If you spend enough time on the water, stuff happens. And when you sail solo like I do, “stuff” can take on a new and scary meaning—like when my top-down furler drum got freakishly fouled by the asymmetrical spinnaker’s tack line in a sudden knockdown wind, or when I was transiting the Chesapeake Delaware Canal at night and the railroad lift bridge lowered without an audible or visual signal, threatening to decapitate my mast.
In the first case, I was able to cut the jammed line and free the furler before charging into shallow water. In the latter, I had the presence of mind to believe what my tired eyes were seeing before it was too late. Nonetheless, in both these stressful moments, it would have been nice to have another hand on board.
Ultimately, when I add up my many hours on the water, the uneventful times outweigh the scary ones by a large margin. The buzz I get from being on my own is worth the risk. However, there is one nagging source of anxiety that still lurks at the end of each outing for this solo sailor—docking.
I sail Celestial, a Blue Jacket 40. My berth is alongside a perpendicular finger that juts out from a T-dock at the end of a very long multi-slip pier. While it doesn’t offer the corralling effect of a slip with pilings, it’s a great little spot that affords me a view of a snug harbor where classic beauties swing at their moorings. When docking, the prevailing wind also typically blows me toward the dock, so Mother Nature does most of the work. I have lines at the ready, and I have the luxury of a bow thruster. Easy enough.
But when the wind blows from the opposite direction, things can get tricky. No big deal, but the choreography needs to be just right, and I’m the first to admit I’m not one of those savants who can dock a single-screw boat like a VW Beetle in a Walmart parking lot. The notion of using prop walk to maneuver a 40ft sailboat in its own length is beyond me. The use of spring lines to parallel-park looks great on paper, but in my real world? Not gonna happen.
Last summer, as I was making an approach in one of these contrary winds, everything seemed well in hand. Dockside assistance? Called for and waiting. Dock lines? Ready. Bow thruster? On and tested. Fenders? All four in place. I slowed to a halt some 3ft from the dock. The dock hand grabbed the forward line that I had run amidships for easy access and casually walked to the forward dock cleat.
Unfortunately, “casually” is the operative term. By the time the line was made fast, a gust had pushed the stern too far away from the dock to complete the mission, so I decided to abort. No harm, no foul: I just yelled to the dockhand to toss the bow line back on board and said we’d try again. Unfortunately, the line only made it halfway on board. I’d better get the dangling bitter end on board, but not now, I thought. First, I had to get the boat out of the tight quarters I was in.
Good seamanship not only took a back seat but was soon forgotten. I set up for a new approach, and we tried again. This time I planned to use the bow thruster to swing the bow in close as we first secured the stern. We went for it. The bow thruster didn’t respond. Dead. Drat. Now it was the bow that had fallen off too far. “One more time,” I yelled as I reversed away.
The one thing solo sailing has taught me is to take my time when things get “challenging,” so I motored into the mooring field to gather my thoughts. Clunk! The engine stopped. I didn’t have to look forward to know that the bow line was now leading under the boat, bar tight. I knew what had happened. It had fouled the prop.
Running forward, filling the air with expletives, my first impulse was to drop anchor. There were boats moored to leeward and beyond that, a sandy shoreline 50 yards away. This left me with two options: I could drop the hook and possibly swing into a moored boat and make a tangled mess, or I could allow Celestial to run aground on the lee shore. Neither option was life-threatening, but the situation was a heart-thumper nonetheless.
I took a deep breath and, not unlike the lift bridge incident, noticed something out of the corner of my eye. Forward and to leeward was a vacant mooring. All this had happened in a matter of seconds, so I was still making way. I watched in amazement as Celestial glided in slowly toward the mooring, coming to rest in a perfect position for a flawless pickup. I had to laugh as I tied off. If only I was this good at docking.
I hailed the marina, and they towed me to my berth within a half hour. Celestial was back in action next day after the yard hauled her, cleared the line and checked the fouled prop.
I did a postmortem and found that my bow-thruster batteries had gone flat when they were needed most. This led me to discover an issue with the charging system. As for the other variables, what can I say? Stuff happens…
Karl Westman is a music producer who lives in New York City. His homeport is Greenport, NY, where he sails local waters and cruises southern New England.
What I got wrong
• On my first attempt, the midship line would have been a better choice to make fast first. That way neither bow nor stern would blow off beyond reach.
• I didn’t address the tangling bow line before my second attempt. I knew better.
• I didn’t monitor the bow-thruster batteries as I should. Out of sight, out of mind.
What I got right
• I called ahead for assistance in a contrary blustery wind.
• I didn’t force maneuvers at the dock that were beyond my capabilities.
• I reacted quickly and maintained situational awareness.
Illustration by Jan Adkins