Sunday, March 10, 2013

School of hard knocks

It's been five days since I last posted here, and in that time we've only been out training one day.  We had gale force winds here on Wednesday -- I wouldn't choose to leave the dock in those conditions even if I were a seasoned skipper, and so we had to wave off the training session planned for that day.  Friday was the next day that Captain Gary had free, so that's when we went out.  We are scheduled for our next session tomorrow morning.

During our first session, on Monday, we never left the protection of the Shelter Cove marina.  There is no current here to speak of, and the condo buildings on all sides offer some protection from wind as well, so we had easy conditions all day.  Gary challenged us by directing us into successively tighter spots, but as long as I had the boat dead slow, it was relatively easy to put it where we wanted it.

For Friday's session we left the protected harbor and practiced docking at nearby Palmetto Bay, exposed to the current in Broad Creek.  We did several passes at the face docks before Gary had me drive down a narrow fairway from which the only exit was backing out -- between two lines of other boats.  In addition to dealing with the current, this was really our first experience driving backwards.  In reverse, the thrust of the propeller is not deflected by the rudder, and so has no effect on the direction of the boat. The rudder itself helps little, as there is not enough water moving past it to be effective, and it's at the wrong end of the boat.  So steering is mostly from the bow thruster.  My first pass was not pretty, but we made it out without smashing anything. The second time around was much smoother.

We then headed out into Calibogue Sound hoping to practice at Harbour Town.  We approached, however, at low tide, and there was not enough water for us, so we instead headed over to Daufuskie Island, where there are some unused docks along the Cooper River.  It was here that we swapped roles for a while and I worked the deck while Louise drove the boat.

These docks are unstaffed and there would have been no one to take lines even if we wanted them to, however, we've been mostly eschewing assistance anyway, in order to practice.  So whoever is working the deck catches the cleats with either an eye in the line, or by looping a "U" of line with both ends on the boat.  We had several nice landings and takeoffs without trouble from theses docks.  And then it happened.

On the last pass, Louise was practicing taking off by motoring against a line, which I was to release once the boat was pointed in the right direction.  It all went well until, while I was releasing the line, the free end of the line managed to get pinched between the two halves of the eye that was fastened to a cleat aboard.  Once the boat was tight against it, nothing I could do would free the line.  As it happened, this was one of our thicker lines, as well -- it would have taken quite some effort to cut through it with a knife, dangerous under that kind of tension.  By this time the current had us, and there was little Louise could do from the helm to slack the line so I could get it out.

Gary came running down to help me on the deck, but before we could extricate ourselves from this situation, the current had pulled us 180° around.  All our fenders were on the port side, where we had been docking, and our starboard side was rapidly approaching the dock.  The single ball-style fender I managed to deploy in time popped out in seconds, and then we were against the dock.  If the entire dock had been wood we would have been fine, but several galvanized bolt heads protruded, and we are now sporting some nasty scratches up front.  On the plus side, there were no other boats nearby (even though, for learning purposes, we had been pretending that there were), and so we did not crush a center-console like a walnut.

Once we were pointed into the current, Louise was able to slack the line and it fell free, but the damage to the boat, and our pride, was already done.  Since no one could see how the pinching happened except me, I ended up demonstrating it to Gary after the fact, who later demonstrated it to Louise.  All agreed that it was not something we could have predicted, nor was there really anything much we could have done about it once it happened.  Our take-aways from this were two-fold: first, that particular cleat and hawse-hole should be avoided for this maneuver, as the placement of the cleat relative to the hole contributed to the snag.  Second, we should use our lighter dock lines in these situations, so that, as a last resort, they could at least be cut free.

The damage is superficial, but as we now have bare steel exposed to the elements, it needs to be fixed.  We have touch-up materials aboard, and Gary knows a local guy who can do the work, so we should have it fixed this week sometime.

Not content with only this much drama, we then returned to Palmetto Bay, where I did some practice in the fairly heavy current mid-flood.  After a couple of successful landings on the face docks,  Gary once again challenged us, this time asking me to back into a slip off a fairway perpendicular to the current.  I overshot the entrance, and the current soon pinned us against the end of the finger pier.  The bow thruster barely kept us from swinging into the next (occupied) slip nose-first, and I had to keep on it full time.  In a few minutes the motor would overheat or the fuse would blow, and I had no choice but to back, side scraping along the finger pier, until the current was pushing us into the slip we wanted instead.  No bolts on this dock, so no damage to the boat, but I am thankful for our heavy steel hull.

Unlike some of our previous trainers, Gary has kept away from the controls through all of this.  Other than one time, on our first approach to our dock when we arrived from Thunderbolt over a week ago, he has not touched a lever.  My adrenaline has shot through the roof more than once, but I have to admit that I am learning a lot.  Presumably he is not going to let us take out another yacht, but he knows every dock (and every harbormaster) on the island and he seems more than content to let us leave as much of our paint on them as needed for the lessons to sink in.

We have come a long way in just a few sessions, and I am now building some confidence that we will have the minimum skills we need to run the boat in the next few weeks. Every time Gary asks if we are up for a challenge, we say yes, and then we go someplace we would not have chosen to go on our own.  We have to constantly push through our own discomfort to make the next breakthrough.  It is grueling, and we arrive back at the dock exhausted.  Fortunately, our own dock is now the easiest thing we've done, and it was a piece of cake when we landed at the end of the day.  Even the inevitable audience seemed appreciative.

Of course, being exhausted from training does not mean the endless boat projects have stopped, so yesterday I spent most of the day installing new courtesy lights in the main companionway.  There had previously been lights on only five of the eleven steps, and Louise felt it was dangerous that way.  Given that one of the five was already broken, I ordered a dozen new LED models to do every step.  Wednesday and Thursday were also major project days, installing boat-hook holders and excavating to the bottom of the lazarette, where a very rusty emergency tiller and propeller wrench had rusted themselves right into a nasty piece of carpet.  As a bonus we found a bunch more lines down there, which Louise ran through the wash.  I also completely rewired the isolation transformer and the main electrical panel, which was what necessitated the laz clean-up in the first place.

We try to get off the boat a little each day; today we walked over to the Disney resort, across a little bridge from us on the other side of the marina.  It was just like walking into one of the mid-scale properties at Disney World in Orlando, complete with topiary, immaculately manicured grounds, and not one, but two life guards at the pool.  Seeing Vector from the other side of the marina also gave us some perspective; it is considerably smaller than the boats on either side of us.  We also rode the scooters over to check on the bus in the afternoon, and do a little shopping.  We seem to get out every two or three nights for a restaurant meal, and we still have yet to eat even at all the places within walking distance.

We shall see what Gary has in store for us tomorrow.  So far the pace has been working out well, with a full day of training followed by one or two days to ourselves to recover and digest.  And, of course, the project list is unending; today I "outed" myself on the trawler mailing list (welcome, T&T listees) to ask for help with the satellite dish.


  1. I really enjoy the blog, Sean. Sounds like a challenge learning the "ropes" of the sea. No way would I have the patience to move to a trawler....heck, I'm a little frustrated moving from a MH to a 5th wheel.

    Keep up the good work (training & blogging. It makes for some wonderful reading!

  2. Sounds like the training is going well. Current and wind sure affect a boat much more than a bus. We had an interesting time crashing a houseboat into the dock at Tunica, Mississippi in a bad current and wind. Sometimes you just can't have enough fenders!! Hang tough! Steve & Carol

  3. Sounds like lots of fun; learning new skills and accessing a whole new world. You might add 'Princess' by Joe Richards to your for fun library. Joe was a New York artist who brought a Friendship sloop, rebuilt it and sailed down the Inter-Coastal Waterway to Fort Pierce, Florida just prior to WWII. You can get a copy from his daughter at


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