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A Boat is not a Car

February 3, 2014

Paul sits down, turns the key and starts the motor, letting it idle for a bit to warm up. After checking behind him, he put the motor in reverse, pulls out of his parking space, and enters the flow of traffic. Suddenly, out of nowhere, there is a large obstruction directly in front of him! Paul slams on the breaks to avoid a collision, but too late. Paul has forgotten the most important rule: a boat is not a car.

Though it may seem obvious, many boaters seem to have forgotten that simple fact. Under normal circumstances, a car will go in the direction it is pointing. It will maintain a specific speed, regardless of the direction or speed of the wind. Unless the water is dangerously deep in the road, neither a car's speed nor direction is affected by tide or current and a car's forward progress will not be impeded by a sudden lack of water under it. Basically, it takes skill to drive a boat and make it go where you want it to, rather than where Mother Nature is cajoling your vessel to go. You can't just steer a boat left and right like you can a car, you have to maneuver it through many planes.


Maneuvering your boat is not the same as driving a car.

When entering Dusenbury Pond for the first time, we had to keep enough speed to maintain steerage but we were snaking our way through a maze of trees and mangrove roots reaching out to us on all sides, in a flat-bottomed boat. The entrance from the creek to the pond is invisible until after you pass it, so even from my vantage point on the bow, I was a little slow pointing it out.
"Hard to port, there it is!"
Hard to port the captain can certainly do, but that doesn't mean that our little sharpie was going to obey. Her bow went to port, but not very convincingly. Luckily, we weren't going fast enough to cause any damage when the bow buried itself in the mangrove roots in front of us.
"Well, at least we're stopped. We can take a minute to regroup."

We pushed her back into clear water, into the entrance to the pond and Dave regained as much control of her as anyone ever has. But it bothered him that he had crashed her. Actually, it bothered him so much that he lost sleep over it, thinking of what he could or should have done differently. We spent a cold front in the pond, came out for provisions and then on our way north, decided to spend another few days in our favorite hidey hole in the Keys. This time, Dave knew what he was up against. As we approached the corner to the pond, Dave turned the bow to port, then put her outboard in reverse and threw the tiller the other way, swinging her transom in an arc to the right of the still moving bow. Walküre slid around the corner like a race car at 2 knots, never touching a root on her way into the pond.
"I knew that would work!"


Don't forget to look up, too.

Not that we couldn't have gotten in there again via our crash landing and shove off method, but the point is, Dave wanted to find a way to maneuver Walküre in tight quarters, where driving her just isn't enough.

Waiting for an opening bridge is an excellent opportunity for captains to practice maneuvering their boats. Rather than drive around in 5-knot circles, try holding your boat in place. Learn how your boat backs (this depends on many factors, including which way your prop spins) and how wind on the beam affects her. Eurisko reacts differently depending on if her Fatty Knees is on the bow. Since we have learned our lesson and refuse to tow a dinghy any more, she now always has that extra windage. Naturally, the extent of the effect of this windage depends on wind speed. In a situation with no current, Dave puts Eurisko's bow just to port of the wind. The wind pushes her bow to port, Dave put the motor in reverse, she backs to port, which in turn brings the bow back to starboard. Not too much or she goes through the wind and all is lost. Now we have to become part of the circling masses until we get her bow back in position. If there is current present, all bets are off and it's a new game every time. But it's a game that is educational for the captain and crew. You learn how your boat reacts to certain conditions and it makes you a better captain.


Our favorite hidey hole in the Keys.

Not only does a boat not stay where you put it (waiting for a bridge opening is not like waiting for a stoplight) but rarely is she really going the way she's pointing. We frequently see boats in the grips of the wind or current, being dragged out an inlet or pushed out of the channel and they never know it. You cannot tell where you are going in a boat without looking back. It is imperative that you compare what is behind you to what is in front of you. If you're trying to tell if you're still in the channel, look up from your gadgets and look around you. Draw a straight line in your mind between the last marker and the next marker. Are you inside that line? You can keep pointing your bow at the next marker and still get dragged or pushed out of the channel if you don't look back.

And the water that we all travel on is not a roadway. There are expectations of courtesy and competence. "Port to port" is not the same as driving on the right. One is a law, the other depends on conditions. You don't have to risk a collision in order to get on the other side of someone if you're both comfortable passing starboard to starboard, regardless of what the idiot who screamed "PORT TO PORT" at us (from outside of the channel) on the ICW may think.


Maneuvering a dinghy isn't always easy, either.

While we're talking about idiots, let's just get over the magenta line crap, shall we? It is not a centerline on a road. You do not have to stay on it, as a matter of fact, it encourages downright unseamanlike conduct. We've seen drivers follow the magenta line right out of the channel. If you want to drive by proxy, stay home and play video games and leave the water to those of us who want to look at something besides a screen.

A license may be required to drive a car, but it takes much more still to maneuver a boat. The next time you turn the key, consider your surroundings. There's a whole lot more to it than just backing out of your parking space.

MONDAY we'll share our observations concerning perfection. Perfection never goes sailing.

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