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Hope springs eternal for a cure for Docking Anxiety Disorder

2012 January 2

I've seen sailboats ride up over docks like levitating sea creatures. I've seen boats enter slips by pivoting on the corner of a pier amid a fingernails-on-blackboard cacophony and a blizzard of flying shards of fiberglass.

Guess what was the most popular attraction at last fall's United States Sailboat Show at Annapolis.

Hint: It had nothing to do with sailing a boat.

It was actually a powerboating demonstration. The show's star attraction was the joystick docking system available on some of Beneteau's cruising sailboats.

Mobs of showgoers gathered to watch very large sailboats maneuver in very small spaces by means of a wickedly clever invention that synchronizes a pivoting propeller with a bow thruster and is controlled by a little lever at the helm station.

I was as smitten as everyone else watching men in blazers wiggling the joystick to make boats move sideways and diagonally, spin on dimes and nestle up to the dock so gently that fenders were barely compressed. This showing off was done with such studied nonchalance that I have to admit I experienced a burst of schadenfreude when one demonstrator erred and his boat tapped the bow of another Beneteau.

This brought a few titters from the audience, but did nothing to lessen the general mood of awestruck fascination. This didn't come just from admiration for gee-whiz technology (the system had in fact been introduced a year earlier and versions of it were in use on powerboats well before that). A lot of it stemmed from the prospect of relief from an affliction that is widespread among sailboats owners-Docking Anxiety Disorder (DAD).

Unfortunately, DAD is not a psychosomatic disorder that can be cured with counselling or behavior modifying drugs. It's often based on genuine incompetence.

Fear of docking is probably one of the leading causes of people selling their boats and fleeing from sailing.

I know boat owners who are undaunted by the most awful wind and wave conditions offshore, but get all weak-kneed and white-knuckled when they have to face the challenge of returning the boat to the dock.

I've sailed on proud racing boats whose professional captains are steely exemplars of calm, competent leadership in the stressful throes of racing, but morph into insecure martinets when facing the docking test, berating crewmembers for blocking the docker's view, or for hanging fenders two inches too high, or maybe for simply being witnesses to the captain's docking anxiety.

I have witnessed, as no doubt have many of the readers of this column (and perhaps found it diverting cocktail hour entertainment), couples ending otherwise happy days of cruising with a public, high-decibel, sometimes expletive-laden row provoked by a docking failure.

I've seen sailboats ride up over docks like levitating sea creatures. I've seen boats enter slips by pivoting on the corner of a pier amid a fingernails-on-blackboard cacophony and a blizzard of flying shards of fiberglass.

I once had a slip neighbor who (I'm not making this up) destroyed two dockboxes in a single summer by spearing them with the plow anchor mounted on the stem of his Ericson 39 when he barged into his slip unconstrained by the concept of shifting into reverse in a timely fashion.

His docking malfunctions became legend and whenever he returned to the harbor after an outing the call "Here comes Charlie" would attract a crowd to his slip to hold off, shout advice and observe the spectacle.

A leading cause of docking anxiety is the perception that sailboats are by nature difficult to maneuver under engine power. This was true in the full-keel era when keels were long, whale-belly-shaped affairs with attached rudders with apertures for propellers. Today's lighter boats with short keels and separated rudders hung way aft behave quite nicely under engine power.

The idea that sailboats don't go backwards very well is also a myth. In capable hands, they back just fine, even with folding propellers.

Bad advice may also contribute to fear of docking. The oft printed and spoken dictum to take it slow when docking is valid in millpond conditions, but in a breeze or current, speed is the docker's friend. You can't turn a sailboat that isn't moving. Of course, when you approach at speed you can't be bashful about applying the RPMs when reversing to put on the brakes.

One of the great satisfactions of sailing is mastering its skills. That such skills are needed is what sets sailing apart from so many other ways we could be spending our recreational time. It seems to me taking a boat to and from a dock is an important enough skill to justify revising the timeless sailor's seamanship imperative. So let it be: hand, reef, steer and dock.

This should include docking under sail when necessary. I'm not going to go into the how-tos of this always stimulating exercise, except to say it is a priority to shout a notice to dock-standers as loudly as possible that you are coming in without an engine. This will lead to a quick, sometimes panicked exit by docked boats, leaving plenty of space for your landing or semi-controlled crash.

I take a lot satisfaction from making a competent landing, even if its under engine power on a calm day. I do that quite well most of the time, but that's not to say I haven't paid my dues to the docking disaster society.

Some of these misadventures were clearly the result of operator error. As for the others, I like to blame them on an errant current, a surprise gust of wind or unwanted dockside help, as when some well-meaning but clueless fellow takes your bowline and gives it a robust tug and ruins what would have been a perfect landing.    

Regardless of the cause of docking failures, you can pretty much count on a variant of Murphy's Law being in full effect: If something can go wrong in docking, it will happen in front of plenty of witnesses.         Oh, the shame!

Oh, for a joystick!