I sail on a Hunter 36 called Bella, moored in the Toronto Outer Harbour Marina on Lake Ontario. Bella is a time-share boat. This is my first full season sailing, and I've been going at lease once a week since June.
I had Bella booked for Thursday and none of my usual crew were available. I made a half-hearted attempt to recruit someone to come with me, and when that didn’t produce any results, decided it was a good time for me to try my first solo sail. I had been reading a thread on SN started by NewportNewbie about taking her/his first solo sail, and it was filled with a lot of encouragement and good advice (including one poster who advised that an Autopilot is a very useful piece of equipment when soloing - check).
I often sail with the family, which means I’m essentially sailing on my own as my wife is busy corralling the kids most of the time. The only part of the process I had never done alone was docking, and there was an NE wind on Thursday, which meant Bella was being blown into the slip, so there would be no rush to get the mooring lines on, so I was confident I could handle it.
I got to the boat, did my normal prep work, and made doubly sure I brought everything I would need: winch handles, handheld VHF, straps for fenders, inflatable vest (spoiler alert - this will be important later), cell phone, etc. into the cockpit so I wouldn’t need to go below at all. I threw off the lines, gave the bow a shove, jumped aboard and pulled away from the dock. I motored up the fairway, chatted along the way with a couple who were scrubbing their boat, made the turn to starboard into the channel to leave the marina, and was generally feeling pretty pleased with myself.
I got Bella pointed to the mouth of the channel, and decided to engage the Autopilot so I could tidy up the stern mooring lines, raise the stern seat, and generally tidy things up in the cockpit. I hit the ‘Auto’ button on the Raymarine auto helm and turned around to start tidying up. After a brief pause, I felt Bella start to make a sharp turn to starboard, which of course had me heading straight back at the docks (and more alarmingly, the rather large tug moored at the end of one of the docks). I quickly stabbed at the ‘standby’ button on the auto helm and turned back to port before anything unfortunate happened.
Somewhat shaken and deeply puzzled, I convinced myself that I had hit the wrong button on the auto helm and that it had not in fact engaged at all, and with the wheel not locked it had simply swung to starboard on it’s own (I had done this at lease once before, with similar results). I decided not to try again until I was well outside the marina.
Once I had cleared all the docks and settled my nerves, I noticed a big power boat following me out of the marina. I added a little more throttle so as not to slow them down too much, and decided to try again. I engaged the auto helm (being extra careful to make sure I hit the right button this time) and again started to move around in the cockpit. Again, after a few seconds, Bella started swinging sharply to starboard, this time towards shore instead of other boats, but still quite disconcerting. I leapt back to the wheel, but in the process of doing so I snagged the pull-tab for my inflatable vest (see, I told you it would be important) between my hand and the wheel. As I turned the wheel – POOF! – my vest started inflating. Lovely. For those who have never inflated one of these before, they get quite large and bulky, and they do it in a hurry. Very reassuring for if I ever fall overboard, but not particularly helpful at this juncture.
I quickly got Bella back on course. I stood by the wheel and tried engaging the Autopilot again, and again it swerved to starboard. Disengage, steer back on course, re-engage, repeat several times. Always the same result.
Then I remembered the power boat coming up behind me. I must have looked like a COMPLETE moron – randomly swerving around in the channel, then inflating my vest, then more swerving. They probably thought I was preparing to abandon ship! I was too embarrassed to turn around, but I assume they had a good laugh, and they gave me LOTS of room when they eventually decided to pass me.
I did some fiddling with the auto pilot after that, and eventually figured out that every time I hit the ‘Auto’ button it seemed to be heading to a particular point rather than maintaining current course as it usually does. I assumed someone had programmed some waypoints into the chart plotter then configured the auto helm to head to the waypoints. Lacking the patience to go through all the menus on the chart plotter, I did a full system reset and that cured my problem (although I did a LOT of testing before heading onto the bow to pull up the fenders).
The good news is, after that initial fiasco was behind me, I had a great day on the water with no further mishaps. The sun came out, the wind was fairly steady at NE 10-15 knots, and the water was calm once I got into the lee of the Toronto Islands. I tacked, I gybed, I eventually started feeling confident again. The wind even died for me as I was motoring in so I had a very easy time docking.
I hope my idiocy has provided you with some amusement