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Old 03-04-2003
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Michelle Potter is on a distinguished road
Leaving the Marina with Grace and Panache


There is no shortage of variables to negotiate when preparing to leave the dock.
Now that you've got the vessel of your dreams and have mastered your dockside etiquette, you'll have to face the truth, which is if you ever want to call yourself a sailor, you'll have to leave the dock and all its nurturing qualities. Here are some guidelines to help rid you of those anxious feelings that creep in once you leave the slip.

First, make sure you've paid the bill before leaving the dock. Nothing looks tackier than the dockmaster running down the dock, shouting a litany of nautical curses at a hastily departing sailor.

Second, be observant. Double-check to see that all of your crew, family members, and pets are on board and that they all have lifejackets, too. Even if you are getting tired of that same crew, leaving them behind is not an option. Maritime history has, however, been known to allow minor exceptions when dealing with squabbling teenagers.

With your crew double-checking that all hatches and portholes are closed, you'll have a last moment alone to recite the confidence-inspiring mantra of your choice, warm up the engine, study the charts, and take a look at your surroundings. Know that the weather will probably be quite different than when you arrived, or when you last looked out the window. The wind that helped you gently kiss the dock on your first landing will likely become a small gale that will try to drive you directly into a) a piling, b) a neighbor's boat, c) other traffic, or d) all of the above. Any clear sunny skies will probably have been transformed to hail by this time, and high tide stands a chance of being so low that the keel will be firmly planted in the mud. This would be a good time to double-check tide tables, wind instruments, and your depthsounder to confirm that you are clear for departure.

"Crew members should take every precaution not to get between your boat and others—that's what fenders were made for."

The marina is far from a static environment, and you may also have new neighbors to negotiate. The bows or sterns of the boats parked in the slips behind your boat will appear to have grown overnight, leaving you to wonder how you ever managed to turn into your slip without scraping into them. If the gods find favor with you, you'll remember that these boats are behind you when you back out of your slip, and may even manage to leave the marina without having your neighbor's anchor wrap itself around your stern pulpit and twist it out of shape. Crew members should take every precaution and not get between your boat and these others—that's what fenders were made for. And, if you don't want to endure the trauma of watching a wayward dinghy get scraped or crunched by these boats, consider hoisting it up on a nifty set of davits.

Third, discuss the exit strategy with your crew before throwing the engine into gear. Remember that a successful exit strategy will cover the essentials: what lines you plan on taking with you and what cleats and pilings you plan on leaving behind.

Sailing is an activity known for its spontaneity, and the best sailors are the ones who can deal successfully with things that do not go as planned. Lines that should run freely have been known to suddenly tie themselves into knots. Friendly dockside helpers may toss lines with such gusto that someone is bound to come away with whiplash. At the last minute, you will discover that your stern lines around the pilings are no longer tied under everyone else's lines. Instead, they have actually been spliced into your neighbor's lines and will now be impossible to retrieve. Keep a boathook handy and communicate constantly with your crew. If your exit strategy does go awry, in a court of law, you can always say confidently, "Well, at least we had a plan."


A calm mind, a cup of coffee, and a quick check of the chart, the tide, and the weather forecast are all good ideas while  preparing to leave the dock.
Fourth, and most importantly, stay calm. As the captain you will be striving to give the impression that this exit is part of a constantly evolving plan. If a line becomes tangled, your duty is to control the pace at which events unfold, and allow the time for a crew member to untangle it. If there is traffic, you will have to slow or speed up your pace. And you will be adjusting for the weather and current, too.

As the captain, you must understand that the view from the helm is different than the view elsewhere on the boat, and that your crew will, most likely, not understand any change in plans. In fact, your crew may question your change in plans, or, worse yet, your crew may want to discuss the change in plans.

At this point, you may feel like screaming. Don't give into the temptation. Even if your crew messes up in the worst way, just give them a tightly clenched smile. If there is an impending disaster, try to control any rising feelings of panic, and alert only those absolutely necessary, or else everyone will come out to watch the carnage.

Fifth, avoid becoming involved in a discussion with anyone who is not actually on your boat. This sounds easier than what it is. Once you are actually backing out of your slip, all those shy sailors with whom you've been sharing the dock will now feel compelled to approach you and start shouting out questions about the make of your boat or your upcoming itinerary. Don't lose your focus! Your job is to get your boat out of the marina without damaging people or property. These sailors are mere distractions. Smile, nod your head as if you can actually understand what they are saying over the dull roar of the engine, and get your mind back into the maneuver.


Let's see—you could crash into it, forget to untie from it, or bump into the boat behind this pole.  Having a strategy to negotiate obstacles beforehand is always a good idea.
Finally, we arrive at the most important pointlook good. If you've learned anything at all by now, you should know that the key to mastering the art of sailing lies in looking like you've mastered the art of sailing, even if you haven't. With this in mind, make sure you stow your dock lines and fenders after leaving the marina. Trailing a stern line is the sailor's equivalent of hitting the dance floor with toilet paper stuck to your shoe. It's not pretty, and it doesn't inspire confidence in your viewing public.

However, if you insist on trailing lines, be prepared for the inevitable wrenching, shuddering, squealing jerk when your boat comes to a sudden halt because the line has wrapped around your propeller. And, of course, be prepared to pay through the nose when the towing service comes out to disentangle you from your unstylish departure.

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