You’d think after double-handing for more than 34,000 miles and two decades of racing, we’d know a thing or two about docking. Believe it or not, when it comes to docking, it is still possible to humble even the most experienced of sailors.
One afternoon after a delightful sail ghosting along in flat water in bright sunlight with friends, we realized how late it was. We still had to get back to Seattle from Port Orchard, a three- or four-hour motor under the best of conditions. But first we had to drop our friends on shore.
We decided to pull into the gas dock briefly while they hopped off. It would just be a drive-by. Since we weren’t planning to stay, we opted to skip putting out fenders and dock lines. That was our first mistake.
The fuel dock was busy on the tail end of the July 4th holiday weekend. As we came closer, we spotted a slot just about the length of our 31-foot boat. It would be tight, but it was probably long enough. We’d done this thousands of times. My husband, Garth, steered while I stood at the shrouds, my feet outside the lifelines, ready to jump. Dave and Seanda stood between us prepared to hop off as soon as we touched the dock.
Garth swung the boat in. But the girth of a large motor yacht in front limited our maneuverability to swing the boat tightly into the short bit of real estate between it and the runabout behind it. The distance between us and the dock was on the long side, but I reasoned I could make it.
It was at just that moment when Garth must have decided to take another pass at it, because he swung the boat away from the dock. Too late. I had already made the leap of faith.
My body propelled toward the dock. My feet landed on the wooden edge of the cement dock. I made it. But while both my feet were planted firmly on the dock, my body weight still hovered over the water. I looked for something to grab onto. Nothing was within reach.
“Uh oh,” I thought.
I had nothing to help stabilize me on the dock. Unless I could find something to grab onto, I realized, I was going in the water. How embarrassing that would be.
At that moment, I had the presence of mind to look for an alternative. With the energy trapped in my bent legs, I pivoted, and in an athletic maneuver I’m not quite sure I could repeat, I lunged back towards the boat and managed to grab the stay. With the cleverness of a Hollywood stuntwoman, I’d salvaged what looked like a hopeless situation. I wouldn’t go in the water after all.
Except … I could not defy the laws of physics. Imagine my surprise when my ribcage slammed into the side of the boat.. I was stunned.
Seanda came rushing forward. “Are you alright?” she asked.
All I could do was nod yes. No air in my lungs was left to emit a sound. I hung from the stay with one hand — the other grasping at the air — wondering how many seconds I had before I slipped into the icy-cold saltwater below.
“Do you need help?” Seanda asked.
I nodded vigorously, still unable to speak. Seanda’s recent shoulder operation made it impossible for her to do much of anything. As the seconds ticked by I wondered how much longer I could hang on.
Dave came forward and grabbed my other arm. After an awkward pull of arms and legs, I found myself aboard again. Garth asked if I was okay. I could only nod yes. I forced a smile and tried to act nonchalant. After all, this was Dave and Seanda’s first time out on a sailboat. I didn’t want to scare them.
Finally, air returned to my lungs and I forced out a clipped, “I’m fine.” We hovered a distance from the fuel dock while I got my bearings.
“Shall we try this again?” Garth said, with a wry smile.
By now several boats had left and the fuel dock was wide open. We managed to pull into the pier without incident and say our goodbyes. I exhibited Oscar-winning acting skills until our friends were gone and we were once again off the pier. We still had miles to go to get to Seattle. God knew how long of a wait we’d have at the locks before we were home safe.
“You’re not really OK, are you?” Garth said, eyeing me closely as soon as we were out of earshot.
I shook my head. Getting through the locks was excruciatingly painful, but I did it.
I must have cracked a rib, because it took a month before I could breathe, laugh or sleep comfortably. So much for my vast experience and my pride.