern refer to the boat’s cleat used.

Spring Line Departures:

  • Use an aft bow spring to spring out the stern.
  • Use a forward stern spring to spring out the bow.
  • Use an aft bow spring in a slip to control the tendency of the wind to push the bow to leeward while steerage speed is obtained.

Spring Line Docking:

  • Use an aft waist spring to “pull” the boat to a leeward side tie.
  • Use an aft bow spring and prop wash to bring the stern to the dock.
  • Use a bow/waist loop as a spring to bring the stern to the dock.  This is really two springs in one … a forward bow spring and a forward waist spring.

These are just the beginning … there are other great uses for a spring line. In a  situation where strong wind and prop walk are both “forcing” the bow the wrong direction during a slip departure, an aft waist spring (in the hands of qualified crew) running to a dock cleat at the end of the slip on the side opposite of wind and prop walk forces the boat to turn the correct direction.   The same spring line (again, in the hands of qualified crew) works the other way if backing into a challenging slip location (fender up … the boat will be rotating around the dock!)

Here is a sixth “law” to consider.  The person yelling the loudest is most likely the one that screwed up.  He is trying to get others to fix his mistake, all the while blaming someone else.

Keep these laws of close quarters boat handling in mind and your boat handling skills will improve!

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1 Response to “Laws” of Close Quarters Boat Handling

  1. Steve D says:

    Another good article.

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