I love Mediterranean moorings now, but this wasn't always the case. Ten years ago, if I had been asked to execute this kind of docking procedure, I would have done anything to squirm my way out of it, even if it meant avoiding the Mediterranean altogether. Just the idea of backing up a sailboat with any semblance of control was enough to make me break into a cold sweat. To drop an anchor, pay out rode, and squeeze in between other docked boats, all in reverse, was a feat of unimaginable dimensions. And to think of doing it in front of an audience shouting instructions in foreign languages was out of the question. I would have rather worked a tollbooth.
As fate would have it, a legitimate job came along one that changed all that for good: How would I like to skipper a boat full of female students among the Saronic Islands in Greece? Even though Greece is the birthplace of the Mediterranean mooring, I needed a job and if I didn't want to end up collecting coins on the interstate, I couldn't turn it down. The time had come to face my nemesis, and it was only fitting that it happen in the country that was also the birthplace of that fiend.
The first day got off to a miserable start when, as we left the dock near Athens, I was so leery of all the submerged docklines that I put the engine back into neutral before we had pulled far enough out of our slot. Oops. A beam wind pushed us onto the neighboring boat's anchor line in full view of the guys at the charter base and my students. It was only when that anchor line was slackened by a kind soul that we managed to get out of the marina without any further ado.
Underway, I showed the ladies what I knew best—setting sails, steering, and navigating as we sailed past the islands of Aegina and Poros, and then headed for Hydra and my first official Mediterranean mooring. As we passed Hydra's breakwater and entered a basin with barely enough room to turn around, the stern lines were ready and the anchorperson was in position. Talk about a cold sweat! Nothing in the pilot book could have prepared me for this miniscule harbor, and no amount of deep breathing could have steadied my nerves as I took in the sight.
The harbor of Hydra consists of a small basin—a square of sorts—which, in season, is always chock-full of boats. The entrance side is reserved for ferries and hydrofoils, and when we pulled in, one of them was holding its length along the quay with plenty of wash from thrusters that churned the water around us into something resembling a white-water rapid. Across from the ferries, a cluster of local fishing boats was crammed into an area off a shallow water quay. Perpendicular to these two quays were the sides of the square reserved for pleasure craft. On one side, boats are meant to back in stern-to against the inside wall of the jetty. On the opposite side, they back to the waterfront with sterns facing the storefronts and tavernas lining the cobblestone street.
In neutral, we bobbed on the ferry wash while I had to make a difficult decision: which side would we moor on? There was one small opening on the jetty side and from the yelling and suggestions coming from that direction, this was the spot for us. The ladies were in position with fenders ready to fend off and stern lines prepared to throw. I tried to remain calm as I walked my mind through docking theory. OK, I thought, all we have to do is get the boat into a position directly ahead of our slot, drop the anchor, and back up. Simple. Then I proceeded to take a deep breath and put theory into practice. When I signaled, the anchor dropped, I put the engine into reverse and the stern yawed in the opposite direction from where the wheel was telling it to go. Then it came back again, too far, and went over to the opposite side. Swinging broadly, this 45-foot-long boat heaved her big bottom back into the general vicinity of the spot we were aiming for, until we were close enough to throw the lines and get warped in and secured by helping hands on the other boats. Ugh! I certainly didn't feel proud, but at least our arrival and parking job had only been mildly embarrassing. We didn't foul any other anchor lines, the boats next to us remained unblemished and we were safe, for now. The next harbor and docking belonged to another day.
My nerves settled as we lined the decks and helped the women aboard the other boat in our group get moored. Their entry made so much of a ruckus that our own show was forgotten very quickly. The rest of that afternoon, I watched the arrival of boat after boat. When there was no way to shoe-horn in one more vessel along the quay, stern lines were thrown to bow cleats, and by sunset we were packed in three boats deep on either side of the harbor. A spaghetti of anchor lines held a mini-armada off the jetty while crews clambered over pulpits and railings, from deck to deck, to the gangplanks leading ashore. Some of the other boats handled the docking maneuver with great finesse and little fanfare, while others ignited the tempers of every loud voice in the harbor. A man in a little red dory, a harbormaster-type, assisted in disentangling and extracting anchors and lines while I tried to figure out what was going wrong and right out there.
As I watched the biggest messes get unraveled, I wasn't feeling cocky because I was fully aware that there, but for the grace of God, went I. We still had a week of harbor-hopping to go, and I knew that unless I had some great epiphany, it was just a matter of time before my boat became the center of some very undesirable attention. My theory that the only way to learn how to dock properly is first to learn how it shouldn't be done was fast becoming a bankrupt idea. Fortunately, salvation materialized that very evening in the form of a Greek captain who was skippering another boat from the same charter company we were using. I had watched his seamless docking and how he had helped in many of the other boats, knowing just what to tell the helmsmen to do, and when to do what, without unnecessary criticism and hollering.
Long ago I had learned how to ask for advice when it was needed and so I will always remember and be able to use the lesson that I got in broken English from Nick that evening. With a cigarette clenched between stained teeth, he slid matchboxes, lighters, and cigarette packs around on a taverna tabletop to illustrate the steps of a proper Mediterranean mooring. He explained right- and left-turning propeller effects, thrust, the coordination that must happen between the anchorperson and the helmsperson, and backing and filling. He explained the problem with steering in reverse too slow, how a backing boat needs speed, and how vital it is for the anchorperson to let out the chain fast enough to ensure steerage, yet not so fast that it outpaces the boat and clumps up on the ground and makes the bow swing.
The next day, on the island of Spetsai, I completed my first flawless Mediterranean mooring. In the even tinier harbor of Palaio Limani, I placed the bow of the boat in a line directly ahead of the spot we wanted with the stern swung out a little bit. As the anchor began to drop and the engine reversed, the right-hand turning prop swung the stern back into position just as steerage speed was reached. Maintaining this speed, the anchorperson kept pace with the rode, which clattered over the windlass as we smoothly slid in between two other boats, stern to the dock. As soon as the stern lines were heaved overboard, I put the engine into hard forward and stopped the boat just shy of the quay.
Imagine the exultation! I finally got it, how to execute the granddaddy of maneuvers under power—the Mediterranean mooring. After this first trip to Greece, propellers, rudders, and docks never intimidated me again, and it has led to confidence and skill in all other docking situations ever since. In fact, docking has become something I look forward to. The more crowded the harbor, the smaller the spot, or the stronger the wind, it all means a greater challenge, and to be able to embrace with such glee something that once terrified me is an incredibly liberating feeling. Of course the thing that still makes me squirm is the idea of working in a tollbooth.