The Thing That Scares Me Most About Cruising

What do you think I’m going to say?  What would you say, those of you out there cruising?  I’m really curious, so please share.  For me, it’s docking.  Yes, dammit, still docking.  Granted, with practice I am getting better and I am intensely pushing myself to be brave and try and just say “It’s okay if you bump something, we can fix it.”  Those things are easy to say, but not so easy to act out in real life.  I hate that I get all jittery and panicked.  My hands and leg muscles shake.  My eyes become stupid huge saucers.  It’s like I’m having a mini-heart attack.  Why?!

I really am just venting here because it irritates me that I get myself all worked up into such a state of terror at the sight of pilings, piers and other boats.  A part of it is the thought of damaging our Niagara because that would royally suck.  But a bigger part (I believe) is damaging someone else’s boat.  Wrecking my dreams is one thing, but wrecking another’s by plowing a huge hole in their stern makes me sick to my stomach.

Then there’s the thought of disappointing Phillip.  I know this is all internal because he is immensely proud of me and I am a very lucky gal because he tells me this often, but that doesn’t mean a huge part of everything I do is still intended to impress him.  The thought of me turning to starboard when he says “Turn to port!” and crashing our bow into concrete makes me feel so embarrassed and sad for him.  What a crappy mate he has!  And, why would I turn to starboard when he says port?  Because I am literally in that moment an absolute nervous wreck.  Port is starboard.  Forward is reverse.  I’m panicked, remember?  A babbling idiot.  It really is quite embarrassing.  And almost inexplicable.  I’ve been in some pretty gnarly stuff out in the Gulf and the Atlantic—winds of 43 on the nose, 15-foot seas—but it has never made me feel like docking does.  This instant on-set, heart-pounding dread.

Many of you may have already seen this candid, unedited video we posted to Facebook of my first de-docking that—in my mind—didn’t go so well.  But, as Phillip says: “If we didn’t hit anything and nothing’s broke, it went well.”  But I had not yet published it on the blog, so I wanted to share it here, as well as a few other docking incidences we’ve racked up in the last couple of weeks while putting me more on the helm as I believe each one is a lesson and a confidence builder.

Here is my first (very scary, very harrowing, shockingly near-miss) de-docking out of Key West:

Undeterred, we continued to put Annie on the helm and let her try her hand at docking against the fuel dock in Venice in some rather calm conditions.  Thank goodness!  The winds were light and I had a moderate tide pushing against the boat and keeping my speed down along with some great instruction from Phillip about making sure to err away from the dock because the wind would easily and quickly push me toward it.  (Oh, and some fantastic dock hands that helped us as well.  I will never be ashamed to ask for hands on the dock to help grab lines.  “Save my baby!”):

So, Annie did good there.  We didn’t hit anything and nothing got broke.  Gold star.  But, our next docking opportunity was a very telling one.  A thankfully-successful, but rather-difficult docking by Phillip.  The winds were blowing about 15 kts with a very strong current pushing in the same direction.  Phillip still wanted me to try it because “You’re going to have to dock in these conditions someday.”  While that is most definitely true, I was a little reluctant but was willing to try because Phillip is right (and, remember, I still want to impress him).  After about a ten-minute discussion with the dock hand talking us through all of the dangers, the conditions to pay attention to, the best approach and how quickly the boat could get sideways in the slip if I “undershot it” (which I wasn’t quite sure what that even meant), I was—needless to say—more than nervous.  But, I was still going to do it right?  Right, let’s go.

You’ll see, however, in the video, that just backing off the fuel dock, I’m completely petrified, shaking hands and legs, not sure which way to even turn the wheel to control the stern in reverse.  I throw it all the way over hard to port then back to starboard, then back to port again.  I’m a mess.  Phillip was initially on deck, but when he made his way back to the helm, he could see the terror in my eyes and the lack of focus and confidence to truly handle this docking, so he took the wheel.  And nailed it!

Five thousand gold stars for Phillip.  Another successful docking!  We didn’t hit anything and nothing got broke.  Again!  So, I should now be all rainbows and sunshine, right?

I’m not.  I’m pissed.  Furious.  In a fuming cloud of funk.

Why?  The answer is embarrassingly stupid.  It’s not because I got too nervous to do it.  This was a very tricky docking situation with winds and current pushing in the same direction, up against the pier in a narrow, short finger-piered slip.  While I will have to handle those conditions someday, I know I am not yet experienced enough to handle that one confidently just yet.  Giving up the wheel wasn’t the issue.  I was totally comfortable with that.  I’m infuriated because we’re docked, everything’s fine, and I’m the only one who’s all Petrified Patty about it.  It is only my heart that is beating through the bones of my chest.  Only my hands that are shaking like a junkie in detox.  I’m the only one who’s freaked out.  Me.  Annie.  Everyone else is all: “Great, we’re here.”  “Good job Captain.”  “Where did you guys come in from?”  And I want to scream: “From the fuel dock just over there and we almost crashed!  Didn’t you see?!  I can’t just chit-chat with you right now!”  I hate that I’m a nervous, frustrated wreck and I’m so mad at myself about it.  But that is what I feel in the moment, when we have a hairy docking—even a successful one—and it takes me a while to calm down.

Perhaps this is just a personal venting, or perhaps many of you feel this way.  Do you?

All I can say is: It’s frustrating and embarrassing, but I’m working on it.  Annie Raw.  Out.

17 thoughts on “The Thing That Scares Me Most About Cruising

  • I think it’s significant that you are worried about disappointing Phillip (though I doubt that he ever is). When you are docking you are not the captain so you are concerned about Phillip. What he’s thinking, what he would do, how he will treat you. But when you are the captain, things change dramatically. The responsibility is totally yours. No one to disappoint but yourself. No one to blame. No one to focus your thoughts on. You can finally focus only on the docking. Sure it’s tough. But it’s a lot tougher when you think someone is peering over your shoulder – even when they’re not.

    It’s like when you take a driving test with an inspector in the car. You get all nervous doing things that you’ve done by yourself a million times – like parallel parking. What the heck?

    I suggest that you practice docking without Phillip on board. Grab some handy flunkies as crew. Take your place as the captain and take charge. Your confidence and skills will rise dramatically. Things will still go wrong. They always do when you’re docking. It doesn’t have to be pretty. If the boat gets alongside the dock with no damage and no one gets hurt, it doesn’t matter how you got there. And, besides, your crew can be the ones to be worried about disappointing you – for a change.

    Will the nervousness go away? Nah! Anyone who claims to not be nervous when docking a boat is fooling no one but themselves.

    I thought I was pretty cocky putting my friend’s 40′ fishing boat into his boat-house. I’d done it bunches of times. No sweat. My slow, careful approach was flawless. I lined her up beautifully and glided her home allowing for a slight cross current, except that in that last five feet just as the bow was reaching her perfect position and the lines were softly dropping onto the cleats, all of the still erected antennas were swiped clean off the bridge deck.

    So, don’t get cocky, but do enjoy your position of authority. Revel in the mindfulness of the moment. Be especially excited that you get the opportunity to bring a yacht into a dock. How many people get to do this? Personally? I’m just as scared as you are, but I take every chance I get to dock the boat. I love to do it. And you should too.

    • Wow, Richard, what an insightful and helpful comment. Stay motivated, relish the nerves and don’t get cocky. This was exceptional advice. Thank you!

  • The simple answer is stay calm, stay focused, and get as much practice as possible. The first 2 are easier said than done, the third is what makes the first 2 easier. As someone who has done more damage to his own boat in a tight, high current and high wind un-docking situation than I care to admit, (thank God for insurance!), I can only offer a few tips. 1) Always err to windward, or in other words, let the wind blow you away from danger, not into it, whenever possible. 2) Always go as slow as possible while docking or un-docking, but not so slow that you lose steerage. Water must be moving over the rudder for it to have any effect. 3) Even when pulling straight into a space, as in the video where Phillip took over, slow down and don’t rely on reverse gear to stop you from hitting the dock. Use it, but don’t rely solely on it. Lines around a piling will slow you down too. 4) I prefer to leave the dock bow first whenever possible, simply because my old boat went in reverse like a drunken elephant … wherever it wanted to, and with no consistent pattern I could discern even after 8 years of ownership. I would plan on docking into the wind as much as possible, so I would have the wind on the nose when un-docking. Then I could push the bow off, hop on, let the wind blow the bow off the dock, and motor out in forward gear. Reversing off a side tie always got me in trouble. In short, plan ahead of each situation, think it through, include a plan B if you can, stay focused, and keep yourself, as well as the boat, under control. If you can practice at an empty or less crowded pier, that may ease some of your fears of smashing someone else’s boat. Good luck Annie!

    • “Goes in reverse like a drunken elephant.” That’s a great line. That’s definitely what it feels like. I know I have to wait for the boat to react, but what if I’m turning the wrong way and when she does react she does the wrong thing and I don’t have time to fix it. Just second guessing often, but I’ll get better at that over time. Thanks for the tips. We’re really excited for you and your upcoming trip with Captain Ryan Chuck. You’re going to have a great time. Ask him if you can dock Libra for him. ha!

  • I learned the basics on someone elses boat, you feel less stressed, when you take a class and use thier boat. Also you can practice in open water on crab pot floats…and I ageee that it would help to do this without Philp (who is a Saint) as it appears to cause you stress to be with him in the situation. Jim King in Gulfport MS, really is a great instructor and the harbor is very protected to practice overvand over on his boats, thats what worked for me. You definitly are going to get the hang of this, your trying hard, want to master it, and have lots of support so hang in there, your a legend!

    • Thank you for this. Phillip is incredibly patient with me and has taught me many scary things (kiting being one) so while it does add an extra layer of stress to learn from him because I want to impress him but it also adds an extra layer of enjoyment when I do a good job in front of him. It’s like both ends of the spectrum. Thanks for reading!

  • I love my old boat but it’s been described in our group as backing like a hog. Deport, only Deport in reverse. Makes it extremely nerve-wracking when docked in tight places.
    Ive pulled into my own slip here at the marina hundreds upon hundreds of times and when the wind isn’t coming just right you can still get extremely sideways and reverse is almost useless.
    I followed you and your Channel for years, I believe you to be extremely capable and it’s just a phobia that you will work through. Our own minds seem to be one of the hardest things to control in life.
    Extreme admiration for the unyielding effort you continue to put in to your dream. With a good boat and a competent captain a willing crew can accomplish anything.

    As always best wishes
    SV Wild Hare

    • Wow – I love that line. Our mind is the hardest thing to control. Like I said, I can tell myself a hundred things that are rational and make sense and should calm me down, but they often don’t. The mind knows no bounds!

  • Backing only to port in reverse.
    Autocorrect on a tiny screen.
    Wright, edit and then publish. I’ll get that in the correct order some day.

  • Annie: A welcome set of video with comments. Thanks. I always love the follower commentary, too.

    To answer the first question about what do we fear? I am very concerned about injury. After twenty years of teaching cruising there have been very few and I am so happy about that. Granted, docks and rocks are normally the most common fears/errors. One of my prime goals is to never take out the First Aid kit!

    About docking: I haven’t heard you talk about prop walk. Does the Niagara pull to port or starboard? I bet it is port. Either way, prop walk is one of your most useful tools when docking or getting under way. Same with spring lines. Springing off the dock, especially when port side to, is always brilliant.

    A drill I had students perform is to find a useful buoy in clear water and practice stopping at it with the wind from different angles. Stop bow right on the buoy. The second part of the drill is to back up to the buoy from a ways out. Transom right at the mark. Learn to back into the slip.

    On another note, our rig goes in in a week or so and we’ll go sailing!

    All the best from the Averiseras

  • Annie, a few words from someone great at docking and undocking disasters. My speciality is fouling moorings in Mediterranean style docks with front or aft moorings.

    It really helps to have a disaster plan ready what to do when things go bad:

    – Going slow and reversing to take another try is always good.
    – Get a big ball fender and keep hand it to someone trustworthy to keep it between your boat and the closest target. That saves most damage you do to other boats.
    – If you get entangled put a few fenders between the boats and lay a line to secure your boat somewhere, even if it’s on the one you just hit. In nearly all cases, that stabilises the situation without doing further damage and gives you all the time in the world to assess what to do next.

    With this, even the bad situations become less dramatic and solvable.

    True, it’s no fun being the main attraction in the marina, but that’s easily solved with a marguerita or two afterwards. Been there and got the drinks afterwards to soothe my bruised ego.

  • Annie, I get that docking thing. With all of 3 months experience under my belt, that return to the slip is most dreadful. What makes it worst is that there is a current through the marina that pushes me into the neighbors at a pretty good clip. I’ve been working hard on rudder control, approach, and different ways to tie off a cleat to use the tension as advantage. In my case, the dock is quiet so likely no aid available outside of how is with me already on the boat. But each time, I get more confidence — so practice is a big deal. The long term plan is to stay away from docks and just untie the lines. tb

  • Hi Annie,
    Don’t worry, you are doing good! I saw you hanging in the mast (!) and on a kite, I’ve read your story about crossing the Atlantic, and you sailed to Cuba! That is all quitte impressive. I think that a lot of people would not do that, at all. So let there be a few circumstances that you are afraid of. Big deal, nobody is perfect. There remains a lot on sailing that you both can enjoy. Advice from a Dutchman.
    Kind regards,

  • Understand the principles and then practice is my mantra, as others have said. I’ve probably docked powerboats and small sailboats 1000 times but the first time on a larger sailboat was scary. So much to hit and you can’t just fend a 36 footer off. The weight to thrust ratio is very high in a typical cruiser. I still get sweaty palms. In a cross wind or blowing into the slip, it is likely to get dicey. My instructor always said not to go any faster in a marina than you want to hit something. That is good advice in general but as you know, a boat needs way on to steer. I hit the dock on a 45 footer last summer when I tried to bring the aft end to the dock in a crosswind without a springline (not hard enough to damage anything but my pride). Knowing what lines to have rigged and ready is as important as knowing what to do at the helm, in my opinion. Practice with a good instructor is very valuable. Before chartering a new boat, I always request an hour with an instructor practicing maneuvering the boat in close quarters. Anyone can sail a boat in open water. It takes a captain to do it in a marina in a crosswind.

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