The birds are chirping, those April Showers mean May Flowers are right around the corner, and if you’re like me, you’re chomping at the bit to launch and get the 2019 boating season underway!
But beware, USA Today reported that boating accidents triple over Memorial Day Weekend. Why would there be more accidents on this holiday weekend that the 4th of July or Labor Day?
The answer is simple, Memorial Day Weekend is typically the start of the boating season. And like me, most boaters have a short memory and in the 6 months since hauling out in October, we’ve forgotten more than we know.
I’m writing today to suggest that you do yourself a favor (and your crew) and take a few moments to think through your first trip of the season before you cast off!
My Spring Scar Tissue
For many of us, the first boating of the season starts with backing your boat off a trailer. Even at 13 I always backed Clyde’s Thunderbird off the trailer because he was driving the Beachwagon.
With the Banana Split and Aquarius, we used Brownell to launch with their patented articulated trailers.
For years, my father always insisted that I take his 35′ Pearson off the trailer and back it down the 500′ obstacle course at the Mattapoisett Town Wharf.
Why didn’t he do it himself?
Simple answer – FEAR. It was very narrow, lined with boats, and about a dozen gawkers on each side hoping for a little marine mayhem.
The truck driver would back me into the water doing a couple of miles and hour and when the hull touched water, he’d hit the brakes and “launch me” into the treacherous channel.
The Aquarius had a single 30 HP engine, a rudder, and no thrusters which made backing up rather precarious. Essentially it was a trial and error operation. You backed up and torque steer took you one way. Then you nudged it forward and spun the wheel to get back on track. Not pretty and prone to miscues. And all the more precarious with a dozen rubber neckers in the peanut gallery!
I also recall getting the mooring for The Mean Kitty wrapped around her props and risking life and limb trying to get them untangled.
This year I decided to try something new and really think through all the things that might go wrong ahead of time and focus on an error-free start to our season!
Thinking Through My First Cruise
We’ll be launching Vigilant on April 29th and I’m already planning through our first trip. Most likely it will be back to The Fisherman’s View in Sandwich since they have a nice protected harbor and great food, but it may also be the same as our final trip of 2018 – Oak Bluffs.
Last season we went on May 1st and the marina wasn’t opened yet. We had a few mishaps that day and rather than repeat them, I’ve started thinking through all the things I need to do to make it a smooth trip.
Planning For Departure
- Before I leave the house, I need to make sure all the necessary gear is on board and in it’s proper place. Obviously this means life jackets, lines, fenders, the boat hook, etc. It also means cruising essentials like bottled water, soda, beer, and a bottle opener for Mrs. Horne’s Corona Premier!
- Keeping in mind that boat’s engine and key systems have been hibernating for the winter and may have woken up on the wrong side of the bed, I’ll start the engine and generator and let them run for 5-10 minutes before I even think about dropping a line.
- I’ll also test other systems like the sinks, toilets, AC, heat, electronics, and most importantly thrusters.
- My thrusters are battery powered and thus they only work as well as the batteries are charged. Once I power them up, I like to give them a burst in both directions to make sure they’re happy.
- More importantly, I’ll need to apply them with great precision in order to back safely out of the loaner slip at MBY, so I also want to get a feel for how much right/left thrust I need to move the boat a few inches either way.
Although I’m now backing a 41′ Back Cove out of a slip at The Mattapoisett Boatyard (equipped with both bow and stern thrusters rather than a single screw sailboat), the danger still lurks.
The slip MBY lets me borrow in the beginning of the season sits at the end of a long row of gelcoat piercing, barnacle encrusted pilings. The trajectory out runs due south, which means that the prevailing southwest wind wants to push you into one of these pilings of destruction.
Take Five With The Crew!
I know I’ll be rusty, but I also know I’ll be totally focused on the tasks at hand. I also know that I’m likely to be impatient to the crew’s questions or mistakes. With this in mind, I plan to call a “time out” before we start casting off lines to speak to the crew. I spent over a hundred hours behind the helm last season and I know I’m forgetting stuff – but if I’m forgetting things, what about them?
My crew always seems to struggle when it comes to understanding the effect of winds and currents on the process of casting off lines so I’m going to make this a teachable moment that they may remember all season.
Although I can do a lot with the thrusters, it requires my attention and keeps me from watching what everyone else is doing. If I teach the crew how to read the wind and currents and what to do about it, that’ll be one less thing I have to worry about.
I like to see the lines that are tying the leeward side of the boat cast off first and then work our way around to the two windward lines last. Just before casting off these lines I like to give the thrusters one last burst to slack the lines for the crew to uncleat and it gets me ready for the job of backing out of the slip.
Now comes the moment of truth – getting out of the slip with minimal drama!
Backing out of this long crusty slip is a balancing act between my boat speed and right/left thruster adjustments to avoid hitting the pilings.
If I carry speed, she’ll not only get out faster, but also hold the course. But, if I over or under apply the thrusters while moving too quickly, I can easily catch the stern on one of those crusty pilings and do serious damage to my gelcoat.
The slower approach may seem safer, but it also means more thruster nudging which will surely expose my off-season rusty hand-eye-coordination. It also give the wind and the current time to twist us off course so I like to get out as fast as possible.
Once I’m clear of the dock and pilings, I need to remember to crawl along at 5 knots until the crew has all the lines and bumpers stowed. Their sea legs have been hibernating for 6 months.
This is probably going to be the least stressful part of the trip. In open water, nothing much happens quickly.
That said, there are a few important things to remember:
- Enter my destination into the auto-pilot, grab the remote and run through a few course change, disengage, reengage drills.
- Monitor key engine heath indicators on the Vessel View. My top priority is engine temperature, but I also like to watch oil pressure, battery charge, and fuel burn rate. It’s hard to imagine any engine problem happening if all of these are showing normal readings.
- Get the HDTV cameras cycling correctly. I have one in the engine room and one over the aft deck to keep an eye on passengers.
- Last, but not least, it’s a good time to fiddle with the sound system; make sure all the speakers sound good and adjust the volume to the right levels.
I also like to look ahead on the chart and refresh my memory about some of the odd channel markers in Buzzards Bay. Not all are straight forward “Red Right Returning…“
Before We Reach Our Destination
Over the winter I read about a great tip that I plan to follow frequently next season and certainly follow on our first landing of 2019 – The Pre Landing Walk-through.
Think about all your botched landings and what they had in common. In most of my landing screw-ups, things happened too fast or in the wrong order. More likely, my crew got stressed and I was rightfully to blame.
So I’m going to do things differently!
The Pre-landing Crew Briefing
The idea is ridiculously simple. Rather than trying to bark commands to your crew in all the noise of wind and thrusters, stop 5 minutes away from your destination and speak to the crew about what’s going to happen and what you want them to do.
Here are some of the topics I plan to cover:
- Point out the wind direction and discuss how it impacts our landing; specifically, which “corner” of the boat needs to be secured first.
- If there are currents that complicate the landing cover that too.
- Double check the fender locations and heights – make sure they’re correct for our destination dock.
- Confirm that all the lines are attached and on the correct cleats. I’m amazed at how this simple rule of landing gets forgotten. Nothing drive me crazy like seeing crew and dockhands standing around with uncleated lines in their hands!
- Point out my standing rule that dockhands may not always be right and the crew should feel empowered to question anything that differs from what I asked of them.
- Open the aft door for easy access to the dock.
- Confirm which crew member will jump to the dock and how they’ll depart. Remind them that the first order of business is to cleat the windward corner.
- I often have a passenger on-board who’s not really a capable deckhand, but who wants to help. I think I’ll give them an assignment and have them rely messages between me and the crew.
When we do get to the dock, I’ll take it slow and watch the crew to see how well they follow my briefing tips.
The beauty of this plan is that after a few landings, the crew will be able to conduct the Pre-landing Briefing themselves.
By now, my sea legs should be back. I have never had much of an issue with leaving Vigilant on a parallel dock.
- Run the blower and idle the engine for 10-15 minutes
- Check the cleating to make sure they’re set properly.
- Check the bumpers to make sure they’ll protect the hull.
- Leave the power on so the ice and beverages stay cool.
- Crack a few windows to keep the air fresh.
- Mute the stereo.
- Lock up and close the aft door.
This is probably the part of the trip that is most prone error and I’m not sure why. It could be the grog the crew imbibed with lunch or everyone is just in a hurry to take off.
I do know that most of my friends have grown up on lake boats weighing a few thousand pounds and boating in gentle breezes. In these conditions it make’s perfect sense to drop all the lines, jump in the boat, start the engine, and take-off.
But that’s not Buzzards Bay and that’s not Vigilant. Vigilant weighs in close to 30,000 pounds and more importantly, 90% of the afternoons on Buzzards Bay feature a brisk southwest wind. Vigilant is 47′ overall and the main cabin stands 15’+ above the water – think of this as a 700 square foot sail in a 20 knot wind!
So, leaving the dock is serious business
- Start the engine and power up the thrusters (they’re battery powered and shut down after 5 minutes of idle).
- Undo all the lines that not holding Vigilant against the wind and bring them aboard. If the wind is holding Vigilant on the dock, bring in all the lines except the one on the midship cleat.
- Uncleat the remaining lines, but loop them around the cleat(s) so they can be hauled in from on-board the boat.
- Uncleating too early – after an ugly incident years ago, I think the crew understands that no one releases the final cleat until the captain is at the helm and gives them the “thumbs up.”
- Uncleating all lines while standing on the dock and jumping on-board. Although this is not technically an error, it’s far more dangerous than the “loop method” mentioned above.
- Removing bumpers before we leave the dock. I think this is a lake boat thing, but depending on the winds and current, I may need the bumpers to shove away from the dock under power.
If we’re returning to the loaner slip at MBY, it’s pretty much a repeat of approaching our destination. But 80% of the time we’re on our mooring and the procedure is a different.
Our mooring in Mattapoisett Harbor can be exposed to some serious wind in a typical late afternoon. This makes the fore-deck a precarious spot to stand and it also means that I need to come up on the mooring with just enough speed to hover over the pick-up stick for the 5-10 seconds it takes Mrs. Horne to land the loop.
By the way, Mrs. Horne is in charge of landing the mooring, but my other crew frequently want to help. And I always tell them the same thing – “Ask Mrs. Horne what you can do” – My momma didn’t raise no fool!
Our mooring is a double bridle, with two loop lines that extend about 10 feet from the mooring. I use to have Mrs. Horne and her helpers try to tie them both when I pull up on the mooring, but last season I got an epiphany and I know have a better way.
Once the first loop is secured, I have the crew standby while I use the stern thruster to bring the bow around so that the other loop pops up slack on the correct side of boat. It makes it very easy to hoop and cleat!
Once I have everything secured, I run the blower for 20 minutes to cool the engine down and the go to my departure checklist.
A year and a half ago I did a post called Why Is Boating Full of Drama and in it I presented my “Flight Card”.
After I published this piece someone commented that they have a rule on their boat that goes “If you didn’t take it out, don’t put it away.” which is an excellent tip for all crew members reading this post.
I love my crew and friends and all are anxious to help once we’re tied up at the mooring, but please don’t!
The Mooring Departure Checklist is simple and quick – I can do it in my sleep. What I can’t do in my sleep is correct a missed item when I remember it lying in bed later that night.
Truth me told, I’ve missed a few:
- Left the power on.
- Left the generator running (no, shutting down the power does not shut off the generator).
- Left pizza in the freezer.
- And many more
I think I can state unequivocally that all my departure errors occurred because I let myself get distracted worrying about an anxious helper and messed up my own job!
So thanks for the offer, but everything will go quicker and easier if you just grab a beer and go out back and enjoy the rest of the day.
What’s On Your List?
So that’s my plan, what about you – do you have any warnings or suggestions I missed?
If do, please share!
In the meantime, everyone stay safe out their…