Docking the 46’ – Bow Thrust or Bust!

And, I guess I’ll have to give a little bit of a spoiler alert … it was a bit more bust than thrust.  Ahoy Crew!  It’s been a wild summer here on the Chesapeake.  Our new Outbound 46 definitely threw us some unexpected curve balls, which will be fun to share.  I was reminded time and again of what I always tell newbie cruisers (which we kind of felt like while getting acquainted with our new boat): Don’t worry too much about what you think is going to happen out there, because you probably have no idea what’s going to go wrong.  It will most likely be something you would have never predicted for sure, so just go and find out!  Boy, did we find out.  We’ve had some engine mishaps, some shipping fiascos, a haul-out, a Fourth of July blow-out, a whirlwind week attending the sailboat show, and plenty in between.  But, let’s start at the beginning, shall we?  Our first challenge with the Outbound 46 was one of my biggest nightmares in cruising: a docking debacle

April, 2021

As I shared previously, we moved onto our amazing new boat, a 2015 Outbound 46, s/v Ubiquitous, on a day I will never forget: April 3, 2021.  Four, three, two, one! 

She was staying at a dock in Back Creek, just a short hop from Spa Creek, Ego Alley, and the main mooring field, right in the heart of downtown Annapolis where all the boat show action takes place.  A very cool place indeed.  And, one of our primary concerns, back in early 2021, when we were looking to purchase a boat that was floating 1,000 miles away from Pensacola, Florida was where the heck we were going to keep her while we were still squaring away things in Florida, moving aboard in stages, and still working a good bit back home. 

The solution actually fell happily into our laps.  Ubiquitous came with her own slip.  Yes, you read that right.  While Phillip and I were already over the moon about the boat, when we found out she could remain happily floating in the slip she was already in after we purchased her (for a rental price that was less than what we had been paying in Pensacola, with her former owner just a short walk away and willing to check on her often) …. it truly felt like fate.  There were so many things about Ubiquitous (including her name) that just told Phillip and I she was right for us.  She was meant to be ours.  Her “slip included” was definitely one.  But, there was one caveat: we could not live aboard her full-time in that slip per the condo association rules that governed the marina there.  We could only stay aboard a few days out of each week.  It was not ideal, but a very easy rule to follow to ensure our boat had a safe, secure, temporary home while Phillip and I were still juggling this massive work/cruise transition. 

This meant, once we moved aboard on April 3, 2021, within a few days Phillip and I knew we would need to be off the dock and either on the hook somewhere or another dock where we could live and work aboard full-time.  Because we were just getting acquainted with the new power systems (a LiFePo4 lithium battery bank and a DC generator) and we were in need of pumping wifi to maintain our busy workloads, Phillip and I decided to rent a slip at a nearby marina on Spa Creek for a month to give us a guaranteed easy “home base” to charge up, get water, wash the boat, etc. and work daily while we got acquainted with UbiQ.  One of the only slips we could find in Annapolis that was not taken by annual slip-holders at the time was in the Annapolis Yacht Basin (AYB), just north of the Spa Creek Bridge (that connects downtown Annapolis to Eastport, the quaint, attractive neighboring city to the east of Annapolis), a bridge which we have now (happily) walked dozens upon dozens of times.  AYB is a great marina.  Superb location.  Fantastic facilities.  Exceptional staff.  But docking there is nothing short of a bitch! 

Let me explain. 

On the day we left the slip in Back Creek to motor over to Spa Creek to get docked up at AYB, Annie was Captain that day. 

As I’ve mentioned here several times, Phillip and I try to split all cruising roles up just about evenly.  While there are certainly roles Phillip is better at (weather routing and navigating)—same goes for me (cleaning and monkey-wrenching)—as well as roles we just prefer over others, Phillip and I try to swap out frequently so that we always keep the rust knocked off and we are both equally capable of taking on any role at any time.  You just never know what can happen out there.  We have found, although the learning process can be tough and comes with its own arguments and challenges, the lifestyle is just easier if you have two fully capable, competent, equal crew members aboard.  That was our goal 4-5 years ago when I started training on the helm and got my Captain’s license, and we have never regretted it.  Am I always comfortable behind the wheel?  Heck no!  Neither is Phillip.  But, we can both dock her, with a fairly equal chance of nailing it or screwing up a little (but not a lot).  That works well for us. 

However, knowing this was our first time to un-dock and re-dock the new boat, we asked a new friend in Annapolis, MJ with Eastport Yacht Sales, to join us just so we would have an extra set of hands on-board as … training wheels, you might say. While our former owner, Jim, would have eagerly agreed, and he gladly helped us numerous times throughout the summer, he was out of town in early April, so we called in a small favor to make sure we were prepared to handle whatever might come our way.  One can never be too careful with a new 46-foot boat!  Particularly with this crazy lady at the helm. Look out! My first day as Captain started off smooth as butter.  I turned the engine over, instructed the guys on releasing the lines, and slipped sweetly out of our slip in Back Creek, headed over to Spa Creek toward AYB. 

I have to admit, my first time poking out into Chesapeake Bay behind the wheel of our new boat was a pretty awesome feeling.  Phillip and I would have never been able to guess just a few short months prior that we would be selling our Niagara 35 and buying a new boat in Annapolis, MD.  It really has been a bewildering, enchanting ride.  I could say the same about life.  And, that morning …. Until we got close to the marina. 

As we neared AYB, I haled the dockmaster on the radio to find out where my slip was.  With a powerful engine and a bow thruster, I was (overly) confident I could dock her fairly easily.  That was until I got the instructions from the dockmaster.  This is verbatim what he told me:

“When you see the fuel dock, take the fairway to the left.  Come into that fairway, take the next fairway on your left, then your slip is down there on the right.  Come in stern-to.” 

I understood the words he had said.  Yes.  Every one.  But strung together like that, they made no sense to me behind the wheel.   One fairway … take a left into another fairway … then stern-to on the right?  What?  The?  That was way too many fairways for me to process.  As my bow started to creep in by the fuel dock, all I could see were pilings.  There were no fairways and slips, or any semblance of a marina, just monstrous toothpicks everywhere in haphazard fashion, with million dollar yachts dotted about.  Phillip was on deck pointing to our “slip” (aka a sea of toothpicks) as I was losing control over my fine motor skills and ability to communicate and form complete sentences.  I knew I was in over my head. 

As I stood there bug-eyed, my bow creeping in, the wind (which was blowing 12 or so knots (typical for Annapolis)) got ahold of me and started to push me into a piling at the entrance.  I threw her into reverse to try and avoid it but hindsight tells me that only made it worse (I should have used the bow thruster, counterintuitively, to jettison her stern away while slowly moving in reverse, but that’s the beauty of hindsight).  In the moment, I did the wrong thing and crunched us pretty good against the piling.  That was my first act as Captain. 

Knowing I was in over my head and bound to make bad decisions that could cost us thousands, I gave the wheel to Phillip, although he did not take it happily, as we both could tell this was going to be a precarious, 42-point turn, with lots of help needed to get us in there.  We staged Phillip in the cockpit with stern lines ready and MJ in his ear (but ready to take over if need be) with me on deck with lines and the boat hook ready to fend off/catch pilings.  Phillip decided to turn his bow to the right soon after easing into the marina so he could go down the second fairway in reverse, which seemed like a good plan from where I stood. 

As I hopped around on deck checking distance on all sides (it’s mighty tight in there with a 46-foot boat), I’ll never forget telling Phillip, “I’m so glad you took the wheel.  This is way out of my skill set.”  You know what Phillip said, between gear shifts?  “This is way outside of mine!”  And he was right.  This was the toughest docking either of us had done.  Ever. 

Phillip had only stern-to’ed a boat one other time (at A&B Marina in Key West Bight in 2014, almost seven years prior to the day!), and it was 11 feet shorter with much more room to spare.  Realizing this, I tried not to chuckle as I watched Phillip listen sternly to, and try to calmly follow, MJ’s advice: “A light punch to port.  Okay center the wheel.  Neutral.  Over to starboard.  A punch of throttle.  Light thrust to port.  Again.  Little more reverse.”  I left Phillip in his zone as I headed back topside to watch our bow and nudge pilings while Phillip made several attempts.  While docking like this may be normal for many sailors, it was certainly not for me and Phillip.  Our first time docking our new boat was an incredibly tense five minutes.  Save a few bumps, however, and one pretty good whack to the outboard on the port rail, thankfully no one panicked or shouted at anyone, and we got Ubiquitous in there nicely and heaved a huge sigh of relief! 

I learned later that the bow thruster had stopped working for Phillip mid-docking which made the entire ordeal more stressful and challenging for him, although I wasn’t even aware of it at the time.  Hence the bust in our thrust.  In all honesty, Phillip did great.  Our initial docking was well beyond either of our skill sets, yet we didn’t hit another boat and we didn’t strike any part of the dock … hard enough to cause damage.  And, most importantly, no one got hurt.  In our book, we call that a “successful docking,” no matter how embarrassing it might have been, how angry it might have made either of us, or how much we never want to do it again.  No permanent damage to boat or crew is our standard for a successful docking, no matter how ugly.   

We even learned later (and this always seems to happen in cruising, although it never ceases to surprise me) that a fellow cruising friend of ours had whacked his outboard on the port rail in the same fashion during a challenging stern-to docking but he (say this in a proper British accent) “knocked it clean off the boat.”  Thank you for sharing that Neal.  No matter what wild mishaps you seem to encounter in cruising, there is usually a fellow cruiser (often someone you know) who can easily one-up you on it, which is oddly comforting.  At least we didn’t knock our outboard off the rail!  There was that.  And, that poor outboard.  The first five things we did to him, before ever cranking him and taking him for a spin, was crash him several times into pilings.  Sorry buddy.  We were just learning. 

But, we did learn two important lessons about our bow thruster during those initial hairy dockings:

Lessons Learned from Our First Go with the Bow Thruster

FIRST: Our most important lesson for the day was the true function of the bow thruster.  This is not something we had on our Niagara and not even a system Phillip or I had ever used in our years of experience boating.  The concept of a bow thruster was entirely new to us.  The important thing we learned about the bow thruster that day, and in the weeks that followed as we practiced docking time and again (even stern-to, which I hope we never have to do again … ever.  Ever, ever, ever) was this: the “bow” thruster on a sailboat, despite its deceitful name, does not move only the bow.  It pivots the boat on its keel.  Meaning, whatever distance you move the bow while activating the bow thruster, the stern is going to move the opposite way in equal measure.  If you are not aware of this (as we were not initially) it can be problematic as you’ll jam your stern into a piling or the dock unknowingly trying to move only the bow.  However, there is an upside.  This means not only can you steer the bow with the thruster, you can steer the stern.  Meaning, when you’re coming into a dock in reverse, you can literally steer the stern sweetly into position with the thruster alone, without any thought or consideration given to prop walk.  This is why we like our switch formed in the shape of an actual boat reminding us as we turn it that it moves both the bow and stern in equal, opposite measure. 

SECOND:  So, how did Phillip break the bow thruster when he was docking?  It turns out when the boat was not responding quite as immediately as he would have liked when engaging the bow thruster, Phillip apparently thought the answer was to turn the switch with the same amount of strength he thought it would take to physically move the boat.  Phillip had literally been pushing that wee little button as hard as he would the actual bow.  We had a great time reenacting his vigorous efforts, however, in wailing on that poor little broken boat-shaped toggle.  Move, boat, MOVE!  But, there was no ill-will to be had over it.  Had it been me at the helm that day, there was a much greater chance Annie would have used the throttle with equal force, revving up in a panic and smashing into a million-dollar neighboring yacht.  So, replace a $60 bow thrust switch?  Or repair $30,000 in damage to your dock neighbor?  That was not a choice to fret over. 

Overall our first few weeks aboard were a crash course in docking.  Needed for sure.  Fun?  No.  But, after those first few weeks of practice (and bumping, banging, and bow thrusting) I can easily say now both Phillip and I can fairly accurately dock our boat with little fanfare, bow-in or side-to, especially.  But, in all, we hope to do far more anchoring and mooring-ball grabbing than docking.  And, we repaired our bow thruster switch, also with little fanfare, and discovered our outboard, despite the painful initiation, happily cranked and ran just fine, zipping us all over Spa Creek and Ego Alley over the month of April.  Seems he hasn’t held it against us.  Thanks _____.  We are still waiting for his name to come to us.   

AYB was actually a very nice place to stay considering the walking distance to downtown, amenities, mail, laundry, etc.  and a fantastic venue to watch the sunset over downtown Annapolis (while hearing “the colors” every morning and evening from the Naval Academy!).

But, when we finally left that marina, for the final time, Phillip and I vowed to try to never find ourselves in a marina so tight, with a strict stern-to requirement.  The most exciting part about successfully de-docking and leaving AYB that day, May 6, 2021, was the miraculous realization that we would never be back!  See ya later dock neighbors!

10 thoughts on “Docking the 46’ – Bow Thrust or Bust!

  • AYB is very tight, I was in the other side some years ago in the height of summer and we watched a 45+’ sport Fisherman with huge engines and ‘large wheels’ (props) as the skipper said later back into the exact same dock as yours with all the others full of boats. It was a sight to see how skilled he was backing it in and using the twin props to move the boat sideways down the fairway and then back into the slip. We had to go down and talk to him. He was a professional skipper taking the boat down to Florida for the winter season!
    Practice certainly makes perfect and as you said you learned as well.
    Great story
    Cheers Warren

    • Maybe practicing outside the dock area would have been helpful, rather than going in cold in a new boat. Although it makes a great article for the encouragement of boaters who will feel braver getting out there now that they can see experts run into issues too.

      • Fantastic idea. We did, a few times, a bit in Back Creek and a little bit in the main mooring field before heading in, but I don’t think anything could have prepared us for the reality of inching around in that tight space among million dollar yachts. It was just … tough. And, while we certainly do not consider ourselves experts, you are right in that we have many years of docking experience under our belt, but this was still difficult. I like Warren’s comment as well mentioning a very experienced captain taking his time with it, too. Docking … it just never gets 100% easy, but that’s why we keep doing it. Thanks for the comment, John, and for following along!

    • Wow, I’m so glad a follower is actually, personally familiar with this marina. It was incredibly tight. In the weeks that followed we saw many experienced sailors struggling coming in and out, which made us feel better. Not that you ever WANT to see anyone struggle, but it sure is comforting knowing you are not the only one. Lots of very expensive boats and tight turning parameters. Yikes! Although it taught us a great deal, we were happy to leave! Glad you got to talk to that captain and get some knowledge (the cheaper, easier way! : ). Thanks Warren.

  • Thanks for sharing your experiences with the new yacht. She is an amazing boat! A suggestion that is worth its weight in gold is the Maryland School of Sailing’s ASA 118, two day docking class. The instructors are top-notch and you will walk away more knowledgeable about different docking techniques and approaches to this critical skill that is often overlooked. Docking causes much anxiety for the captain and crew if they are well practiced in this art of working with wind, current, tides, hull design, and prop walk/prop wash. The cost is very reasonable and allows for participants to stay on board for free for two nights…all for $550 per person. My sailing friend and I liked the course so much we took our spouse/significant other down to Rock Hall for a repeat session. I cannot say enough good things about the Maryland School of Sailing Docking Class and instructional offerings.



    • Great advice. Sounds like a bargain with two days’ lodging PLUS amazing docking experience included. Thanks for sharing that info here, Peter. I am certain no matter how much experience we have or how long we’ve been cruising, docking will always be something that stands the hairs on the backs of our necks at times. It’s just not always easy and not always guaranteed a safe landing. Who are the instructors of this course?

  • Hey guys. Always love your posts. I have done a lot of training sessions all about thrusters. Be patient. It will come. The drama is when the thruster stops and the skipper is unable to maneuver the old-fashioned way. Practice with and without thrusters.

    I spent a couple years in Back Creek at Mears YC and working at JWorld. Early 1990s. Love the area. A place for sailors. Is Davis Pub still around? The waitress used to come around at 7PM or so and tell us older sailors (30s and 40s) to leave since the kids were coming in. I think the juke box even had a different music selection after 7. Oh well, everything changes and thats good.

    All the best
    Norm on Cape Cod

    • I always love seeing posts from you, Norm. I read this one straight out to Phillip because we are very familiar with Davis’ Pub. It is most definitely still there and was one of our favorite post-sail salty dives at the end of the day. But, they didn’t kick us out at 7pm thankfully. We stayed till closing time baby! It’s cool to think though we’ve been cruising almost ten years now and just a short twenty years from now, we’ll be the ones sharing these stories from the “good ole’ days” as you are now. Time flies! But you’re the pilot. ; )

      • Hello again. Time flies but you’re the pilot… excellent. Thanks for writing back.

        Your post took me back thirty years yet it seems as fresh as yesterday. So much of the life in a sailboat is timeless, I have a beautiful black and white photo of the old yawl we cruised the US East Coast & Bahamas in ’60-’62. It is installed so I can study it nightly and recall 60 year old events with clarity. Never grows old.

        My daughter just bought her second boat, a 30 footer, and we have been dreaming up cruises. For us it is all about Maine. I am giving her a “Chart Kit tour” soon. Looking forward is stimulating. After I read your latest post, I always wonder where you will be next and love the surprise. Thanks.

        All the best, Norm

      • I’m glad we can bring back some memories and surprise Norm. Our travels bring that to us on a daily basis. Fair winds to your daughter as she embarks on her new chapter. That’s incredibly exciting! I hope we’ll see her out there some day!

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