A docking near-disaster

The author's boat docked in Ishigaki, Japan. Photo courtesy of Wendy Hinman

The author’s boat docked in Ishigaki, Japan. Photo courtesy of Wendy Hinman

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.

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10 Responses to A docking near-disaster

  1. Marilyn Michael January 19, 2014 at 5:36 pm #

    Wendy,
    It’s good for all boaters to remember how these kinds of things can happen to any of us, and in a microsecond. Great that you shared..

  2. Jerry McRorie January 19, 2014 at 1:28 pm #

    Loved that story. I had something a bit similar happen perhaps 15 years ago. My wife and I had exchanged a week timeshare at Whistler for a 55 foot houseboat on Lake Havasu. The owners were hesitant to rent it to just the two of us but I assured them I had years of boating experience on boats to 24 feet long and they caved.
    The boat was in a small harbor and the rules were that a pilot would take us through the narrow opening and, when we returned to the harbor, we were to wait for the pilot to come out and bring the boat in.
    Another rule was that we were to in no way operate the boat in winds that produced whitecaps. We were to beach the boat and secure it to two lines driven into the sandy beaches.
    We were joined for one day and night by my landlubbering sister and her nearly equally inexperienced first mate. In the morning, they had to depart for a vacation in Sedona, AZ.
    Morning came and it was blowing quite hard (probably gusting to around 20). No choice, I had promised sis that we’d have her to her car by 9 a.m. After all, why such a ridiculous rule for an experienced sailor?
    Up came the anchor lines and we were off to the harbor. I thought I might offer a lame excuse of we didn’t see white caps until we were out in them.
    Arriving at the breakwater, no pilot came to our horn. We circled around a bit and noticed the wind exerted quite a force on the broad slab of houseboat.
    Finally, I gave up and entered the harbor figuring I would tie the boat up to the fuel dock. In we went. I didn’t know what slip might be open but the long fuel dock was filled with unoccupied boats and one gap that looked to me about 65 feet long between boats. I considered going straight in and trying to secure the boat with the stern toward the wind. There was no one around to help and I decided that wasn’t a good plan.
    So, I decided to come in at about a 45 degree angle into the open slot. I was seriously wishing I hadn’t refused the extra damage insurance that the rental place had offered. Saying a prayer, I headed in. Got the starboard bow on the dock and game enough forward throttle to come right up on the outdrives of the houseboat in front. About then, a gust of wind hit the port side of our boat and slammed us against the dock and my wife took the bowline and my sister took the stern line and cleated us off. I called to my sister and asked “How close are we to the boat behind us?” thinking maybe I should center our boat. “About three feet,” she called back.
    Knowing (and I know now this is going to get me in a whole lot of trouble) that women aren’t good on measurements, I decided I’d unlock my grip on the wheel and look for myself.
    She was right. The distance between the two boats was about 60 feet. The 55 foot boat fit in nicely. I had hit nothing.
    I went into the office and asked where the pilot was who was supposed to come bring us in. The office lady said he lived in Havasu City and it was too windy for him to come across the lake that morning. I signed off on the paperwork and got out of Dodge real fast. No damage done. New underwear was a cheap price to pay!

  3. Stuart Weibel January 19, 2014 at 12:52 pm #

    A good reminder that there is always opportunity for screw ups, even for those of deep experience. A standard part of my safety advisory whenever I have guests aboard is an admonition never to put your body at risk for the boat. If I screw up as skipper its my responsibility, and I’m the one who should pay the piper.

  4. wendy hinman January 17, 2014 at 11:10 am #

    Fortunately my ribs healed without much trouble.

  5. wendy hinman January 17, 2014 at 11:06 am #

    It’s so easy after the fact to see the folly of the steps we took. So, I figured I’d share our blooper so that others can learn from our mistake. (And we’ve all made them, no matter how experienced we are. And we are fooling ourselves –or haven’t been much of anywhere on a boat– if we think we haven’t.) Our mistakes:

    We were in a hurry

    We were distracted by our guests

    We tried to cut corners, by not setting up dock lines and fenders

    We assumed that because of thousands of flawless docking maneuvers that we did not need to communicate aloud with one another about this docking

    I leapt, though good judgement would suggest waiting for a better situation.

    • Scott Wilson January 17, 2014 at 5:20 pm #

      This might be a good place to admit, shamefully, that I made my wife do something similar once.

      Our starter went out as we were coming back in late to Shilshole. We had a dying northerly and wafted gently and quietly down the fairway with only the genoa out. Our slip faced north, so I figured, if I did it just right, I could round up and with the last dying ebb of momentum, get us in before being blown inexorably back out and down onto the boats behind.

      I didn’t quite get it.

      So I yelled at Mandy to jump from where she stood on the rail. Bless her heart, she did it. And made it, and got a line secured so we could warp the rest of the way in.

      But it was pretty dumb!

  6. Mike Brough January 16, 2014 at 9:42 pm #

    You are welcome Ryan

    I will not go down the fairway to my slip until the fenders are down, lines rigged and the crew has their assignments and knows what is expected of them. The same for any other docking maneuver, I will not do a final approach until everyone is ready,

    I will also talk out-loud to both myself and the crew during the approach on what is happening and what to expect (wind on the pier, onto the pier, wind blowing us out of the slip (easier to stop) or blowing us into the slip (harder to stop) ) – the speaking the conditions out-loud seems to help me make sure I don’t miss something, it also lets the crew know what we should expect, reduces surprises.

  7. Ryan Vahle January 16, 2014 at 12:22 pm #

    Wendy, Thank you for sharing this. I always enjoy reading your writings even if they aren’t funny, as this wasn’t, but informative. Also to Mike Brough, gratpoint in not taking the leap of faith as I’ve done. It’s just not worth it as we all know. My father is always rushing me because I want and like my lines neat and a the ready. I will always make sure they are now.

  8. Mike Brough January 16, 2014 at 7:45 am #

    You were lucky, your adventure is something for everyone to think about when they are in a hurry. A friend almost lost a finger when it was jammed in a dock cleat, he had taken a rats nest of a mooring line ashore and could not clear the rats nest in time, they should have done a drive by, he was also lucky, and he had at least as much experience as you. Stuff happens to everyone.

    I tell my crew, “STEP, do not jump”, NO leap of death, if I can’t get the boat close enough for you to step it is my problem not yours”

    • Ryan Vahle January 16, 2014 at 12:23 pm #

      Great points Mike. Thank you sir.

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