Saturday, March 2, 2013

Bumper Boats

For my non-boating friends benefit, let me shed a little light on boating.  Anyone can buy a boat, cast off its dock lines, and sail away.  Anyone.  Most states have little or no licensing laws or boater education requirements.  As a result, there are many incidents and accidents.  Some amusing, some funny, some tragic.

There was a beautiful Island Packet sailboat docked one dock away from us.  It was for sale, no doubt at a very lofty mid-six figure price.  It was sold to an older couple, probably in their early to mid sixties.  The kind of folks who most likely recently retired, decided to buy a nice sailboat, and sail off into the sunset looking for palm trees, blue water, and white sandy beaches.

The other morning, I noticed that they were leaving.  It was a gray, cool, overcast day and the wind was blowing pretty good out of the west, not a good direction for them because it would blow them away from their dock, and there was a boat next to them to the east.   Must be they really need to pump out or something, I thought.  What happened next blew me away.   I'm sorry I didn't grab my camera earlier, but I really didn't think it would turn out like it did.

There is a large fairway between dock 12, where they were, and dock 13, where I am.   The normal procedure is to back out, and when your bow clears the dock, turn and back down the fairway.  When your boat is pointed in the right direction, out of the fairway, shift into forward, give it some throttle, and go.   Pretty much like backing your car out of a parking space, right?

Well, the first thing that happened is that he was moving way too slow.  I used to teach sailing at the Sound Sailing Center, and part of the course was docking.  I always told my students to proceed as slowly as you can get away with, just in case you hit something.  But if there's adverse wind or current, you need to throttle up to get the boat moving to get control.  That was his mistake number one.  The wind pushed him into the Hallberg-Rassy (a very expensive Swedish sailboat) docked next to him.  He had fenders out, and what he should have done was to stop his boat, assess the situation, get help if necessary, and make a plan.

He did not.  He kept his boat in reverse and slid along the Hallberg-Rassy.  His bow-mounted anchor snagged one of the HR's stanchions and bent it.  Mistake number two.  It was then I grabbed my camera.

The HR he hit is the boat on the right with the tattered tarps.  He tried to back down the fairway too soon and was too close to dock 12.   A sailboat steers from the stern, not the bow like a car.  When he tried to turn to starboard (right), his bow would go to starboard but his stern would go to port (left).  He didn't have enough room to make the turn, and the wind was blowing him down the fairway.  Mistake number three.  

He backed all the way down the fairway and was running out of water.  He hit his bow thruster.  The wrong way.  It pushed his bow to port and now he was perpendicular to the shore with a dock in front of him (luckily empty). Mistake four.

Finally, the fella on the beautiful wooden powerboat in the right of the photo yelled instructions to the guy, and he hit his thruster in the proper direction and got himself straightened out.

He then managed to get himself out the fairway.

This is the bent stanchion on the HR.  Luckily, these boats are indestructible and the stanchion can probably be straightened, and the skives on the side might buff out.

Now, for the rest of the story.  This couple has no boating experience of any kind.  This is their first boat.   They took a sailing course.  That's it.  As the old axiom says, they know just enough to be dangerous.

First of all, it is very difficult to learn how to sail on a boat that size.  It's not responsive enough.  The best sailors learn by sailing dinghies and other small boats where the placement of weight and small sail trim adjustments make a big difference in performance.  You learn to balance the helm with your sails and, in some cases, your centerboard.  You then gradually move up to bigger boats.

Second, he should be learning his boat.  He should wait for a windless morning and practice docking on dock 13, 14, or 15 where there are mostly empty slips.  He needs to learn how his boat responds, and how it backs up (for my non-boating friends, some boats have little or no directional stability in reverse).

Third, he should bring experienced crew, or hire a captain to sail with him until he's reached a safe level of proficiency.  If he can afford a boat like an Island Packet, he has the money.

He stopped at the marina office to pump out, and was intending to head south with his boat.   Sherrie, the dockmaster, told him he wasn't going anywhere that day, and to tie up on dock 1 to wait for a better weather window.  He didn't know what a weather window was.  But to his credit, he did tie up.  You don't mess with Sherrie.

Now, it might sound like I'm being overly critical here, and maybe a bit harsh on him.  After all, weren't we all beginners at some point?  Yes we were, and we all made dumb mistakes.  We've all duffed a docking or two.  But boating, especially sailing offshore like he would have to do because of his boat's mast height, can be chancy if not properly prepared.  At the risk of being overly dramatic, many a boat has sailed away never to be seen again.  Many a boat has struck a reef and sunk.  Many a boater has been lost at sea.

Did I mention that he walks with a walker?   Not that that's a show stopper, but the boat may need to be modified to accommodate his handicap so he can get around the deck as quickly as possible.  His only crew is his wife, and what if she needed help forward in pitching seas?

I have an uneasy feeling about this.  I wish them the best.


  1. When you mentioned yesterday that today's blog would be about bumper boats, it elicited fond memories of the summer my son Sean and I had season passes to the new amusement park in Manitowoc. We went bumper boating a couple of times a week, every week, that summer. It was a wonderful summer.

    Your version of bumper boating was a horse of another color. Presumably Sherrie Notified the owners of the damaged boats so the sailor with the walker could ante up for his damages.

  2. Gah, what a nightmare, must have been almost as hard to watch as to be a part of. This is why it will be a long time before I launch or land Sarah Nell at the wheel, if ever (Becky does a good job at this, if it ain't broke why fix it?)

    It will be a while, probably a couple years at least, before Becky and I buy an additional boat. Wanting everything in a manageable, towable package, I really want a Montgomery 15 or 17 or similar. Becky says "too small, too tippy". Maybe so, I guess I'd rather go down in size from there than up... some no-cabin day sailer that is large enough for a small outboard might do the trick. I know a Sunfish would probably be best but I'm not sure I have the patience for something that sails that wet, and the seating looks to leave a lot to be desired :)

    1. I've read nothing but good about the Montgomery sailboats. The 15 is self-righting, and I've read many accounts of people making long ocean voyages in the 17 (I wouldn't).

      I think the key to learning how to sail is getting something small and responsive, and with a jib and a main. A Sunfish is fun, but doesn't teach you proper sail trim. A Rebel might be a good choice, or a Flying Scot or Windmill. The Saratoga Sailing Club is not far from you. Check their classifieds.