Watch the Stern

First a “tip” then the detailed explanation with some practice exercises.

The Tip: While docking in a slip (once the bow is in the slip) and when doing a fairway rotation, focus primarily on where the stern is with observation sweeps forward to ensure safety of your boat and crew.
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The Detail: Next time you are sitting on the patio enjoying a break after the day’s sail, pay a bit of attention to the returning boats pulling into their slips. I used to be amazed at how often the boat would be half way into the slip when it’s brought to a stop, then the helms person has to “push” it the rest of the way in. Depending on wind direction, this can be easy, or down right painful. There are a number of reasons this happens, however, here is one of the biggest.

With any boat, there is a blind spot in front of the bow. A container ship’s blind spot can extend for a quarter of a mile in front of the bow. With the sailboats in our fleet, it’s not unusual for that blind spot to extend nearly the length of the boat. Which means, almost as soon as the bow is in the slip, the end of the slip begins to disappear under the bow. It doesn’t take long before it gets hard to judge position in the slip and the boat is brought to a stop … usually too soon, although occasionally it can be too late.

Here’s how to stop that.
1. Before departing the slip, make a mental note of where you are standing in relation to something on the dock finger directly beside you … the stern cleat for example.

2. Also before departing, make a note of where the main dock meets the gunwales on each side. With an unfamiliar boat, you might even put a spot of blue painter’s tape at the location on each side.

3. While returning to the slip as the dock begins to disappear under your bow, start watching the stern more than the bow. Look for that dock cleat at the stern of the boat. It’s much easier to judge speed and distance in relation to it, than to the dock in front of you. Don’t ignore looking forward, it’s important to know what’s happening up there. Try looking at the stern cleat relationship for 4 or 5 seconds, the glance forward for 2 or 3 seconds. If you do, you will be able to hold the boat in place, rather than the 5 foot forward/backward surging you often see.

While we are on the topic of watching the stern more than the bow, try doing the same during a fairway rotation. Say you are on a 40 foot boat in a 60 foot fairway. As you start the rotation, the stern is going to be close to the edge of the fairway, 5 or 10 feet maybe. The bow is 50 feet or more from the other edge. It’s much easier to judge distance at 5 feet away than at 50 feet away. As the turn gets get going, the bow swings closer and closer to the far dock. If you spend all of your time watching the bow, the tendency is for the boat to drift further and further towards the bow side of the fairway. If that side is to leeward, you have now placed yourself against a leeward shore, and you are in danger of getting pinned against the boats on that side.

Instead, as you do the rotation, watch the relationship of the stern to the dock. Keep it at 5 feet, and the bow will never get closer than 15 feet in the above example. And, you can tell when 5 feet becomes 10 feet. Use astern propulsion to keep you back … then, once the 5 foot relationship has been restored, go back into forward and let the prop wash take you the rest of the way around. Again, focus primarily on the stern, with safety/observational sweeps forward.
Instead of trying something new in close quarters, practice this maneuver out at the practice buoys in Marina Bay. Start by using the most wind sheltered buoy, turning to leeward and to windward, and then move to the ones more in the wind so that you can see what happens in varying wind conditions.

With any boat, there is a blind spot in front of the bow. A container ship’s blind spot can extend for a quarter of a mile in front of the bow. With the sailboats in our fleet, it’s not unusual for that blind spot to extend nearly the length of the boat. Which means, almost as soon as the bow is in the slip, the end of the slip begins to disappear under the bow. It doesn’t take long before it gets hard to judge position in the slip and the boat is brought to a stop … usually too soon, although occasionally it can be too late.

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