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Where have all the dock parties gone?

2007 June 17
I've taken to having lunch around the corner from my marina in a little dive, which has a well-earned reputation for being dark, worn, vaguely smelly, and having absolutely the best chili within a hundred miles.

I was nursing a bowl of chili, browsing the Sunday paper, and plotting my next moves on getting that one @#* frozen bolt out so I could rebed a leaky mooring cleat. I should be smart enough to out-think a simple bolt, but this one has been winning so far. Let's leave it there.

A couple was sitting at the next table reading the classifieds, and it seemed they were looking for a new boat. The man had read off a couple of ads for fiberglass 30-footers to his wife, noting the price and the gear on each boat. Their discussion revolved around boat values.

Since I'd been reading the other local newspaper, I offered them my classifieds, which would have different boat ads. With the offer of the classifieds, I asked what kind of boat they were getting. It seemed a straightforward assumption, since we all sell our boats to buy other boats that are bigger and faster or, occasionally, smaller and simpler. They seemed of an age to be going up the ladder, but perhaps they were coming back down.

The husband seemed embarrassed by the question. "We're not going to get another boat," he said. "We've decided to sell our boat and get out of boating." At that point, a reasonably polite and prudent person would have let the conversation lapse but, being neither, it only piqued my curiosity. I apologized for intruding, but asked why they were getting out.

"I think we just expected too much," said the man. "As a kid, I'd sailed every summer and I remembered it as being really companionable … that I'd met a lot of people just by sailing. And it isn't that way anymore," he said. His wife added, "We thought our kids would make friends too."

I was startled. Having been sailing for almost half a century, I'd never had to think about making friends. I have friends on the water around the world and, like these two in the cafe, I've never been shy about meeting new people. I had to find out more.

"We don't belong to a yacht club, but we thought we'd get to know people on our dock," he said. "But they pretty much keep to themselves. I don't remember it being that way," he added wistfully.

He was right. As a youngster, I remember every dock was an extended family. When you arrived at a new slip, it wasn't long before you knew the names of the people on each side and across the dock, and pretty soon other boat owners on the dock would wave when they saw you in the marine hardware store or walking through the parking lot.

When you were coming back to the dock on one of those breezy days that make narrow slips iffy, neighbors would pop out of nearby hatches like prairie dogs out of their holes, everyone grabbing dock lines and helping fend you off. There was always some good-natured banter about needing to protect their dock from your seamanship and, later, some would stop by for a beer after you'd cleared the decks. At least once a summer, there was a dock party where everyone gathered for beer, burgers, socializing and a sharing of summer tales.

I thought about my present dock. I'm about halfway out, and I know most of the people either from walking past their boats, or when they walk past mine. But I realized that, as this couple had realized, the world has changed. I can't remember anyone coming over to help with my dock lines, and it's certainly not because I look like I know what I'm doing. There's no dock party, and there's not really much camaraderie.

I do have a couple of neighbors who share my beers and are willing to hold the stupid end of a wrench while I struggle under the deck to free a bolt, but that's about it. Where has it all gone, I wondered.
Back in the days when we actually rowed our tenders to shore, or at best (or worst, depending on how you look at it), had a tiny British Seagull outboard to sputter you around, we would take a meandering route through the moorings so we could look at all the other boats. We'd stop and lean on the oars and chat with people in their cockpits. Sometimes they'd invite us aboard to share a sundowner, and voila!, we'd make new friends.

Today, all the boats seem uninviting, with the owners hidden in air-conditioned cabins watching big screen televisions. When we get back to the dock, we're in a hurry to get home to our air-conditioned homes and our televisions, so there's no lingering in the cockpit to chat with other skippers.

Lee Iacocca, who spearheaded Ford and Chrysler and has always been an out-of-the-box thinker, has a new book called, Where Have All the Leaders Gone? in which he puts out a call to action to get America back on track. In it, he warns that America is becoming "a nation full of overeating, pill-popping, TV-watching, iPod-wired, shopaholic, attention-deficit-disordered people."

That's a pretty damning statement, and at first, I thought it pretty inaccurate because I don't have an iPod. But it occurs to me that we have become an insulated nation that is cocooned inside the rolled up windows of our cars and the battened down ports of our boats. We don't have block parties, either afloat or ashore. We don't go out of our way to grab someone else's dock lines. We don't enjoy an amiable row through the anchorage at dusk.

But, being a glass-half-full type, I'd like to think this is just because there are so many new sailors that have never experienced the camaraderie of a dock or a small anchorage. And so it falls to those of us who know what we're missing to show them that one of the pleasures of sailing is before you leave the marina and after you return.

When you see a neighbor approaching his slip, get off your duff and grab one of his lines. When you see him toiling away on a project, go down to offer a hand if he needs it. Don't be shy about stopping your dinghy next to someone's cockpit to compliment their boat. And don't forget to welcome new skippers to your dock too.

As for that couple, I suggested that, instead of selling their boat, they should ask for a transfer to another pier that I know has a lot of kids and still has a summer-end dock party. And I vowed to organize a dock party on my pier.

After all, it's up to all of us.